Thursday, 31 October 2013

The End of Poverty in our time?

The contemporary debate on aid to the third world is polarised, with advocates and opponents arguing whether or not aid has failed. Discussing the merits of "aid" in this way conceals some amazing advances in development across some of the poorest countries in the world. Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee's 2011 book Poor Economics expands on the ideas laid out in Duflo's TED talk, and brings to light some major advances in the war on poverty which too often go unnoticed.

Between 1999 and 2006, primary school enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 54% to 70%. In East Asia, the same seven year period saw the proportion of children in primary education rise from 77% to 88%. Despite rapid population growth in the world's poorest countries, the number of children of primary school age who did not attend fell from 103 million in 1999, to 73 million in 2006.

Of course, this leaves much to be done, and it is a scandal that there is still so much poverty amidst an abundance of wealth. Admittedly, the quality of teaching in primary schools is low in many countries, and millions of children go back to work in the fields at the age of 12, with no access to secondary education.

But there has been progress here too. Research conducted by Duflo and Banerjee shows that between 1995, enrollment in secondary schools increased from 25% to 34%  in sub-Saharan Africa, 44% to 51% in South Asia, and 64% to 74% in East Asia. These are major, positive changes which have happened in my lifetime. These developments are a reason to be optimistic about the future, and people should be aware of them.

As Paul Collier argues in his book The Bottom Billion, the number of people living in extreme poverty across the world is falling. " For forty years the development challenge has been a rich world of one billion facing a poor world of five billion people." Today, 80% of the world's poor live in countries which are on the up, while one billion are languishing in countries stuck at the bottom. Quoting UN figures in his book The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley states that there has been a greater reduction in world poverty over the last 50 years than in the past 500. In a recent TED talk, economist Charles Robertson argues that Africa is now at the stage Mexico and Turkey were at 30 years ago, and a boom is coming.

For various reasons, this progress, although ostensibly the goal of NGOs, is widely ignored in the aid industry. Some are concerned that donations from the public would decrease if they knew that poverty was falling. But progress such as this, for example in the field of education, is a powerful reason to step up the war on poverty. For this progress shows that change is possible, and worth fighting for. On a practical level, these successes allow us to analyse which developmental and economic policies have been successful, and which have not, paving the way to a better approach towards tackling poverty in future. Suppressing success stories only reinforces pessimism and cynicism that development in the poorest countries is even possible under capitalism.

The fact that tens of millions more children across the world now have access to education is something that should be recognised and celebrated. News such as this belongs in the national curriculum. Positive change of this sort is a testament to human achievement and ingenuity. As Duflo and Banerjee conclude, "poverty has been with us for many thousands of years; if we have to wait another fifty or hundred years for the end of poverty, so be it."

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