Global Poverty 101: Question everything

1 October 2015

Martin Kirk is Head of Strategy for The Rules, a worldwide network of “activists, artists, writers, farmers, peasants, students, workers, designers, hackers, spiritualists and dreamers, linking up, pushing the global narrative in a new direction”.

In this guest blog he suggests two important questions students can ask to find out about global poverty.

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense”
The Buddha

There is a wonderful, almost irresistible story being told right now. It says that we can end poverty on the planet earth by 2030 – in just 15 years time.

The people telling this story are some of the most trusted in society: the United Nations, big charities like Oxfam and Save the Children, and even companies like Nestlé and Coca Cola. The plans they have for delivering on this promise are called the Global Goals and they have launched the world’s biggest advertising campaign to help sell it to the world. They have even commissioned celebrities like One Direction, Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé to help.

No one disagrees with the idea of overcoming poverty, but lots of people disagree with this plan for doing it. They say that there is no way it can succeed because it is built on reductive, logic, and that, using such grand promises to sell it amounts to little more than cynical marketing hype.

Here are two questions, with accompanying short videos, to help students dig beneath the gloss and critically assess whether the Global Goals are as good as they might initially seem.

1. How is poverty created?

This may sound like an odd question. Isn’t poverty a natural starting point, or condition that exists when nothing is done – like work – to overcome it? That’s certainly how the Global Goals present it [1].

But wait. To accept this means subtly accepting that everyone is born with equal access to opportunity; that the long trends of history are irrelevant; and, critically, that no one bears any responsibility for how the world is today.

Ask students to consider this: there has been a globalized economy for at least 400 years. In that time, some parts of the world have become incredibly rich, mostly those who have run systems of control and domination stretching where they dictate to others how to live and work, like empires, slavery, and colonialism.

This could lead to a discussion about whether it is important that these things are recognised. And, ultimately, to perhaps the most enlightening question of all: who benefits from a story that mass poverty is natural?

2. Who’s developing who?

The common assumption is that the rich countries of the global north, through foreign aid programmes and by participating in projects like the Global Goals, are helping the less wealthy countries of the global south develop. But how true is this?

Right now, for every $1 that is given in foreign aid to the global south, around $18 is taken out by other means [2], such as rigged trade deals than benefit the most powerful countries and corporations; debt repayment on debts already paid off many times over; and massive tax evasion and other forms of corruption, committed by powerful people in both the north and south, and facilitated by the large and growing web of tax havens.

This begs the question: in the grand scheme of things, who’s actually developing who?

In a world where there is so much bad news, we can cling to apparently good news stories like the Global Goals without much critical analysis. This is, surely, especially true for young people when celebrities are recruited to market them. To know it is not only OK but important to question even apparently good news stories they hear is a powerful way to inoculate them against marketing hype and distortion.

Further reading:

How To Feel Good About Poverty

You Can’t Fight Poverty With A Concert

Notes:

1. You can see a linguistic analysis here showing how this is done.

2. This is a conservative estimate, calculated as follows: $135 billion in aid vs. $1.8 trillion in tax evasion and avoidance + $600 billion debt repayments + $60 billion lost due to the TRIPS  agreement on copyright and intellectual property rights. The $1.8 trillion = Global Financial Integrity estimates that up to $900 billion each year is lost to the global south through trade misinvoicing + economist Raymond Baker estimates that the equivalent is siphoned off in abusive “transfer pricing”, where multinational companies sell their goods internally at distorted prices to make sure that the real value of a good or service is only recognised in low tax jurisdictions, i.e. tax havens.


Photo credit: Allan Lorde on Flickr.com

Comments

  1. Nigel Rayment

    Well done for successfully inviting Martin Kirk to write this blog. Great stuff.

    Reply
  2. Jane Carpenter

    Thanks Martin and Think Global for such an incisive blog. Posts like this are so important in pushing us to slow down and think more critically about what seems on the surface to have such promising intentions.

    Reply

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