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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Seeing Beyond Tomorrow: The scourge of extreme poverty and finally ending it

Ayokunle Abogan, MPA

Can we end extreme poverty within the next three decades?

This question was posed in an article I read while in Nigeria, my home country. In trying to answer it, I cannot help but view the problem from a personal angle. Herein I share Modupe’s story.

Modupe is a woman I met during a volunteer project created to eradicate poverty in Nigeria. She is a Nigerian woman, likely in her mid-thirties, although she can only guess. AIDS (contracted from her now-dead husband), poverty, and hunger have taken a devastating toll on her—she looks more like 60. Does Modupe worry whether her six children also have AIDS? No. She doesn’t have time to worry. She’s focused solely on daily survival. Her mother, who lives with her, needn’t worry about AIDS—she’s already dying of tuberculosis.

Modupe scavenges for scrap paper at the rubbish dump to sell to market vendors. If Modupe is lucky, she can make as much as 60 cents a day. When luckier, she finds discarded dregs of produce, meat and dairy. Most days Modupe is not lucky. She averages three to four meals in a week. Land surrounds her leaf-and-mud hut but the adjacent factory’s chemical wastes have rendered the land toxic, infertile. It doesn’t matter. Dying of AIDS, Modupe can barely scavenge, never mind farm, competing alongside scores of others scrabbling for scraps. They suffer, too.

I know Modupe. I know many like her. Too many.

Nearly 1.2 billion people worldwide—one-sixth of the world’s population—suffer from extreme poverty. No clean water, sanitation, or electricity. The numbers are staggering. Illiteracy ensures that they continue to suffer. Some regions with entrenched cycles of poverty, death, and inequity, helplessly pass them from one generation to another. In my continent, Africa, more than half of us live in extreme poverty. Come 2040, nearly 30 years from now, the world’s population is forecast to increase to 8.8 billion, with more than 70% living in so-called developing countries. If we can’t manage poverty now, how will we manage it then on such a greater scale?

To cite statistics here, however, is to intellectualize a crisis that one must feel viscerally. Ironically, society today is now inured to others’ pain while being simultaneously, due to technological advances, close enough to observe it. We witness yet remain detached, isolated. But if you experience directly what I have experienced, the more critical question becomes: “Can we really afford to wait 30 years?”

International organizations including the World Bank and the UN emphasize improving income levels. That doesn’t work. It benefits only a small percentage, the educated, who better grasp how to improve living standards. The illiterate do not.

Basic needs must be met first. How can people educate themselves if they don’t even have food or water? If disease is everywhere around them? Surviving today isn’t just a means to an end; it becomes the end itself. Resolving basic needs will then naturally segue into health services, education and improved housing.

These are the core necessities we must provide our starving brothers and sisters:

  1. Enhanced food production. Food is fuel; we don’t run without it. Farmers comprise 60+ percent of the world’s extremely poor. Why not teach subsistence farming techniques for that 60 percent? A simple application of the “give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime” philosophy. Governments must invest in responsible farming techniques, tools, storage, and irrigation, and also develop suitable transit of farm products to outlying marketplaces.  
  2. Basic Infrastructure and Amenities. Clean water supply, electricity, and basic sanitation are taken for granted yet are all but unknown to the impoverished. The technology exists! Waste recycling, management, education and facilities will cut disease. Healthcare facilities decrease malaria and HIV/AIDS and preventable death. Rainwater harvesting, water wells, and hand pumps when appropriate, can provide additional water—substantial hours are spent daily traveling to obtain water; local water quality inspections limits typhoid and other water-related problems. Constructing micro-hydroelectric plants to boost electricity supply can funnel power to those outside centralized grid sources. Basic sanitation systems eradicate health risks, lessen water source pollution, and enhance human dignity.
  3. Education. In addition to lifestyle education, developing human capital leads to better jobs, wages, and living conditions. The educated make informed decisions concerning healthcare, reproduction, employment, and economic equality. Attendance at school until a legally-employable age, for men and women, and vocational training/skills improvement for adults lacking education are a must. 
  4. Debt Relief. Developed countries not only consume most of the world’s resources but also have technology to improve their economies. With debt relief, struggling countries can focus their resources to address national poverty. Fluctuating food prices and high energy proces make it more difficult for poor people to afford enough food to eat. Food and energy represent 60 percent of impoverished household expenditure. Even the US, an affluent nation, has seen much of its middle and lower classes forced into poverty by rising food and energy costs while battling unemployment and foreclosure in an economic crisis. The Middle East continually faces riots due to spiraling food costs. Mitigating the devastating price swings and economic slowdowns in developing countries is critical.
All four elements are inter-dependent and must be implemented for both short-term and long-term resolution. They fall under one umbrella: investment in the human capital of the world’s extreme poor. The impoverished do not need us to provide incentive to improve their quality of life—they possess the most painful of motivations. But they need the willingness, dedication, and resources of the rest of the world to help them down the road toward a global economy where they can first taste the dignity of self-support and then go on to achieve making a contribution.

Modupe doesn’t have 30 years. Neither do we.

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