Not for the first time, and why we might foul it up again

Owen Barder is keeping a nice list of major public figures’ claims that “For the first time ever, we have a real opportunity to end extreme poverty within a generation.” in the words of World Bank president, Jim Kim, the latest to so pronounce. The list goes right back to Woodrow Wilson addressing the League of Nations in 1919. Obviously previous generations have not lived up to such lofty aspirations. Why not? And why should we be any different? I present some wild speculation …

Back in 1919, perhaps for the first time, the western powers could say they truly knew most of the world. The major features had been well mapped, and many distant peoples had been ‘civilized’ (aka colonised by racist imperialists). The sun never set on the British Empire and the industrial revolution had made some Americans fabulously wealthy. There were a lot of poor people in the world, but not so many, and Westerners had a surfeit of confidence as to their capacity to achieve great things. Moreover, in a world before the widespread existence of welfare states, it is possible they were not aiming that high.

What happened? Two major changes. Developing countries won their independence from the colonial yoke. This hugely increased their welfare in one important dimension (political freedom), but possibly impeded progress on technocratic goals such as raising average incomes due, in part, to the need to first concentrate on building the capacity of those new states. One signal success, nonetheless, does stand out: the drastic decline in infant and maternal mortality rates. So while economic development was stalling in many countries, populations were exploding. Suddenly it became a lot harder to eliminate poverty.

Fast forward to 2013 and we have passed an important inflexion point: now the number of desperately poor people in the world is declining in absolute terms, and not just in China. The zero goals some people are suggesting should follow the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015 appear tantalisingly in reach.

So why might we fail again? What new issue might once again expose our hubris? I give you two words: climate change.

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