Monday, August 9, 2010

"What Can I Do To End World Poverty?"--That is NOT the right question to ask...

     As High School Economics teacher, sponsor of an extra-curricular activity linked to the D/FW World Affairs Council, and coach of the Model UN team, the opportunity for students to ask the question "What can I do to help solve world poverty?" presents itself quite often.  When I was in the Marine Corps I served as a US Embassy security guard for a total of 2.5 years, 1 year in Kingston, Jamaica and 18 months in Bamako, Mali (Northwest Africa).  I traveled overland  to Burkina Faso and Senegal too.  While only on the periphery as an observer on a daily basis, I was able to experience what life is like in poor/poorer societies (I am under NO illusions and make NO claim that I can identify with the folks I met/observed/lived amongst.  I certainly did not live "poor" while on duty in those places).  Not a day passes by I don't think about some aspect of daily life in either of those places, but Mali is on my mind more often than not.  I am not professionally qualified to give an adequate answer to the question posed above, but I do try to give students a layman's answer to the question based on my experiences.  However,  I always find my response lacking in substance and specificity.
     William Easterly, at AID WATCHERS, is an international aid expert and he struggles with the question as well:
  ""Inevitably, after every single lecture I have ever given, the first question is … What Can I Do to End World Poverty?  How to respond? On one hand, I want to (and usually do) salute the questioner for their willingness to give of themselves for those less fortunate. I admire their idealism and commitment.
   On the other hand, I find this question to be unproductive and frustrating. It sounds mean, but the honest response (which I have never given) is, ”look, the biggest problem to solve in economic development today is NOT what you can personally do to end poverty.” Poor people do not perceive THEIR biggest problem to be that rich people are agonizing how to help them.  More constructively, I want to say: Don’t be in such a hurry. Learn a little bit more about a specific country or culture, a specific sector, the complexities of global poverty and long run economic development. At the very least, make sure you are sound on just plain economics before deciding how you personally can contribute. Be willing to accept that your role will be specialized and small relative to the scope of the problem. Aside from all this, you probably already know better what you can do than I do.
   But I do salute you again, and I do believe when there are enough people like you, you will cumulatively make a difference.""
(What is in bold and highlighted is my emphasis.)
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