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Realising JFK’s dream: how to end poverty and hunger

11 June 2013

It is over 50 years since President John F. Kennedy declared that the 1960s would be the decade when man would walk on the moon and we would begin to end world hunger.

Kennedy’s belief that these two targets could be met was borne from a belief that money and technology could solve everything. While this approach soon saw humankind take its first lunar steps, resolving problems back on our own planet proved more challenging. Eradicating world hunger really was more complex than rocket science.

Five decades on, there remains a strange naivety about how world poverty will be eradicated.

Millennium Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), unveiled in 2000 and due for completion in 2015, are a case in point. Designed to reduce by half the number of people living in poverty and hunger, they have achieved just moderate success.

A key part of the MDGs was to reform the structures that govern economic relations between developed and developing countries, including fairer trade rules, but the donor states were not up to this challenge. They failed to address the key issues, instead retaining a focus on giving aid as the sole source of support to the poorer countries. Even there the recession resulted in a failure to reach the agreed aid target of 0.7% of GNI as development assistance, and for many countries the trend has gone into reverse.

As long ago as the 1960s President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania was saying “give us trade not aid”. He saw that the harder the developing countries worked and the more money they tried to earn, the higher the cost of bringing goods into the country became. They were running to stand still. At the same time, the prices for the primary products exported from these countries, such as coffee, were controlled by commodity markets in the West. Without radical reform of this system, the poorest countries would never become masters of their own destiny. And so it is today.

The truth is that aid was never meant to be the sole answer. It is always easy to blame the poor for their own plight – to do so absolves us of our own role. If Nyerere and others had been listened to, aid may well already be a thing of the past. But we could not do it. We shackled the developing world with debt, subjected it to financial structural adjustment programmes, failed to reform trade, propped up corrupt regimes and continued to asset strip the poorest countries of their natural resources.

And so the donor nations, many now with right of centre governments, wring their hands and say “we need a new development paradigm”. What might this be, we ask? A reform of all that has gone before? Not a chance! We will go back to the growth model and invest in the private sector, essentially sticking with the current system. But as Einstein told us, “we cannot solve our problems by using the same thinking that created them”.

Over development and climate change

If anything characterises our developed world today it is overdevelopment. We would need at least four planet Earths to sustain the current global population of 7 billion at the standard of living we enjoy in Europe. On this basis alone, inequality has become a permanent feature of the global economy. If there is to be any serious attempt at righting this structural injustice, it will require radical change in how we in the northern countries shape our economies in the coming decades.

The phenomenon of climate change is the most obvious manifestation of this. The increasingly erratic nature of rainfall in the developing world has undermined agriculture. Communities are giving up, having been ground down by years of drought and are heading to the cities in search of an alternative livelihood. Sustainable models of development are now urgently required for both the rich and poor parts of the world if global warming is to be controlled.

The seeming success of the global economy in reducing the levels of poverty by half, a major aim of MDG 1, can deceive us into thinking that the global economy is working. In fact, this “success” has been achieved by the extraordinary growth levels in both China and India. A recent UN study commissioned by the UN Secretary General shows that 2.7 billion people are living on less than €1.50 a day, the UN established poverty line. If you add to this the hundreds of millions living in poverty in the wealthy countries we can see that the number of impoverished people constitutes more than three billion people or 40% of the global population. It is widely accepted that over one billion poor people are now living in middle income countries such as India and Brazil.

The scale of inequality

Today, 2.6 billion people worldwide have no access to basic sanitation and clean water, while three billion people have no access to gas or electricity for cooking. Compare these figures with the growing affluence of the other half of the planet and the scale of inequality becomes clear.

On a recent visit to Vietnam I was astounded by the level of affluence so evident in Ho Chi Minh City. The designer shops, gourmet restaurants and luxury hotels stood in extraordinary contrast to what I knew in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I was a frequent visitor to that country. Many governments, the Vietnamese included, are aware of the political time bomb that is this widening gap in their societies. Should those excluded from the new found wealth begin to vent their frustration and anger, these countries will face huge social unrest. However, these government seem to have no clear idea how to deal with this phenomenon.

In research recently concluded by Trócaire in six countries on the expectations of the world’s poorest people for the post-2015 era, one of the most telling results was the articulation of what was described as a dearth of pro-poor governments. For many developing countries the view of government is that economic development should follow the western model, with all efforts made to facilitate inward investment to stimulate growth. Where this is succeeding we are witnessing the division of society into those who can particulate – the wealthy and the growing middle class – and a large underclass who are excluded from the system.

Where citizens’ organisations have risen up to challenge this situation, they have found themselves quashed by government. In the past five years alone, over 60 countries have introduced legislation to discourage, even prohibit, activism often on behalf of poor people. Local NGOs are only to be involved in providing basic services to the poor – feed the people, do not ask why they are hungry.

The recent IF campaign highlighted the underlying causes of hunger that need to be addressed. These include tax dodging by multinational corporations, an absence of land rights, transparency in the relationship between governments and companies, and a genuine commitment to reaching the UN target of 0.7% of national wealth to be invested in support for the developing world.

Politician solution needed

Ultimately, the solution to the problems of poverty and hunger are largely political and without a resolution of the political issues, technical advances cannot deliver the desired outcomes.

For the past five decades an alternative approach has been consistently advanced by civil society leaders, including church leaders, that has been readily ignored. At the heart of this alternative approach is the belief that the earth’s resources are for the benefit of everyone and that global economic structures must be just in order to give poorer countries a better than equal chance to catch up.

Pope Benedict produced three major encyclical letters, two of which dealt with issues of global social justice. Like his most recent predecessors, he was highly critical of the current economic system. He called for new models of economy and business to be developed that would challenge the status quo, respect the environment and create an economy that serves humanity instead of exploiting it.

Pope Francis used his first homily to continue this message, urging “all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life…let us be protectors of one another and of the environment…let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world.”

Some mainline economists – presumably the same ones who think we are doing just fine as we are – have derided these ideas as simplistic and unrealistic, but there are a growing number of others who recognise the fragility of market based economies in the absence of shared values. Prophetic voices have never been welcome by the establishment – they challenge the system that favours them in a very pointed way.

We are not looking for a silver bullet here, but an approach to building a just world, honouring the main objectives of the millennium declaration, signed by world leaders in the year 2000, promising to tackle the scandal of hunger and poverty in a world of plenty.

It will require many difference creative and courageous approaches to eventually merge into a new dynamic that will bring about a more just and sustainable Earth.

Despite the disappointment of the failure to reach global targets in eradicating poverty, due largely to the lack of political will by the wealthy countries, significant progress has been made in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Where the circumstances have been created to favour development initiatives – investment in education and healthcare, the growth of democracy, the participation of citizens – the development indicators have improved significantly. The Philippines and Ghana are examples of such countries.

The failure to achieve Kennedy’s aspiration of eradicating world hunger is largely due to the lack of political will to introduce much needed reform.

If we learn the lessons from Kennedy’s failure, perhaps we can finally achieve his dream.

Justin Kilcullen was Executive Director of Trócaire until 2013. This article was originally published in Justice Magazine, the Catholic Social Justice quarterly, in June 2013.

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