Blog Action Day '08: Moving Slowly on Poverty

A black and white photograph of a seated woman In the last hour or so of the day (on the West Coast, at least), and even though this site is still under very active construction, I wanted to drop a quick post for Blog Action Day '08. The topic of the year is poverty.

As I am a white Anglo-Saxon male who grew up, if not in, at least adjacent to, the suburbs, most people would assume that my experience with poverty is minimal. They would be correct. I have never known clawing hunger for days on end; have never lacked a roof, four walls and a carpeted floor; have never been the subject of an exposé on wretched conditions in the inner city nor a child with baleful eyes who could get by with a mere 75 cents a day.

No, being in the first world, I like to imagine that I can get by, due to my place of privilege in Maslow's hierarchy, on just my principles. One of my friends recently posted on facebook a quotation by Protestant minister William J. H. Boetcker, from which I take the following excerpts: "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong[...]" and "[__You] cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves." As much as this sentiment reeks of the hackneyed arguments people make for trickle-down effects between classes, there is something to be taken from it, and it has everything to do with urgency.

Obviously, the time and money dumped into efforts to "elevate" the third world has benefits, up to and including saving lives that would otherwise be lost. But is this naive approach adequate when the very lives that are saved lack the infrastructure, knowledge, and other resources necessary to perpetuate it? This is what Boetcker meant when he said, "you cannot help the poor by destroying the rich." If all the wealth generated by the top 3% of earners in the world went to feed, clothe and shelter children in states of poverty, we would have not one but two destitute generations as a result.

The good news is that "elevation" doesn't have to entirely recapitulate the history of the Western world. We routinely design and commoditize hardware that is decades ahead of that available in the poorest areas abroad, which means that the adoption cost in those areas is a tiny fraction of the initial development cost - yet another instance of the way in which the pricipal of a personal investment can be multiplied many times over.

So, in moving on poverty, the answer is not strictly an influx of capital. Obviously large humanitarian organizations must be aware of this at some level, because their operations are not as naive as the base case described above. But the broader population should be grounded in firmer realities than the swollen bellies of starving children half-way around the globe. These images are tragic and unsettling, and run the risk of inducing despair or a kind of detached revulsion; instead, where is our collective plan for introducing infrastructure and slowly burning poverty up in the flames of progress and accrual of benefits from both social and monetary investments?

It's a humanity-sized goal, but for as slow as it would seem to be, it's the fastest way to see the payoff we'd all love to see.