Thursday, September 23, 2010

Boast, Build and Sell

The New York Times

September 22, 2010

Boast, Build and Sell


United Nations

World leaders have flown in first class to the United Nations this week to discuss global poverty over cocktails at the Waldorf Astoria.

The U.N. set eight landmark antipoverty objectives in 2000, so this year’s General Assembly is reviewing how we’re doing after a decade. We’re off-track on most of these Millennium Development Goals, so let me offer three suggestions for how the humanitarian world might do better in framing the fight against poverty:

First, boast more.

Humanitarians have tended to guilt-trip people and governments into generosity by peddling emaciated children with flies on their eyes. But relentless negativity leaves the inaccurate impression that Africa is an abyss of failure and hopelessness. And who wants to invest in a failure?

In fact, here’s the record: antipoverty work saves around 32,000 children’s lives each day. That’s my calculation based on the number of children who died in 1960 (about 20 million) and the number dying now (about 8 million a year).

Twelve million lives saved annually — roughly one every three seconds — is a reminder that global poverty needn’t be a depressing topic but can be a hopeful one. Ancient scourges like Guinea worm, river blindness and polio are on their way out. Modern contraception is more common than a generation ago. The average Indian woman has 2.6 children now, compared with 5.5 in 1970.

That doesn’t mean overselling how easy it is to defeat poverty. In their zeal to raise money, activists sometimes elide the challenges of corruption and dependency — and mind-boggling complexity. Helping people in truth is far harder than it looks.

For example, it’s easy to build a school, but it can be tough to make sure that teachers actually show up afterward; they may live 100 miles away in the capital, receiving their pay for doing nothing. Or kids may be “enrolled” but miss months of school during the harvest. Or they may attend school but lack pencils, paper or books. Or they may be too malnourished or anemic from intestinal worms to learn anything. And Western aid to education sometimes just displaces domestic resources, which are then diverted to buy weapons instead.

In short, building an educational system in which students actually learn is difficult, and it takes more than money poured into broken systems. But it’s also true that literacy rates and school attendance are rising sharply. More than three-quarters of African youngsters are now enrolled in primary school, up from 58 percent in 1999.

My second suggestion is to focus not just on poverty relief but also on wealth creation. The best way to overcome poverty isn’t charity but economic growth, trade rather than aid. That’s why East Asia has raised its living standards so much.

There, too, there’s progress. We’re seeing economic engines revving up from Africa to India. For the last decade, per capita G.D.P. growth in Africa has averaged more than 3 percent per year — faster than in America or Europe.

Wealthy countries could encourage prosperity creation by opening their markets wider to exports from poor countries. The United States has a program, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, that is an important step in that direction and should be expanded.

My third suggestion: punchier marketing. Humanitarians tend to flinch at the idea of marketing, thinking that’s what you do with toothpaste. But it’s all the more important when lives are at stake.

This United Nations summit meeting is marked by the publication of tedious reports on poverty that almost no one will read, when it might gain more support with, say, a music video. After all, one of the most powerful tools to spread the word about educating girls was a “Girl Effect” video designed by the marketing geniuses at Nike. The first Girl Effect video went viral and has been watched by about 10 million people; its successor was released this week.

My hunch is that the most effective way to market antipoverty work in coming years will be by rebranding it, in part, as a security issue. Rich country budgets are so strained that it’s unrealistic to think that governments will approve much new money — or endorse the excellent suggestion of a financial transactions tax to pay for global health programs — just to ease suffering.

But hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent fighting terrorism and bolstering fragile countries like Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. We should note that schools have a better record of fighting terrorism than missiles do and that wobbly governments can be buttressed not just with helicopter gunships but also with school lunch programs (at 25 cents per kid per day).

International security is where the money is, but fighting poverty is where the success is.

I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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