World leaders flew in first class to
the United Nations recently to discuss global poverty over cocktails at the
The U.N. set eight landmark
anti-poverty 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:
Anti-poverty work saves around 32,000 children’s lives each day. Ancient
scourges like Guinea worm, river blindness and polio are on their way out.
That doesn’t mean overselling how easy
it is to defeat poverty. In their zeal to raise money, activists sometimes
elide over the challenges of corruption and dependency – and mind-boggling
complexity. Helping people in truth is far harder than it looks. 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.
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 GDP 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
My third suggestion: punchier
marketing. Humanitarians tend to flinch at the idea of marketing, thinking
that’s what you do with toothpaste.
This U.N. 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.
My hunch is that the most effective
way to market anti-poverty 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
International security is where the
money is, but fighting poverty is where the success is.