If poverty is a disease, who are the doctors?

Arriving in Brussels after a long and arduous journey through West Africa last summer, I ended up through another circuitous route in the house of a certain man called Teacher, or Karamo. After a night or two in his apartment, staring up at the Royal Saint Mary cathedral towering over his top-story window, Karamo told me: “I realized that Europe got ahead not through material resources like diamonds and gold, but through ideas. We Guineans and Africans like to say that we are poor because of slavery or colonialism. We think that more mining will make us rich.”

DSC04132What is poverty and what do we do about it?

In development theory, we have gone from The End of Poverty to White Man’s Burden, but some things do not change. Whether it is Christian or secular, government-led projects or privately-financed microfinance, “poverty alleviation” is a term that almost everyone uses. Comparing the Millennium Development Goals (to 2015) or the Sustainable Millennium Goals (beyond 2015), one can see that even the UN is learning from its mistakes. Instead of making broad, sweeping goals in gender equality and AIDS reduction written by Jeffrey Sachs, a wealthy university professor in New York City, the UN’s new goals are being drafted by a coalition of more women than men, many of whom come from developing countries.

“We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and  dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected.” (MDGs)

Despite its motivational and grandiose tone, this goal will not be achieved by 2015. Even if less people are living on $1-a-day, we will switch to $2-a-day. Without looking at figures, one can tell that technological progress is touching every nation on earth. More and more things are being created every day. People are getting cleaner water and more babies are making it out of infancy. But does that mean that the story ends? For those whose job it is to end poverty, there is no end to poverty, even if they say there is. Development experts will still need jobs. But just as medical doctors whose job it is to end disease, disease and poverty will always be with us. We in the West cannot make it our job to direct the world, we have enough problems directing ourselves.

The new “Twin-Tour Five Star Hotel of ACI” in Bamako, being built by the Chinese firm Henan

Poverty is how you see it

At the macro-level, just as with an external viewpoint, it is easy to see Africa as poor and America as rich. At a micro and individual level, one can meet rich and poor Malians and Nigeriens, relative to one another. Walking around Bamako after having walking around Kankan, I felt, “Wow Mali is doing so much better off than Guinea!” And this was under a quasi-military rule and ongoing civil war in the Malian north. In Ouagadougou and Niamey, another set of neighbors, I could see how new overpasses in Ouagadougou were being duplicated in Niamey. The intersection next to the old Peace Corps office was the site of Niger’s first overpass. Once a scurrying intersection that I would rush across, dodging vehicles. I saw it on a drizzling, gray morning, empty as could be.

Clean and Bright Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Niger’s first overpass on under construction

Owning Ideas

Though I saw plenty of construction this summer, I could only feel the growth and excitement of West Africa when chatting with individuals at their homes and places of work. There, hearing people’s stories, I could sense how and why some people “make it” and others don’t. In the bush, where I spent my “African childhood,” change had come. Electricity had come to my village in the couple years since I finished Peace Corps, but people were farming in the same way they have for centuries. You can buy more cold drinks and a few people can light up their courtyard in the evening. There is another cell tower in town, but people don’t use their phones to find the latest rice prices (even though other Nigeriens are). We can think of tools as development in and of themselves. But technology and innovation is only as productive as the ideas within the people who use them. While technological change and incentives can grow economies, people have to take hold of the ideas and make them work. As we always said at Hillsdale College, “Ideas have consequences.”


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