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It’s a question asked on a regular basis. There’s no universal answer, but there are plenty of opinions. We’ve collected five of the most relevant.
At the 2005 “Make Poverty History” rally in London, Nelson Mandela said:
“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.”
As quotes go, it’s pretty inspirational. But is it true?
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals outlines a vision for a better world — for all countries — by 2030. Goal 1 is to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.” This begs the question: Is it possible to end poverty? Is there such a thing as zero poverty? If so, what would that look like? What would we need to get there?
Or, to paraphrase a very famous book, will the poor “always be with us”? We’ve asked five experts to weigh in on the basic question: Can we end poverty?
We gathered the thoughts of 5 notable people from different sectors who have informed opinions on the subject. This includes an economist, a psychologist, a government representative, an international humanitarian executive and… a rock star. Here’s what they said.
Vice President of the World Bank Group for Eastern and Southern Africa, Ghanaian economist Victoria Kwakwa has more than 30 years’ of experience in economics and development. Dr. Kwakwa oversees an active portfolio of 313 operations totaling $58 billion across 26 countries.
“At the World Bank Group, we see three clear ways to achieve these goals: promote sustainable and inclusive economic growth, especially through boosting private investment in infrastructure.
“We can invest in human capital starting from a child’s early years, because people with better skills, education, health, and training will make the biggest difference to countries’ abilities to grow and compete. And together we can foster resilience to global shocks, including forced displacement, climate change, and pandemics, which threaten to roll back our hard-fought development gains.”
Canadian-American cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker is a professor at Harvard University. A bestselling author, his books include Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
“Global extreme poverty has declined to 9.6% of the world population. 200 years ago, it was at 90%. In just the last 30 years, extreme poverty has declined by 75% — a stupendous achievement that is almost entirely unappreciated.
“The UN gave itself a cushion in its 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and set a target of ‘ending extreme poverty for all people everywhere’ by 2030. Ending poverty for all people everywhere! May I live to see the day. Of course that day is a ways off.
“Though the numbers are dwindling in countries like India and Indonesia, they are increasing in the poorest of the poor countries, like Congo, Haiti, and Sudan, and the last pockets of poverty will be the hardest to eliminate.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power is currently the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID is primarily responsible for administering foreign aid and development assistance with an annual budget of over $30 billion.
“Each global crisis feeds on others. Natural disasters destroy farms, conflict spikes prices for fertilizer and food, misinformation fuels the spread of the pandemic, right? Everything is connected. And of course it is the most marginalized and least resourced communities that are affected first and usually that are hit the hardest. It is the racial and ethnic minorities who are forced to live in the areas most affected by pollution and climate change. It is women and children who are shut out of economies devastated by conflict and COVID-19. It is indigenous communities and LGBTQI+ communities who must fight for their right to participate in the democratic process and to benefit from equal rights.
“Each of the crises we face today can be described with virtually the same words: urgent, devastating, some existential. So, not only do we struggle to prioritize because the challenges are so interlinked, but it is actually the case that we can’t just focus on one without focusing on the other, or we will face setbacks, even in the domain to which we give our focus. So, we have to broaden our effort, we have to bring in these new allies and new partners, we have to not see development as solely the product of governments or international organizations, but as a shared commitment that far more institutions and organizations can embrace.”
The former CEO of Concern Worldwide, Dominic MacSorley is a humanitarian with nearly four decades of experience.
“Political will isn’t just some abstract commitment, it will demand national sacrifice for a greater global good and fundamental shifts in policy to change the course of our future. The fundamental principle of the Sustainable Development Goals is ‘Leaving no one behind,’ and the spirit of the Goals compels nations to try to reach the furthest behind first.
“That means the stateless, the displaced, the marginalized, and the 140 million people who are now in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.”
As well as being frontman for U2, Bono is also a well-known activist in the fight against AIDS and global poverty. He is a co-founder of ONE, a global campaign and advocacy organization with more than 9 million members.
“Just look at India, just look at China. Aid, development assistance is the bridge from here to there. We had a very snobby attitude about business and big business — we sort of demonized it.
“Actually, you go to the developing world and jobs are the most dignified thing you could offer someone. When people have work, they can sort out their own problems. Capitalism can be a monster if we let it, but capitalism must and will take our instruction. And when it does, it can be quite an engine and a force for good.
“Additionally, we will never achieve that great global goal of ending extreme poverty if we don’t admit it — poverty is sexist — and demand policies which deliver equality.”
There’s a strong groundswell of optimism among our panel about the possibility of eliminating extreme poverty. How we go about doing this is another discussion. However, some of the common themes that come up around poverty alleviation include equality, commerce, political commitment, resilience-building, accountability, and transparency.
As the historical trend around global poverty rates indicates, we’ve also made significant progress in the last three decades. In order to meet our 2030 goal, we’ll need more of the same while maintaining focus.
Can we end poverty? Let’s believe that the answer is yes.
*All quotes have been either obtained directly or taken from recent speeches, videos, or writings. Some have been edited for clarity and context. Available sources can be found via the links on each speakers’ name.