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The Jakarta Post - Headline News, 17 October 2003

21st-century crusade to reduce world poverty


Yanuar Nugroho,
Director, The Business Watch Indonesia,
Surakarta, Central Java,
yanuar-n@unisosdem.org

In spite of the development of agriculture, scientific knowledge and modern technology, the wealth of
the poorest group has actually fallen. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) this year
reports that more than 1.2 billion people across the world -- two-thirds of them women -- live in crushing
poverty, and face difficult access to food, safe water, sanitation, basic education and health services.

The wealth of the 225 richest countries has nearly tripled in the last six years and their assets now
equal the entire annual income of half the world's population.

Every Oct. 17, a day after World Food Day, the world marks the International Day for the Eradication of
Poverty, to boost the drive to achieve the key goals adopted by world leaders at the Millennium Summit
in 2000: to halve the number of the world's extremely poor people, provide elementary school education
for every child and halt the AIDS epidemic by 2015.

The global record shows that barely half that amount of progress had been achieved; UN Secretary-
General Kofi Annan said, "overall, the world is not on track to meet the goals by 2015."

There is obviously a tremendous overlap between the 800 million people who live in a state of
permanent food insecurity and the 1.2 billion people on less than US$1 a day as UNDP reported above.

We are constantly told of the one recipe to reduce poverty: economic growth. Yet the UN Human
Poverty Index 1998 for industrial countries showed that Sweden, with one of the lowest rates of
economic growth per person, had the best human welfare. Whereas the U.S., with the highest rate of
economic growth (and a higher per capita GDP than Sweden), had more people who were "functionally
illiterate" (20.7 percent) than that in any other country; the highest proportion of population below the
income poverty line (19.1 percent) and the greatest number of people who did not expect to reach 60
years of age (13 percent).

Thus, there has been no magic formulae to eradicate poverty. But there are five structural points to be
addressed here: (1) human development and the environment, (2) economic management, (3)
democratic institutions, (4) empowering the poor to change their own lives and, (5) a need for global
advocacy.

First, investment in education and other essential services. The UN found that there is no lever more
significant in reducing poverty than investment in education in addition to basic services. Governments
in poor countries need to commit themselves to universal free primary education and
affordable/accessible basic services provision.

Second, sound management of the economy. For years the development of poor countries was held
back by lots of well intentioned efforts by governments to spend more money; by putting money into
inefficient state enterprises that did not work; into funds for defense forces beyond their needs; and
taking money away from essential public services.

Sound management would ensure that public spending does not run ahead of the tax base and the
revenue available to a country and, second, making sure that the priority for the public spending is
education, health care and basic services.

Third, democratic institutions. Sound democratic institutions at the national and village level should
reflect people's priorities and their visions for the country, are critical to successful development.
Without that we can still invest in education, we can still manage our economy quite well, but we will
also still flounder, as we see in other regimes and countries without a sound democracy.
Fourth, empowerment of the poor, which is much more crucial than charity. Micro credit may be one
such tool. The poor are a better credit risk than all of us. They are much more sensible about repaying
their loans because they recognize that without the kind of assets against which they can borrow from
normal commercial means, they have to protect their new credit status very carefully and not betray
themselves or their communities by not repaying.

It is an incredibly powerful tool for bringing wealth to the lowest levels of a country, although modern
financial systems (like banking) are not so willing to channel the money to empower the poor. In a poor
country like Indonesia, for example, less than 10 percent of credit from banks are given to the poor.

Fifth, global advocacy. Ensuring that the case of the world's poor is not lost on the international
community is easy as we are all on the same leaky ship. The rich will also sink, slowly or quickly unless
we end world poverty.

But it will not happen if the global economic system is structured in such a way that it increases the gap
between the rich and poor.

According to the World Bank (2001), in 1960 gross domestic product in the richest 20 countries was 18
times that in the poorest countries. By 1995, this gap had widened to 37 times. About 12 economies in
Asia and Latin America account for 70 percent of exports from the developing world absorb almost 80
percent of investment flows to the developing world and receive more than 90 percent of portfolio
investment flows to the developing world.

However, Sub Saharan Africa, West, Central and South Asia and many economies in Latin America,
Asia and the Pacific have been left out of the global economy and not favored by international
investors. Clearly, free trade centered distribution of benefits and costs are unequal.

Whether or not we succeed in this ambitious goal of ending world poverty, the answer rests finally with
all of us. It is our world, so may we make it a safe, prosperous and peaceful place.

The writer also lectures at the Sahid University in Surakarta and is a researcher at Uni Sosial
Demokrat, Jakarta.