After my latest video got featured on the YouTube homepage, there were so many people leaving comments about how fat I was, how I talked, or just leaving racial epithets, that I was resigned to the fact that my message had been lost among all the hateful messages. Then, something really amazing happened. A group of well-spoken, intelligent, and considerate group of commenters appeared. And, for the first time since being featured, a real conversation emerged.
Of course, as with any discussion, we didn’t all end up agreeing. But at least we addressed some important issues. Here is a summary of some of the topics that were touched upon:
Issue #1: Who Will Pay For All This?
Like, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, I am advocating for support towards the Millennium Development Goals. These are goals which will help the global poor in many areas such as access to education, clean water, health, and much more. But it’s not free. Nothing in life is free of course. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a higher tax burden. It just means different priorities.
We are spending money in AIDS research and on preventing the spread of AIDS in America. But, what if we cared about dying Africans back when AIDS was localized to that continent? We could have saved money and saved lives (both home and abroad). We are spending lots of money for the War in Afghanistan. But what if we cared about the Afghan poor before the Taliban and Al Qaeda could prey upon them? We could have saved money on the war: bullets and troops cost more than humanitarian development.
A proper focus on the global poor can actually ease the burden imposed on our tax dollars.
Issue #2: Isn’t This a Redistribution of Wealth?
In order to make the issue of poverty a non-partisan issue, it has to move away from appearing to be socialist. Wealth redistribution isn’t something new to America – a lot of it is going on because of war and the War on Terror.
When the US government trains and then pays for the salary of Iraqi soldiers – isn’t that redistributing wealth from US tax payers to Iraqi soldiers? When the US government hires a contractor to rebuild the water treatment centers in Baghdad – isn’t that redistributing tax dollars into salaries of contractors and other personnel? When the US government pays for research and development into new weapons – doesn’t our wealth get redistributed to that company and scientists who helped to develop the new weapon?
Helping the poor might mean less wars. Which, in turn, means less need for reconstruction in other countries. And this could also mean less need for developing new weapons.
Issue #3: What About the Population?
If each family has four or five children, that means more mouths to feed. If each child grows up (which is far from guaranteed in the third world), than they too will have four to five children of their own. The population will just grow and grow and things will get more and more strained. That’s why Bangladesh has become a country with such a high (and ever increasing) population density. But, for poor families, having lots of kids makes economic sense. Child labor is common here and so sending kids to work as soon as they can walk and talk isn’t uncommon. I’ve seen child laborers as servants and in sweat shops doing unsafe manual labor.
Having lots of kids is rational for the global poor. The goal is to make it rational to have less kids. And, as American and European history has shown us, the biggest thing that lowers the number of kids you have is your income. Middle class families tend to only have replacement level fertility (1 or 2 kids). Development is the best contraceptive.
Issue #4: This Isn’t Our Responsibility
Not it! That seems to be the current attitude many people in the developed world have towards helping the poor. It’s not their responsibility. Well… okay, fair enough. But, when it comes to making the case that developed countries should help poorer countries, it’s not so much about responsibility as it is about self-interest.
Even if you are of a libertarian persuasion and believe that the sole responsibility of government is to provide basic safety and security, I argue that helping the global poor does exactly that. First, it strengthens a nation’s safety and security. Dr. Jeffrey Sachs makes a strong case that fighting poverty helps to fight terrorism. Secondly, by helping the global poor, we help stem the mutation and creation of new and deadlier diseases. Thirdly, helping the poor helps to create goodwill among other nations. When my dad was around my age, a deep and sincere respect for the United States was common place in the world. It was perceived as a wealthy nation willing to help others less off. The reason being that, back then, the US was much more active in third world development than it is now.
Finally, helping the poor may not be a responsibility but it is definitely an obligation for anyone or any nation that wishes to retain its self-image as being moral and just. What society, what culture, and/or what civilization has survived the test of time by allowing others to suffer when it had the means to end it? The simple fact is, making the world a better place for others makes it a better place for us all.
Issue #5: Private Individuals (Not Government) Should Be Doing This
Once upon a time, people would have to have a medallion on their home. This medallion showed that they were making regular payments to the local (privately-owned) fire department. In the event that their home went on fire, the fire department would come and put it out with no additional cost. If you didn’t have a medallion, the fire department would come and negotiate a price with you before they put out the fire. People decided that this system didn’t work and that giving this responsibility to their government – through tax dollars – was a better solution.
I say the same is true for ending poverty as well. The problem with private charity is that a lot of charities have to fight for your donations. They need to spend money on PR and fund raising. People tend to give money around Christmas time or when tragedies (like Cyclone Sidr) get a lot of attention in the media. But, money is often needed before these tragedies occur and before it’s time to put out the Christmas lights.
When I was in the Cyclone Sidr Disaster Area, it wasn’t uncommon for some charities to have a cameraman. One NGO I saw, had 25% of its on-the-ground staff devoted to gathering footage and editing video. Only a handful of agencies were fully devoted to helping the needy. One of them was the UN – which had no cameramen and had an orderly operation. It’s easier to do a job when you don’t have to market yourself at the same time.
I realize I can’t single-handedly change the opinion of the world in regards to how it treats the poor. Doesn’t mean I can’t hope. And, at least by following the arguments and logic presented by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs – I know I am in good company….