Poverty alleviation is perhaps the most complex, most important and most challenging task humanity ever have tackled. And there are a lot of people who sacrifice their time, skills and more for this quest. Think on the Millennium Development Campaign, the first micro-credit foundations or the many grass roots movements in the so called “Third World”.
Our first motivation is straightforward: we want to help other people, so that they can live the lives they value (to paraphrase Amartya Sen). The fact especially people in the Global South are poorer than we who are living in the industrial countries, principally is not their own fault. It is rather the result of a complex myriad of factors – some of which are colonialism, geographical factors (and, for that matter, the climate ones), authoritarian regimes, agricultural subsidies in the Global North etc. They summarize to what development economists call the poverty trap – from which one mostly cannot break out on his own.
But there are more reasons explaining our will (and need) to alleviate poverty. There are, for instance, some factors being a kind of indirect benefits we all value. I would like to present three of them here.
The first indirect benefit of poverty alleviation is environment protection. It is not ethically justifiable to expect environment protection from somebody whose main concern in his everyday life is whether he will be able to provide a meal for his family or not. If such a person can reach this goal through, e.g. killing a rare animal – he will, and one cannot really condemn him for that reason. So, if we want people in the “Third World” to protect their nearest environment (and it is a fact that they mostly can that better than we, being aliens and perhaps not understanding all the complexities of the local natural systems), we first must help them to break out from the poverty trap.
The second benefit is protection of human rights. By chance, I’m writing these words while amnesty international is focusing in its new campaign exactly on that: the linkages between poverty and human rights. It is much easier for people to fight for their basic rights if it is not their most present concern to provide a meal for their children. Poor people are mostly at the same time those whose rights are most easily violated. Thus, when we do our best to alleviate poverty in the world, we at the same time improve the human rights situation. (But note: it also is not possible to eradicate poverty without improving the human rights situation. Both processes influence each other.)
The third motivation we shall have is that of a widely understood security. One reason for criminality and violence in most countries is poverty, or more poignantly: inequality, i.e. the huge differences between the poor and the rich, often living in immediate neighbourhood. It is a complex problem. It is not so that all poor people tend to direct criminality. But consider, for example, the case of the poor peasants in Latin America who cultivate coca and sell it to members of international mafia groups (the same we observe in Afghanistan, where the cultivation of opium poppy is a big problem). They do it mainly because they just want to live in dignity, and the prices paid by the criminals give them a chance to.
Another security-related example is migration. Even if one doesn’t embrace the measures taken by the EU and the US at their respective southern frontiers to protect from immigrants – one must admit that the massive immigration is a source of danger. The rich societies are getting at the brink of destabilization through increasing immigration. And: migration is an alienating event not only for the natives in the rich countries of destination, but also (what is often forgotten) for those who arrive there and their societies as well (consider the phenomenon of brain drain). Thus, migration in such magnitude as we observe it by now is dangerous. And because it is very often poverty related, one can expect that it would normalize if we were able to combat poverty effectively.
Furthermore there is another one security issue – many conflicts (especially the so called “climate wars”, e.g. in Sudan) are poverty related. It surely is not the only one important factor, but in many cases poverty provides an additional momentum to emerging conflicts which then turn really violent and spread over an ever bigger area. Thus, perhaps it would be possible to prevent some conflicts, at least in their magnitude, if we eliminate this one source of them – the poverty.
I presented here only a few reasons for the case of eradicating poverty. But, especially in our ever more globalized world, there are many more of them. And even those above are sufficient, I think, to convince us that poverty is not only the problem of the poor. It is one of us, the rich, as well. And therefore we should support initiatives whose expressed goal is the eradication of poverty. Not only because we are human beings and one of the most important characteristic of humanity is empathy. There are a lot of other problems which would become easier to solve in a world with less poverty.