Poverty of ambition

How the World Summit on Sustainable Development will limit aspirations for economic growth.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg looks set to discuss so many issues that it is difficult to know what it’s really about.

Among the topics being discussed by the 60,000 people attending from 180 countries are aid, corporate accountability, biodiversity, fishing stocks, forests, fresh air, global warming, globalisation and the provision of safe drinking water (1).

But one subject on which there is a consensus is the importance of alleviating global poverty. All agree that something must be done to lessen the suffering of the poorest of the poor – and the issue is certain to be a key theme in the official WSSD declaration (2).

Of course it is terrible that so many of the word’s population live in abject poverty. But this is not a new problem. What is new is the world leaders’ focus on trying to raise the level of the poorest of the poor.

At the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000, global leaders committed themselves to a set of ‘millennium development goals’ to be achieved by 2015 (3). These included reducing the number of people living on less than $1 (65p) a day to half the 1990 level, reducing child mortality and achieving universal primary education.

These all sound like worthwhile objectives – but they represent a lowering of horizons in terms of the kind of development that the third world can hope to achieve.

A few years ago, the aspiration was to bring developing countries up to a material level that was comparable with that in the West. It was seen as a reasonable goal that the billions of the people living in the South should have universal access to key utilities like electricity, water, roads and telephones.

It was also thought that they should have a modern industrial sector – rather than relying on one or two primary commodities, such as coffee or copper – and access to the full range of consumer goods, such as cars.

Admittedly, much of the South failed to meet such objectives. Only countries that enjoyed rapid economic growth, such as South Korea and Taiwan, came close. But at least there was a consensus that such far-reaching development was the goal to aim for.

Today, the talk is of ‘poverty eradication’ or ‘poverty reduction’, rather than development in a broad sense. It seems to have become accepted that poverty will always exist – the aim of policy is merely to mitigate its worst effects.

The focus on ever-more extreme examples of suffering has the unfortunate effect of making mainstream poverty seem respectable. So perhaps living on $2 a day is not so bad, compared to the 1.1billion people who live on less than $1 a day (4). Or maybe it is okay to live on less than $1 a day, so long as you are not suffering from starvation (5).

The new approach to poverty is related to the popular notion of ‘sustainable development’. Like the idea of poverty reduction, sustainable development represents a limitation on broader and more far-reaching ambitions for development in the third world.

Every sustainable development goal tends to be counter-balanced by some kind of reservation. The idea of trying to promote rapid economic growth for the benefit of humanity is entirely alien to the supporters of sustainability. Indeed, rapid development is viewed as the worst possible aspiration – most ‘unsustainable’, in fact.

No doubt the supporters of poverty reduction would counter that it is important to be realistic. They would say that, first the worst manifestations of poverty need to be alleviated, then it is possible to go further. A more ambitious approach, from their perspective, condemns millions of people to remain in the worst poverty.

But in reality, the opposite is true. Extreme poverty does not exist in isolation from the rest of a society – instead, it is a brutal manifestation of the broader lack of economic development. It is hard to see how extreme poverty can be overcome without raising the poorer countries as a whole to higher levels of economic development.

The experience of East Asia bears out this argument. After the experience of rapid economic growth over the past 50 years, many millions of people in countries such as Korea, Taiwan and large parts of China have come to enjoy high living standards. In turn, the worst aspects of poverty, such as the scourge of hunger, have disappeared.

To the extent that there are still problems in East Asia, it is because economic development has not gone nearly far enough. The bulk of China’s population, away from the relatively prosperous coastal areas, still suffers from severe poverty. But the conclusion to draw from the limitations of development so far is that more development is needed, not less.

People in developing nations do not need empty rhetorical commitments to alleviating the most extreme manifestations of poverty. On the contrary, they desperately need a strategy that will develop the economic potential of their societies as a whole. The first step in achieving such an objective is to remove the mental shackles that limit the desire for economic growth.

Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also a contributor to Cultural Difference, Media Memories: Anglo-American Images of Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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(1) See the World Summit on Sustainable Development website

(2) See for and the WSSD draft declaration

(3) See Millenium Development Goals website

(4) Figures from the Millenium Development Goals website

(5) See the Southern Africa Crisis Appeal

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