The hunt for Poor
The Himalayan Times , 31 Jan 2005
My grandmother sought the poor all her life. This hunt intensified during the last few years of her life; being bedridden, she realized that she didn't have long to live and, therefore, her time for giving was limited. She believed that the way to heaven was by giving. Beggars might have lived without her munificence but I doubt if she could have breathed without them. No giving, no salvation.
The desperate cries of international aid organizations, UN agencies, ADB, NGO's, INGO's that, ‘the poor are still among us and we need funds', reminds me of my grandmother. Without the poor, these agencies cannot justify their existence. They need the poor just like my grandmother needed them.
The problem for those who work in these organizations for uplifting the poor is that people who depend on alms are becoming fewer. And those who are poor are realizing that it is not aid and charity which is going to deliver them from poverty but opportunity.
And this opportunity is being unleashed by the forces of globalization. Look at China and India. These two countries housed the world's poor. Both have become more open to the world and in doing so are eliminating poverty at a breathtaking pace.
Economic reforms started in the 70's in China and 90's in India have done more to eliminate poverty than the combined efforts of all aid agencies could have achieved in the next 100 years. And this removal of poverty has come accompanied with self-respect and dignity unlike the affront and indignity inherent in receiving charity.
These facts are inconvenient to those involved in the effort to increase charitable funding for the poor. The facts lead to an irrefutable conclusion: that what can end poverty is not charity but openness to trade, commerce and investment. This would mean that aid should end, but obviously the seekers of the poor have no desire to becoming unemployed.
The forces of globalization appear irreversible. Even in countries like Nepal where the government has failed to create conditions for economic growth, the poverty levels are falling. There might be limited opportunity but the youth still have an out: they can go abroad. And they are doing just that. Those who cannot go to the US, UK, Canada, or Australia go to the Middle East, Malaysia, or South Korea. For those unable to go anywhere else, India is open.
It is this increasing opportunity worldwide that is keeping the Nepali economy ticking. Despite being one of the worst managed economies, Nepal is still managing growth rates of 4%. Remittances from those who are abroad in better managed globalised lands are doing the trick.
Apart from Nepal, which caters to the needs of thousands of NGO's, the other bright spot for aid givers is the continent of Africa. There the aid agencies have succeeded spectacularly in supporting poverty.
They have given aid to support brutal dictators like Idi Amin in Uganda who killed and tortured hundreds of thousands and threw foreign businessmen out of his country. They supported Mobuto of Zaire who stashed 80% of the $5billion in aid in his personal Swiss banks. The current favourite is Mugabe who has expropriated the land and wealth of foreigners and destroyed agriculture in Zimbabwe. His population depends on aid. NGO's could not be happier.
However, inspite of the African dictators and Nepal, it appears that poverty as we know it is going to disappear. So will aid agencies just wind up? No chance of that happening anytime soon. Moves are afoot to change the definition of poverty. Upto now poor have been defined as those who survive on less than a dollar a day. ADB has already said that it considers the poor to be those who earn less than two dollars in a day. Watch out as poverty gets redefined by aid agencies.
I predict that very shortly every one of these agents of poverty would adopt the $2 standard and when everyone earns over that amount then the line will be shifted to $4. The poor will always be there, because the givers, just like my grandma, cannot exist without them.