Global Policy Forum

A Measure of Hope


By Poul Collier

New York Times
September 29, 2008

THANKS to the copper boom, Zambia's economy at last is growing. Last year, per capita gross domestic product rose by around 4 percent. The capital is busy with new construction, and traffic between here and the copper belt is so heavy, travel time has doubled to eight hours. Still, Zambia is diverging from the rest of mankind. Its tax system has until last month been so lenient that most of the new copper profits have gone to the foreign companies that now own the mines. And the political and economic collapse of neighboring Zimbabwe has meant a loss of trade.

Zambians remain in the "bottom billion" of the earth's poorest people - those whom Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, declared would be the focus of development efforts for 2008. If the U.N., whose General Assembly convenes today, really rises to this challenge, how can it help the countries in the bottom billion? Presumably by more vigorous pursuit of its Millennium Development Goals, whose shaky progress toward ending poverty by 2015 is now subject to mid-term review. The Millennium Development Goals have been a major improvement on the unfocused agenda for poverty that preceded them, but the world has changed radically since they were announced in 2000. And the assumptions on which they are based need to be rethought.

The World Bank has just raised the bean count of global poverty to 1.4 billion people, from just under a billion. It had previously overestimated the level of Chinese and Indian per capita incomes, so the count now shows that the number of poor Chinese and Indians far exceeds the number of poor Africans. But this is misleading because Chinese and Indian incomes are rising far faster and more surely than African incomes. The big difference between a poor Asian household and an equally poor African one is hope, not necessarily for the present generation of adults but for their children.

Hope makes a difference in people's ability to tolerate poverty; parents are willing to sacrifice as long as their children have a future. Our top priority should be to provide credible hope where it has been lacking. The African countries in the bottom billion have missed out on the prolonged period of global growth that the rest of the world has experienced. The United Nations' goal should not be to help the poor in fast-growing and middle-income countries; it should do its utmost to help the bottom billion to catch up. Anti-poverty efforts should be focused on the 60 or so countries - most of them in Africa - that are both poor and persistently slow-growing. A further weakness with the Millennium Development Goals is that they are devoid of strategy; their only remedy is more aid. I am not hostile to aid. I think we should increase it, though given the looming recession in Europe and North America, I doubt we will. But other policies on governance, agriculture, security and trade could be used to potent effect.

What do I mean? Well, take, for instance, the American biofuel scam (the ethanol subsidies that have diverted 30 percent of American corn away from the food supply) and the European ban on genetically modified seeds, imitated by Africa, have both contributed to Africa's worsening food shortage. Where is the United Nations pressure for an end to these follies? Why, also, did the United Nations not intervene militarily when the democratic government of Mauritania, another country in the bottom billion, was overthrown by a coup last month? Where is an alternative initiative to open international trade to poor countries now that the Doha round talks have collapsed? Above all, with a five-year-old commodities boom transferring wealth to some of the countries of the bottom billion, where are the international guidelines on taxation and investment that might help these countries convert earnings from exports of depleting minerals into productive assets like roads and schools?

I applaud Ban Ki-moon. Like Robert Zoellick, the World Bank president, Mr. Ban is offering more thoughtful leadership on development strategy than has been provided for decades. But he has been stymied by the powerful countries' failure to rally to his call to focus on the poorest countries. No nation, not even the United States, is now sufficiently dominant for its actions to be decisive. International coordination is needed more than ever. For all its manifest limitations, the United Nations must work.

International coordination has been, indeed, the great achievement of the Millennium Development Goals; all the major donor countries have bought into them. But they should now be revised so as to focus on the challenge of helping the bottom billion to converge with the rest of mankind - and on a more realistic timescale. We need not just a "Year of the Bottom Billion," but several decades. This session of the United Nations is an appropriate moment to get started.



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