I know of few greater personal tragedies than those of well meaning men and women who have devoted their lives to the
achievement of some ideal only to find at the end that they were dealing with surface causes and cures. Such are the peace
workers who think that war can be eliminated by governments formally agreeing to renounce aggression; such are the charity
workers who think that poverty can be overcome by private contributions to the needy; such are all those who think that depressions
can be avoided by tinkering with the capitalist system. -Corliss Lamont
After a turbulent start to the 21st century, many Americans are finally beginning to take notice of the world beyond American
shores: a world of mass poverty, starvation, and helplessness: a world characteristic of centuries past. Perhaps, it was only
after 9-11 that the thick shell of isolationism was shattered for many Americans, and they were faced with the reality of
a greater world in which the United States, tragically, does not exist alone. Amid the G8 conferences, the Millennium Development
Goals, and Jeffrey Sach’s newfound celebrity, the eradication of global poverty is at last being spearheaded as not
only a noble but an urgent cause. Yet, the fight against poverty remains so stricken by ignorance, denial, and conventional
myth that progress seems as distant as ever.
This past school year, I took a history course titled Modern Peoples and Cultures. The course was focused on the clash
of more primitive societies with the spread of modernization. One of the goals of the class was to identify what makes, and
maintains, poverty. Through our textbook, Needless Hunger, the class analyzed Bangladesh poverty and its roots. The findings
The root of poverty was not systematic, we learned, but rather the product of hitches within the system: corrupt governments,
defective technology, corporate dominance, soaring birth rates, and so on. Poverty could therefore be eliminated through the
regulation of these hitches: through fair elections, tested technology, birth control, and other safeguards. It was not that
the greater system had failed, but that minor aspects had been dysfunctional. Reform, we concluded, was needed; but only within
Such has been the attitude adopted by politicians, economists, and pundits of the 21st century. Rather than calling for
system overhaul, they have instead called for debt relief, increased economic aid, food drives, and medical intervention.
But while benevolent, these efforts only temporarily suppress the symptoms of poverty without tackling the cancer itself.
Essentially, the attitude of the West has been that if it provides enough aid to its poorer counterparts they will be able
to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and escape poverty altogether. If only it were so simple.
The shortcoming of this outlook is that it approaches poverty as being almost spontaneous; an unfortunate tendency that
springs forth when corruptive governments overtake a fragile economy. It follows, then, that poverty can be quelled by timely
aid and corrective relief. But poverty is not this outlandish reaction. Rather, it is an inevitable consequence of a globalized
economy, meticulously crafted over the past centuries, built on dependence and reliance. Poverty is not so much a quirky tendency
of the system, but a defining facet necessary to both its establishment and success.
It suffices to separate this system into two divisions: one of the wealthy and prosperous nations, the other of the impoverished
and stagnating. It is foolish to think that these two groups have achieved their roles independently: to think that a poor
nation has determined its own fate.
Far from it, impoverished nations have suffered a history of subjugation at the hands of wealthier nations that has made
poverty an inescapable consequence. Ever since the earliest dawns of expansion, when imperialist powers conquered and revamped
foreign economies to suit their needs, to the present day, when much of third-world economic structure emphasizes exportation
and the appeasement of foreign buyers, the mass production and capabilities of impoverished nations have been channeled to
the benefit of wealthier nations overseas, neglecting internal development and domestic infrastructure. Impoverished nations
have not fallen prey to poverty because they lack the means to develop wealth, or because their means have been crippled,
but because their means have been redirected to the building of wealth that is not their own.
Brazil, for example, is one of the world’s most fertile and resource-abundant lands. Yet, its masses are malnourished,
unemployed, and landless. Brazil is not debilitated by widespread disease, corruption, or arid climate; and it certainly possesses
the means for wealth. But the produce of its lush rainforests, its rich mines, and its extensive agricultural output have
been entirely consumed by multinationals. Great wealth has indeed been churned out of Brazil, and off the backs of Brazilian
labor, but very little of this wealth has been retained for the populace itself. Naturally, most of this wealth has ended
up in the West.
Now, suppose that Western nations began to take an interest in combating Brazilian poverty. Suppose that the United States,
of all nations, decided to donate a colossal five-percent of its GDP. Suppose that medicines were sent to fight malaria in
the Amazon. Suppose that governmental corruption was reduced. As impressive a movement as this would be, its effort to reduce
poverty would amount to nothing. All of the donations would only go to strengthening the established order, which favors the
needs of foreign, and in this case donating, nations above those of its own people. All of the medicinal aid would strengthen
the labor force of Brazil, but this force would still be directed towards foreign wealth. Government corruption would be promptly
eradicated, but the government would still work under the influence of corporations and foreign investors. Essentially, all
of the aid provided would come out to more of an investment on the part of the Western nations: strengthening a system that
already favors and benefits them.
Of course, Africa, the primary focus of present times, is extensively incapacitated by AIDS, warfare, and a blistering
climate, but these are only further difficulties; not the roots of its poverty as Western leaders so confidently claim. Though
more far reaching and consequential than Brazilian poverty, African poverty is of the same nature. Its great gas and oil riches,
which should have been directed to internal development, have instead been conquered by corporations. Nigeria, for example,
has been swindled of billions of dollars in gas revenue by Shell, which has degraded the environment, exploited the native
Ogoni tribes, and provided much of the Nigerian dictatorship’s funding, all while holding a firm grasp over the land’s
greatest resources. Regardless of how much aid is sent to Nigeria, it would only be cycled through this very system; or if
it did make it to the poor, it would provide only momentary relief, while projecting the illusion that real steps had been
taken against poverty. When the priorities of the established system are so skewed that poverty is purposefully neglected,
economic aid in itself can effect no change, instead feeding into the poverty and inequality that it is ostensibly fighting.
The West will continue to refute that, at its behest, a global economy has been developed that revolves around its needs.
Nevertheless, impoverished nations are now tethered to wealthier nations’ desires, while they themselves continue to
sink in the quicksands of poverty. At my cafeteria each morning, I am offered pineapple from Chile, melon from Ecuador, and
strawberries from Argentina knowing full well that the workers who produced these fruits probably needed them a whole lot
more than I. Why is it then that these fruits have been driven and airlifted thousands of miles that I may have a more tropical
As long as the world’s wealthy nations ignore and deny the more systematic and entrenched roots of poverty, rejecting
the need for deep reform, poverty will persist. That corporations have flourished within impoverished nations, that impoverished
nations tend to emphasize external output while lacking internal infrastructure, that masses can starve within fertile and
resource-abundant lands, are all by nature of the system itself: a system that revolves solely around the wealthy. The mass
poverty now recognized as an urgent epidemic has been created in the development of Western wealth. In all truth, even as
Western nations pick up talks of eradicating poverty, it is around this poverty that they have, and continue, to benefit from.
It is in the midst of this poverty that these wealthier nations have drawn their wealth and relative stability. Accordingly,
even as they tout the urgency of fighting poverty, it is doubtful that any progress will be delivered. For unless western
powers are willing to relinquish corporate influence, abandon their stakes in foreign markets, and live without the luxury
of dirt-cheap imports how will poverty be alleviated? Yet, these tendencies are all on the rise. The wealthy powers are certainly
willing to fight poverty, but not at a personal loss. Instead, they have resorted to illusory efforts- debt cancellation,
medical aid, and economic support- while leaving the true roots of poverty unscathed.
Westerners will continue to send more money, food, birth control pills, and vaccines; and they will probably continue to
feel good about doing so. But this surge in goodwill will not erase centuries of greed and intemperance. Without systematic
reform, the poor will continue to live without food, land, or hope. The roots of poverty have been too deeply sown to be snipped
at; what is needed is a complete uprooting. Such action does entail repercussions for the wealthier states, and for this reason
one may fear that the proper strikes to poverty will not be delivered within our age. It is becoming distressingly apparent
that leaders are more committed to dealing with, as Corliss Lamont put it, surface causes. The fight against poverty is already
becoming one of the defining struggles of the 21st century. But until we acknowledge poverty’s more systematic and human
roots, this struggle will lead nowhere.