One of the world’s great heroes, Nelson Mandela, told a crowd in London ahead of the G8 meeting in July that “while poverty persists, there is no true freedom”.
If the response to the global Make Poverty History campaign and Live 8 concerts is anything to go by, it would seem that millions are beginning to agree with him.
People are not prepared to continue to live in a world where the richest three people are wealthier than the poorest 48 nations. They don’t want to live in a world where poverty kills 30,000 children each day and where 2.7 billion people struggle to exist on less than $US2 a day.
Yet many commentators in the world’s richest countries are quick to dismiss the groundswell of support for tackling global poverty as naïve and ultimately counterproductive. Often they suggest that poverty in developing countries is not a shared problem that the global north and south must take on together, but one that is essentially of the poorest countries’ own making.
Corrupt leaders of developing country and fat aid bureaucracies are accused of wasting the majority of aid dollars spent by donors in the past 40 years, largely using it to line their own pockets. We are told poverty would not exist if it weren’t for corruption, and poverty will only be fixed when developing countries’ governments eliminate corruption. More aid and debt relief, in the interim, would only fill more Swiss bank accounts and buy fleets of Mercedes.
There is no doubt that foreign aid has too often been given to the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Aid has been wasted by donors and recipients and corruption remains a significant problem.
But developing countries and their governments hardly have a global monopoly on corruption.
For example, WorldCom boss Bernard Ebbers was sentenced recently to 25 years in prison for his part in corruption involving an $US11 billion accounting fraud which bankrupted the $US200 billion company, eliminated millions of dollars in US pension funds and put thousands of Americans out of work. Yet few people are clamouring for US corporations to be denied further taxpayer funded assistance until they can demonstrate they are corruption-free.
The reasons for the persistence of poverty in developing countries are complex. They include substantial historical handicaps such as colonialism, slavery and Cold War politics, war and conflict, chronic under funding of important programs to combat hunger and disease and to fund basic services. Further reasons include the impact of blunt and inflexible World Bank and IMF policies and waste due to mismanagement or corruption.
Aid and debt relief can work, however, and well-targeted aid can and is being used to fight corruption and promote good governance. In Malawi, Oxfam has funded groups which tour the country’s schools making sure textbooks and other educational materials paid for by foreign aid actually arrive. In Kenya, a national government anti-corruption campaign reduced the incidence of bribery by 25 per cent over 2 years.
Aid can increase developing countries’ capacity to monitor spending and can ensure public servants are paid a salary on which they can survive, minimising the motivation to accept bribes. It can help build institutions, such as the judiciary, capable of tracking and tackling corruption. It can foster features of a civil society, including media, to improve public scrutiny.
Developed countries can also do their part to assist in the fight against corruption by ratifying the UN Convention on Corruption and by improving the transparency around corporate and government payments to developing countries through schemes such as Publish What You Pay and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. These actions would minimise the scope for investment dollars or donor revenues to be siphoned off.
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