TCS Daily

Is Poverty Unnatural?

By Tim Worstall - March 3, 2005 12:00 AM

There are times when I find it terribly difficult to work out what it is that people are actually aiming for, wonder whether there are those who really would prefer a world of ideological purity rather than a more pragmatic one in which we simply used the best available results to achieve whatever our stated aim is. This week's head scratching comes from the juxtaposition of two stories that turned up in the UK newspapers recently.

The first was in the Guardian (Now, now, don't laugh. As long as you ignore anything and everything it says about politics or economics it's quite a good read.) on the subject of the digital divide and Nicholas Negroponte's plans for a cheap laptop to help solve it. Essentially he's working towards a $100 laptop for the poor.

All well and good thought I but is that really going to solve the problem of us having lots of technology and they having none? Thinking of my own attitude towards computers, that they are a typewriter with a browser attached, (I know, admissions of Luddism, sorry) I thought perhaps not. I honestly do not know who made my last three boxes, what the processor was in any of them nor, in any detail, what I paid for them. I am, however, in possession of pin sharp memories of the speed of my internet connections over the past decade and the costs associated. So to my way of thinking access to the internetweb thing, the reliability and cost of, are far more important than whatever box is used to access it. Fortunately, the Good Professor is aware of this (no, not of my concerns, but the issue):

        "However, Vota [of GeekCorps] does not believe hardware costs are the 
        show-stopper. 'It's the actual connection to the internet node or backbone 
        that is expensive. In the developing world, you have entrenched monopolies 
        that are loath to do much past rake in high margins on substandard 

        "Negroponte says a great deal of the problem is regulatory and monopolistic, 
        yet he is optimistic that these monopolies are slowly being broken 
        down. He adds: 'I would love to see the World Bank make telecom 
        deregulation a condition of loans.'"

The second story was about the relaunch of the project to Make Poverty History. This is the well meaning effort being led by Sir Bob Geldof and other such luminaries to increase aid, reduce debt and generally, as they say, remove absolute poverty from the planet. Nelson Mandela came to London to give a short speech on the subject and as reported said this:

        "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and 
        can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings."

Now I certainly agree with the latter part there, that we can overcome poverty, but I cannot quite choke back the scream of outrage at the stupidity of the former part, that poverty is unnatural or man made. Absolute poverty, in the form of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is most certainly natural, it is how humanity has lived for most of its time on earth, and the current poverty of peasant farming can certainly be viewed as normal and natural. There was no one at all a few hundred years ago who did not depend upon it (even if they were part of the 2% that didn't have to do it, they still depended upon it) and some two thirds of the globe still do.

No, what is unusual, what is unnatural and what is man made is wealth, this thing we've only been able to do reliably and consistently since the Industrial Revolution. I am therefore a little worried about the ideas that this organization might put forward to solve the problem of absolute poverty. For surely, one's actions will be different if you believe that wealth is natural as opposed to believing that poverty is natural but undesirable and fixable, with man made wealth being the solution.

Perhaps I am making too much of a line in a speech, some nice rhetoric to whip up the crowd? I wish it were so, for buried in the manifesto of Make Poverty History is this little gem:

        "Aid should therefore no longer be conditional on recipients promising 
        economic change like privatising or deregulating their services, cutting 
        health and education spending, or opening up their markets: these are 
        unfair practices that have never been proven to reduce poverty."

This, to me, is a prime example of idiotarian thought. As always, words mean what I want them to mean and I use idiotarian to mean people who either believe or claim to that they are acting to solve a particular problem or alleviate the sufferings of a group while in fact acting to increase or at best perpetuate such problems. As you can see from the above, the major problem about connecting the poor to the net and the web is the cost and slothful service of entrenched monopolies, often State owned, in the telecoms industry in those poor countries. The solution would be to break of the monopoly and allow competition... exactly the deregulation and privatization of services which the campaigners insist should not be allowed.

This is what worries me about Make Poverty History, also the UN Millennium Development Program, that the money will indeed be raised, debt will be relieved, aid sent, and little or nothing will change, for we are not addressing the true and basic problems, those to which the solution is bringing decent and sensible economic policies to these places. We'll only get one chance at motivating the world to do this so we have to get it right first time.

Thus the head scratching I mention above. What is it that these people really want, to keep their ideological purity against the often grubby business of capitalism, or to solve poverty? I am often very cynical about such matters, but I do hope, pray even, that these people are misguided, ignorant even, rather than think that they know what they are doing and think that their prejudices are more important than helping 2 billion people out of absolute poverty.


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