The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really
When it comes to alleviating poverty, it is the best of times. Never in history have so many people so quickly been taken off the poverty rolls.
Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015, a 2011 Brookings Institution publication, summarizes this stunning development. Researchers Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz note that as late as the early 1980s, "more than half of all people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty." By 2005, they report, that number was cut in half. By 2010, "less than 16 percent remain in poverty, and fewer than 10 percent will likely be poor by 2015."
In other words, the seemingly audacious UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by half between 1990 and 2015 was met three years ago.
What's more, apparently no continent is being left behind. In the 1980s, poverty increased in Africa, and, in the 1990s, in Latin America. But, according to Chandy and Gertz, "poverty reduction is currently taking place in all regions of the world." For the first time, the poverty rate of sub-Saharan Africa is below 50 percent. The authors' model predicts that by 2015, poverty will be reduced in 85 of the 119 countries included in their analysis. The sharpest reduction is seen in Asia; given current trends, they predict 430 million people will be taken off the poverty rolls by 2015—a drop of 30 percentage points.
The developments in Asia, in fact, are the reason they say "the bulk of the fall in global poverty can be attributed to the two developing giants, India and China. They alone are responsible for threequarters of the [expected] reduction of the world's poor."
Not large donations, microenterprise programs, or child sponsorship, but rather sheer economic growth, has effected this change. With massive populations, the two nations made a number of interrelated decisions that opened their countries to globalization, which in turn has led to remarkable economic performances, where we've seen GDP growth rates (except for 2009) stay above 6 percent since 2003. The wealth has indeed trickled down to the lowest economic strata of their societies.
Thus the plethora of new and hopeful books: Charles Kenny's Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More, Jeffery Sachs's The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, and, for Christian activists, Scott Todd's Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty—among many others.
Though economists debate specifics, it's a moment bursting with hope. But these dramatic developments, ironically, present the church with a few serious challenges.
What these latest findings demonstrate is the church's relative ineffectiveness and impotency at helping the poor. Some Christian activists have been trying to motivate us to care for the poor by pointing out how they are neglected by society. The state is a clumsy and arrogant institution, they argue, and not doing its job. So the church must step in to make a difference. That means that (1) churches should create their own anti-poverty initiatives (like microfinance), and (2) churches should lobby governments to do better.
These recent economic developments suggest that both of these strategies are either insignificant or relatively ineffective. It is not Christian activism that has created history's greatest poverty reduction initiatives in India and China. And it is not micro but rather macroeconomics that really makes a difference.