Generations of over-ambition?
Owen Barder lists 21 people who have claimed over the last century that ours is the first generation that can eradicate poverty. In 1919 Woodrow Wilson declared that “For the first time in history the counsels of mankind are to be drawn together and concerted for the purpose of defending the rights and improving the conditions of working people”.
This month Eric Solheim, chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, became the latest: “We are the first generation in history with ability to eradicate extreme poverty from the planet. The great kings, caliphs and emperors of the past would not have known how to go about it or how to pay for it.”
Owen’s unspoken point seems to be [Some people] argue that they’re all wrong, that social planners with their grand designs have repeatedly failed to eradicate poverty so they should probably stop trying. People like Owen [Some people] argue that poverty reduction is probably better achieved from the bottom up, using markets instead of goal-setting.
[NB. Owen says in the comments that this isn’t his view, that we need to “will the means and the ends”. Very sensibly this implies that it’s not enough just to promote targets; we should also make mechanisms and funding available to achieve those goals. People like William Easterly are probably more typical critics of social planning and grand designs. Here’s some more anti-goalism.]
Hold on a minute. A century is a tiny droplet in the ocean of human history. Just because a few high-minded world leaders came up short of their ambitions in the last few decades doesn’t mean the world should abandon its worthy goal.
The range of figures Owen cites is striking: from British Prime Minister David Cameron, to Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, to Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, the Heritage Foundation, Henry Kissinger and John F. Kennedy.
Surely the unanimity of their ambition means something? It’s encouraging that right-wing warmongers and deified leftists can agree not only on the desirability of reducing world poverty but also that they predict poverty’s demise. It must be about the only thing such a wide range of political figures agree on! Some of them must know — at least a little bit — what they’re talking about. And if it’s just rhetoric, the politicians are presumably responding to popular demand for social justice.
World poverty has tumbled dramatically in the last century. Without goals to aspire to, without leaders setting targets, surely poverty reduction would have been a lot less. In my mind it’s probably despite the increasing domination of markets that poverty’s fallen, not because of it. After all the Washington Consensus period of liberalisation has been widely condemned by poverty specialists, partly because it brought a fall in African per capita incomes during the 1980s.
Solheim’s half-right: the kings, caliphs and emperors not only wouldn’t have known how to eradicate or pay for the eradication of extreme poverty, they wouldn’t have wanted to. Slavery, destitution and unspeakable inequality were central to those pre-democratic societies. Ours is the first epoch in which ending poverty is seen as either desirable or possible.
In another context the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his autobiography cites a late 1980s play by an East German dramatist called The Knights of the Round Table:
“What is their future? wonders Lancelot. ‘The people outside don’t want to know any more about the grail and the round table… They no longer believe in our justice and our dream’… Does he himself still believe in the grail? ‘I don’t know,’ says Lancelot. ‘I can’t answer the question. I can’t say yes or no…’ No, they may never find the grail. But is not King Arthur right when he says that what is essential is not the grail but the quest for it? ‘If we give up on the grail, we give up on ourselves.’ “
“Only on ourselves?” asks Hobsbawm. “Can humanity live without the ideals of freedom and justice, or without those who devote their lives to them?”
Hobsbwam, E. (2005) Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, The New Press, New York: p.151