adidas 80s Just Give Money to the Poor Religion EthicsAustralian Broadcasting Corporation
Poverty may be the natural condition of human beings, but it is not inevitable.
Extreme scarcity, like the ancient scourges of cholera or polio, has been eliminated by our own efforts from most of the world. We could eliminate it entirely if we chose. The world as a whole is now so rich that we could easily afford to simply give every destitute person an unearned claim on our collective economic wealth sufficient to lift them out of extreme scarcity.
The proportion of the world’s population living in utter destitution is the smallest it has ever been. Nevertheless there are still 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. That is, on less than what you could buy in your country with $1.25. Less than the price of a soft drink. Less than what your cat gets spent on it. Consider that for a moment. Is it a fact you can live with? Or do you think there is something profoundly wrong with a world in which one in six people has less purchasing power than a pet cat?
As The Economist’s briefing on poverty notes, most of the progress against extreme destitution has been generated by economic growth and the egalitarian distribution of economic gains, not by international aid. But the remaining 1.2 billion will be harder to bring over the destitution line with economic growth alone, mainly because they are further below the line to start with (especially in sub Saharan Africa) and tend to live in countries with weak economic prospects.
Despite the good intentions behind intergovernmental projects like the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and numerous development charities, international aid programmes have so far had a negligible influence on reducing destitution and cannot be relied upon to fill the gap. It seems that destitution will go on indefinitely destroying lives on a massive scale in forgotten corners of the world.
Yet there is something we haven’t tried yet, despite its stunning obviousness: giving destitute people money. $1.25 is a very small amount of money. That is why it is the World Bank’s threshold for utter destitution. But the other side of that is that $1.25 is also a trivial piffling amount of money, and the average shortfall per destitute person from that threshold is even smaller. Imagine if the richest 1.2 billion people in the world were twinned with the poorest, and each rich person gave 50 cents per day to their poor twin: destitution would be pretty much eliminated and the rich would hardly even notice the cost.
The idea of a guaranteed global basic income paid for by the rich world can be supported by many different accounts of morality, and is thus a natural locus for international moral consensus. For example:
Many religious accounts of morality identify the alleviation of poverty as a moral duty, and one that is not limited by political borders.
From a utilitarian perspective, a transfer of consumption power from the world’s richest to its poorest would increase the sum total of human well being in the world. Whether well being is construed entirely subjectively as hedonic happiness, or as preference satisfaction (the metric preferred by economists), or more objectively as quality adjusted life years, the result is the same: an extra 50 cents per day would make a much more significant contribution to the quality of life of the destitute than it presently does for the rich.
Eliminating destitution is a global moral responsibility, something we all have reason to want a public good like a stable climate. But it is fair for the costs of achieving it to be borne by the group of people the world’s wealthiest who are best able to afford it.
From the personal perspective of the citizens of the rich world, it is the right thing to do. There is no morally significant task, including securing their own material comfort and that of their family, that the world’s richest people would need to give up in order to send 50 cents per day to end someone’s utter destitution.
So much for principles. Of course, the main reason why many people reject the idea that they have moral obligations to help strangers in foreign countries is not that they really believe that the further away someone is, the less they matter. Rather, they are justifiably sceptical about their ability to help said far away strangers.
The world’s most destitute live in hard to reach rural areas of weak and failing states that are very difficult to operate in. The overall record of international aid to non middle income countries is positive, but weak and littered with scandalous failures. Haiti is perhaps the most dramatic recent example of failure, despite adequate funding and global attention, but humanitarian aid has often been implicated in prolonging wars and deepening destitution in the wake of famines (by shunting everyone into refugee camps) while development aid often feeds government ministers rather than giving poor people the ability to feed themselves. “Famine fatigue” is a legitimate response to the enduring failure of our sympathy with the world’s suffering to lead to any appreciable improvement.
So, establishing the moral case for a transfer is not enough. We also need a feasible plan. Here’s my proposal.
The Logistical Case
The first step is to promulgate the moral consensus I have already laid out as an international norm. For example, by including a new human right to freedom from destitution in a revised UN Declaration of Human Rights,
or by means of a new global treaty. This is preferable to another Millennium Development Goals type project because it moralises destitution more sharply and is more permanent and universal in its scope. (The original MDG project was only opt in some countries like China ignored it.)
Second, this human right to freedom from destitution needs to be operationalised into the specific obligations and entitlements it places on different parties:
Entitlement. Those living on less than $1.25 per day would be entitled to a partial basic income of 50 cents per day (enough to bring most destitute people over the threshold, though in some places a higher transfer would be required).
Targeting. Because targeting is expensive in itself, in countries or regions where the median income is below this threshold everyone would automatically have the entitlement.
National responsibility. The states in which the destitute live would be responsible for facilitating this entitlement and for funding it if they are wealthy enough to do so. This means that upper middle income countries ($4,000 to 12,500 GNI per capita) with substantial remaining pockets of poverty such as China, Namibia and South Africa would be responsible for targeting, funding and distributing their own citizens’ basic income. As countries develop economically something which the cash transfer programme can be expected to expedite they will become responsible for managing and funding more of the programme for themselves.
Rich world responsibility. The remaining annual funding requirements for the entitlement would be met collectively by high income countries (over $12,500 GNI per capita), in proportion to the size of their economies. (This has similarities with the UN/IMF/World Bank funding structures.)
Management. A new international (UN) agency would be needed to manage the disbursement of funds and the logistical infrastructure, and to commission independent reports by development experts on the effects of the programme (including negative ones).
Third, complex and technologically sophisticated logistical arrangements will need to be established on the ground. The aim of all this complexity is to keep the central mechanism as simple and direct as possible: to eliminate destitution by direct transfers of cash to very poor people. This directness addresses the reasonable scepticism of rich world citizens about the effectiveness and reliability of giving money to foreign governments and NGOs that promise to help people.
A promising combination of innovations that is increasingly plausible and inexpensive is the biometric ATM, which would greatly reduce the scope for embezzlement within the programme or theft from the programme’s recipients. Such ATMs can also be set up to accommodate illiterate users and to provide simple banking services like electronic transfers and savings accounts, also needed by the poor. (This is not just a first world fantasy. India, for example, already has some biometric ATMs and is also making progress with a universal biometric identification register for all its citizens.)The theoretical annual cost of ending destitution by such a transfer from rich to poor would be $220 billion ($600 million per day), but the actual amount this would cost the citizens of the rich world would be a bit different.
First, a significant chunk of the world’s destitute live in upper middle income countries, which are rich enough and whose governments are competent enough to lift them out of poverty if the political commitment is there. Mexico and Brazil demonstrate this they have been running massive transfer programmes for more than a decade with great success. (Brazil’s enormous programme covers 74 million people, 39% of the population, at a cost of less than 1% of its GDP.) The main contribution here by rich states is to support that domestic political commitment by building and maintaining an international consensus around the right to freedom from destitution. And the most important part of that is to show their own commitment to this human right by adequately funding the global basic income entitlement in the poorer countries.
Second, while upper middle income countries taking responsibility for their own destitute populations remove a hundred million or so from the statistics, a policy of universal coverage in low income countries means that a significant number of people who are not quite destitute will still receive a basic income of 50 cents a day, including tens of millions of what the World Bank generously calls “middle class” (people earning more than $2 per day). That raises the costs that fall on the rich world, but the importance of reaching all the really poor people would seem to outweigh the risk of helping some less poor people by mistake.
There will also be considerable logistical costs a biometric identity register of all residents, solar powered ATMs for every village, and so forth. For some countries or parts of countries, like the Congo, getting this logistical infrastructure in place will be especially difficult. However, these set up costs will not increase the annual cost of the programme since payouts can’t begin without this infrastructure in place. Much of this infrastructure would be useful for development anyway. (India’s federal government is already funding its own universal biometric identity register because it believes its citizens will be better able to claim their existing rights and entitlements from a corrupt and disinterested bureaucracy if they can always prove who they are.)