In an attempt to highlight the importance of its goal to end poverty and to inspire many who may not be attuned to the struggles of the poor, the UN General Assembly created the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, recognized October 17 every year. On that day, the UN and other major development organizations discuss the progress that has been made in ending poverty and the work that remains to be done. But what if we called for an end to the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and retired the #endpoverty hashtag? What might happen if we changed the day to the International Day for the Creation of Prosperity?
Why we seek to end poverty
When you spend time in a poor country or even a poor community in a wealthy country, the poverty is often so glaring that it leaves an indelible impression on you. Kids without clothes and shoes. Communities without water and sanitation. Impassable and flood-prone roads. Corrupt governments and police. Hospitals and clinics without enough doctors, nurses, or even supplies. I saw devastating poverty first-hand when I lived in South Korea in the early 1970s. And so did my colleague at the Christensen Institute, Efosa Ojomo, in his home country of Nigeria. Poverty is heartbreaking.
But it’s also powerful. Powerful in the deep desire to help that it instills in those of us who are privileged to do something about it.
In our attempt to help those for whom life has dealt an extremely difficult hand, however, we who are fortunate often look to what we think is our best weapon: our own wealth. We dig deep into our pockets to try to help end the poverty we see, both as individuals and as countries. Where we see poverty, we think, we can use our resources fix it. In fact, wealthy nations spend billions of dollars a year trying to eradicate poverty and some of the smartest people in the world have dedicated their lives to this effort. And some progress has been made. Over the past 25 years, the number of people living in extreme poverty, or people living on less than $1.90 a day, has been reduced by more than one billion, something President Jim Kim of the World Bank calls “one of the greatest human achievements of our time.” In addition, infant and maternal mortality has reduced, people are living longer, and many more children now attend primary and secondary school.
But that’s only part of the story. The other part is obscured by those numbers—and far more painful.
Most of the people who have escaped poverty over the past three decades have come from China. And to a much lesser extent, India. That’s great news for China (and moderate news for India), but the news is not so good for hundreds of millions of people in other countries. Indeed the number of people living in extreme poverty in sub Saharan Africa, the poorest region in the world, has increased and, based on current projections, will continue to increase. In fact, by 2050, the region will be home to 86% of people living in extreme poverty. In addition, it turns out that many who have escaped poverty still live precarious lives and are only one or two steps away from falling back into poverty. In other words, while people living in poverty may live longer and send their children to school, the reality is that true prosperity—the process by which more and more people in a region improve their economic, social, and political well-being—is still out of reach for many.
Although efforts to end poverty are certainly noble and well-intentioned, what if, in the midst of trying to end poverty we are, unintentionally, blinding ourselves to a better way?
History has shown that virtually every wealthy country today, from the United States to South Korea, developed not by trying to “end poverty,” but rather by working to create prosperity. In other words, rather than focus on improving the metrics of poverty such as improved school attendance, institutional reform, and improved healthcare, prosperous nations prioritized the growth of their economies. And they did this primarily by investing in innovation.
By focusing on creating prosperity, two things will automatically happen. First, in the process poverty will be eradicated. The path to creating prosperity necessarily passes through the land of eradicating poverty. About four and a half decades ago, when China focused on growing its economy in order to create prosperity, it inadvertently solved its poverty problem and has now lifted close to one billion people out of extreme poverty.
Second, focusing on creating prosperity will fundamentally transform how the international community thinks about development. In essence, we will no longer be satisfied with unsustainable efforts that may alleviate poverty for a time but are inadequate to transform communities in the long-term. Many development efforts, such as building wells where water is scarce or schools where there is a lack of education, only last as long as there is continued money and resources to keep them afloat. If we want to generate sustainable prosperity, these will no longer suffice.
“The answers you get depend on the questions you ask,” the late American physicist, historian, and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, reminded us. And so, in my forthcoming book with Efosa Ojomo and Karen Dillon, The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty, we ask a different question. What if, instead of asking how can we end poverty, we began asking, how can we create long-term prosperity? The answers we find just might change the world.