Poverty will end.
Despite all the screaming, all the noise, all the stone throwing. Despite “Make Poverty History” and billions of Dollars in aid and opposition to capitalism.
Poverty will end.
The foundations for that post-poverty world are being laid right now. The pity is that it is not likely to look very different from the world experienced every day by suburban Americans and Europeans.
Suburbia. Soccer moms, endless commutes, housing flatlands, shopping malls, sterile sameness.
It is from these monotonous neighbourhoods of conformity that social activists and western capitalists explode, frustrated and enraged, in the hopes of … making the rest of the world the same?
From the outside in
Business owners, by and large, are extremely conservative. They look for proven markets and familiar environments in which to do business. If the market is dramatically and culturally different then local partners are sought. If there are no local partners then they stay away unless they can guarantee themselves a monopoly.
So, for instance, US companies wanting to do business in China look for local partners who can run the factories for them and simply supply goods. European companies wanting to do business in Africa only look at commodities such as minerals, ores, timber or â€“ indeed â€“ oil, where they can own the entire supply chain. They treat the country as an island and simply export everything they produce, paying the bribes necessary to smooth the way out.
Where there is nothing valuable, or where the country is just too impossibly unstable, only the most scary of entrepreneurs go. While they may make a lot of money, they may also wind up dead.
This is development from the outside in.
The poor in these countries are not involved in the way in which capitalism is expressed in their communities. It will take the shape of the people who brought it.
In the course of our research we have spoken to dozens of large South African companies investigating the “bottom of the pyramid”. Each has expressed themselves in a similar way. Each is nibbling away at the edges of poverty zones, creeping inwards, like gas crossing a porous membrane.
Diffusing, overwhelming. Until the whole is the same.
It is a slow process but it is happening. The number of people living on less than US$1 per day has dropped to its lowest point (as a percentage) ever and now numbers less than 1 billion people worldwide.
Poverty will end.
In the process unique cultures are subsumed and the peoples of emerging nations are losing their cultural identity and self-expression. The creeping wave of investment swallows their poverty and absorbs them into an alien culture.
And they are waiting – passive, supine – because of an international movement against poverty that sees the poor as helpless victims incapable of saving themselves.
The poverty of aid
The G8 has just announced US$ 60 billion in aid till 2010. Expressed by many, is the belief that the US must do “something” to end poverty and support the poor.
It is an outrageous conceit. It is a piece of European and American cultural imperialism on such an epic scale that it reduces regime-change in Iraq to a dust-mote in a desert storm.
It says, “You are helpless. You are incapable. But here, we’ll give you some money to keep you healthy, keep you alive, and get you ready. Ready? Well, sooner or later our companies will come here and rescue you from poverty. When they arrive you better be ready for one of those jobs in our factories.”
Consider the impact.
The poor have become complicit in the lie of their own incapability. They appear, begging bowl in hand, at every international gathering. They demand aid to support their diseased, illiterate, and infrastructurally barren nations. They take this cash. Perhaps it even gets spent. A year later they’re back for the same thing.
At the same time, creeping inwards, western companies absorb their economies.
In 100 years what will be left will be a stable and prosperous nation. But one which is utterly culturally alien to the people living in it.
It is this sense of inevitability that incenses people like Osama bin Laden. Their culture is being subsumed by something larger and hungrier than theirs.
Liberals and socialists may be just as outraged by the dominance of western capitalism ideology but, by demanding aid for the impoverished, they are actually assisting that western onslaught.
In generations to come it is the aid workers and left-wing liberals who will be most identified with a nation’s loss of cultural identity.
There is another way.
From the inside out
The poor are not helpless. Neither are they poor. They just have smaller economies.
If those economies are developed and supported with technical know-how and information transfers then they can meet the advance of western capitalism with a home-grown version.
This is what is happening in China and India. Both nations are so astonishingly large that, despite generations of suffering and neglect, they have both started to unleash their inner economies.
You may not like the shape of these forms of capitalism. Chinese capitalism is hopelessly autocratic and environmentally destructive. But it is an alternative. So is Indian capitalism with its concentration on vast numbers of highly skilled workers co-ordinated by sophisticated software.
You may not like any of these new forms of capitalism but they do offer what capitalism is so good at: choice.
Whythawk was started in 1998, not so much to end poverty, but to assist poor communities to invest in themselves so as to maintain their own cultural integrity.
I have enjoyed travelling around the world and seeing the wonderful diversity of self-expression; from music to food to architecture to fashion to lifestyle. I have always felt it would be a terrible shame if this diversity was reduced to that of middle-Europe-meets-middle-America.
For all the talk of western capitalist hegemony it is only the partnership between business and aid that is truly hegemonic.
It takes a brave person to stand against this tide and defend the poor. To say, “I’m not offering money. You don’t need it. But I can show you how to organise to create your own cultural capitalist core and meet the tide as an equal.”
Suburbia. Lost the sounds and smells and energy of urban bazaars. Wares and shops leaning up against each other. Music and foods mingling to create distinctive memories.
Suburbia. Let it not be so. For the sake of a more interesting and vibrant future we have to try.