Op-Ed: What if we were REALLY serious about ending poverty?

Joe Brewer
Joe Brewer

In the wake of Apple’s battles before Congress in defense of its $100 billion tax haven overseas we have a guest post by Joe Brewer, key strategist for /The Rules, a movement aimed at identifying the structural causes of poverty and the means to deconstruct these harmful systems – including tax havens.


For decades now, those of us in the West have been told that we can bring poverty to an end by any of the following methods:

  • Wear a wrist band;
  • Give $10 a month to feed a starving child;
  • Party hard at a rock concert;
  • Sign a petition;
  • Vaccinate against polio.

I could continue but you probably can already see where I am going with this.  We have been bombarded with simple and painless actions that attempt to dumb down the vast complexity of global poverty to get rich, distracted white people to care about starving dark people.

Needless to say, this approach is both offensive to those in need and ineffective at creating the scale and breadth of change that can actually bring chronic poverty to an end.

This begs the question What if we were REALLY serious about ending poverty?  

How might we approach things differently if that radical goal was addressed by strategies that could actually be successful?  That is a question I have grappled with amongst my friends in the international development community for several years now (and also in the midst of our own “home grown” poverty here in the United States).

Every conversation with a campaign director at Oxfam, executive at Save the Children, and social entrepreneur in a hip micro-finance startup leads to the same conclusion:

We cannot end poverty without understanding how it is created in the first place.

This insight stood out front and center in some research I lead last summer (download the report here) in preparation for launch of /The Rules campaign — an innovative cohort of change makers seeking to change the rules of the game that create poverty in the world.

Just as they say in a first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, we have to admit that we are creating the problem in order to realize our power to fix it.  The same is true for global poverty.

Among the rules that create poverty are things like structural debt policies that bleed poor nations of their wealth as natural resources get extracted by multinational companies and interest payments are exported to Western financial institutions.  These policies were created, implemented, and enforced by people.  They made it all but impossible for the peoples of the Global South to get their financial houses in order.

And of course, if we look further back in history we will see that these exploitative policies are a continuation of prior conquest and colonization — acts conducted by merchant prospectors to increase their wealth by any means at their disposal.  Thus the slave trade came into being and several centuries filled with atrocities committed by one tribe (Western merchants) against another.

More recently (and much closer to home), we Westerners fell victim to financial speculation that brought the global economy to the brink of total collapse in 2008 and 2009.  Again it was the rules of the game that had been rigged to create a shadow network of tax havens, deregulated banking instruments, private security forces, and more that all contributed to those techie buzz words of default swaps and derivatives (whose names obscured the Ponzi scheme unfolding for all to see, if only they knew where to look at the time).

So if we are serious about actually ending poverty, we have to change the rules of the game.  

This is what we are doing at /The Rules in our campaigns to pull back the curtain of secrecy that enables tax havens to pillage at will from the mainstream economy; empower the poor and marginalized people to reclaim the rights to their own land, replacing the standard practice of “land grabs” so commonplace today; advocating for policy tools that provide women the means for full participation in the economy, and other interventions that respond to the intentional acts by financial elites to horde wealth and increase inequality as they aggregate power over political and economic systems.

It IS possible to create a world without poverty. 

But first, we have to dismantle the Poverty Creation Industries we have now.  That would truly be a game changer!


Joe Brewer is the Seattle-based Founder and Director of Cognitive Policy Works. He is an innovation strategist who weaves together brilliant people and ideas to create integrated solutions at the intersections of the advocacy, policy, and technology worlds,


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Bruce Preville

    People do what it makes sense to do, thru their constructs…Our predominant definition of success, defined by accumulation of financial wealth, has led to the growth in power of corporations, whose structure is aligned with that definition, leaving our political system corrupted by the influence of big money. To change the situation, I need to reinvent my paradigm of success, from living in a “you or me” world to a “you and me” world.
    How about you?

    • Joe Brewer

      I’m in complete agreement with you, Bruce. Paradigms are thought constructs that set expectations and implicate what our (often unstated) rules of engagement are — including purpose, goals, and outcomes desired by those involved.

      If we want to change the rules, we have to first introspect into the ways we think about these issues! Change truly does come from within.

  • Xiaohan Zhang


    Fixing the institutions that perpetuate and worsen the status quo is one step in the fight against poverty, but I’m afraid scapegoating all of our problems on political institutions actually worsens, not improves the real reason why poverty exists today (ie you’re doing your audience a disservice by providing a nuanced side of the argument).

    The financial speculation you cited wasn’t simply a result of a rigged “shadow network”, swaps, derivatives, or tax havens, and selling it so is a gross misrepresentation of what got us into the mess. Banks, rating agencies, central banks, and politicians all had a hand in a bloated financial bubble, but average people did also. Rarely do people click on popup ads where they can “get a free iPad”, but why did people think it was safe to buy a house and simply pay it off by refinancing even when their personal cash flows couldn’t cover monthly payments? Citizens cry afoul when other central banks lower interest rates, but are happy as clams when their investments grow faster when our own central bank lowers ours.

    Now this phenomenon was partially caused by realtors selling snake oil to consumers, but at the root of the issue is that we as a society like getting good things for cheap. We want new iPhones and Galaxies and XBoxs but don’t understand the global supply chain needed to provide us with those goods. We lament at how bad traffic is but don’t give public transportation a second thought. From an economist’s perspective, people aren’t paying the full price for the negative externalities their demands produce, and we as a society must pay those costs.

    In closing, I do agree with you that the rules of the game need to be changed. In causing change though, we must look to change the social rules (materialism, short-sightedness, self-interest) as much as political rules (policies, lobbys) in order to be “really serious” about ending poverty.

    • Joe Brewer

      Hi Xiaohan,

      I agree with you on this point. The social rules are also part of the rules. In truth, many of the social rules of consumerism were manufactured through decades of public relations that support a pro-corporate agenda. So those same rules of social interaction are nurtured and perpetuated by legal protections for corporate media (which has stood up in court as able to lie and deceive, even when purporting to call itself “news”).

      So there are many ways that social rules interact dynamically with legal rules. This is a big and worthy topic of further discussion!



      • Xiaohan Zhang

        Good point. Definitely agree. Thanks for the insight!

  • Leslie Weinberg

    Joe— I continue to contact my Legislators and Members of Congress about the Budget and how it affects many issues RESULTS and others care about. So many who give donations to campaigns are paid more attention to, unfortunately. How can we persuade Congress to change the Tax Code to be more fair?

    Leslie Weinberg

    • Joe Brewer

      Hi Leslie,

      Thanks for asking this question. It’s an extremely important one because our political system is so broken right now that it’s all-too-easy to come away feeling powerless and cynical. One shift of perspective to consider is that broken channels do not lead to repaired outcomes — in other words, if our Congress is too badly corrupted by money and corporate influences, we have to change it from the outside (not from within).

      Lobbying elected officials will not create the outcomes society needs when there is an imbalance in power amongst those engaged in lobbying. We the people have been structurally disempowered in this process, both through our lower amounts of aggregated financial capital and our lack of direct access to legislators. This tells us that we cannot win by playing the traditional lobbying game.

      So let’s change the game!

      We can do this by organizing ourselves outside the lobbying infrastructure, establishing our own metrics for success, and using the power of the crowd (by self-organizing our communities) to introduce a new equation for power. The current equation says MONEY = POWER. Instead we need one that says WILL OF THE COLLECTIVE PEOPLE = POWER.

      At /The Rules we are developing a suite of organizing tools and narratives of shared identity to consolidate the power of people united. As we go along, we hope to discover new games that can be played by massive numbers of people — enough to achieve a mass exodus from the current broken corporate governing system that is strangling democratic action around the world.



      • TheLyniezian

        Simply because money can buy access surely doesn’t mean lobbying (or at least contacting) our political representatives is useless. If we don’t try, those in power will never hear (it’s not impossible at least in the UK for ordinary MPs). And they need to play their part.