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.

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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!

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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,

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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.