The global poverty rate has been cut in half in about the last 20 years, so why not try our best to eliminate poverty in the next 20? Guyana, joining in this worldwide crusade enshrined in the United Nations “millennium development goals,” is seeking to reduce poverty towards zero.
Reaching towards this objective achieves all the elements of a better life – longer and healthier life-spans, improved literacy and greater access to education at all levels, a huge increase in worthwhile jobs, reduction of crime and greatly enhanced security of persons and property, enjoyment of a wider range of goods and efficient public services and, since material good is not the be-all and end-all of existence, increased opportunity to develop and participate in those ‘activities of the mind and soul’ which distinguish a nation when at its best in peace and prosperity.
Happily, the goal of poverty reduction is not a contentious issue in partisan politics. The government of the day and those who seek to take their turn again in governing can readily agree on this national purpose and should have no difficulty regularly meeting to thrash out the best policies and programmes to achieve the objective. Now I come to think of it why don’t they regularly meet on this non-contentious issue?
Let us forget for the moment about the oil bonanza/sell-out everyone is talking about. The prospect of oil does not and should not change fundamentals.
It goes without saying that poverty reduction arises from the creation of wealth. And the creation of wealth depends crucially on attracting capital and technology from abroad for a variety of undertakings. And this will happen much more readily if the conditions are found to be favourable to maximizing returns for the capital and technology invested.
This involves the planning, building, expanding and maintenance of infrastructure to service growing economic activity. Without such works progress will inevitably be stymied and delayed. Also essential are a responsive and honest public service, a police force clearly on top of criminal activity, an independent judiciary, banking which operates efficiently and according to international norms and an educational system which can turn out the young men and women to meet the needs of rapidly developing business activity.
Asking for all this may seem a tall order and it is. But it is by no means all that is necessary in achieving poverty reduction. Poverty reduction also entails fairer income distribution – which by the way, oil will not at all necessarily foster. One estimate has found that two thirds of the recent fall in poverty worldwide has been the result of growth but, very importantly, one third has come from greater equality. Martin Ravallion, once the World Bank’s head of research, in a Working Paper surveying 125 developing countries, found that more equal countries cut poverty further and faster than unequal ones. The Ravallion study reckons that a 1% increase in incomes cut poverty by 0.6% in the most unequal countries but by 4.3% in the most equal ones.
This sends a clear and insistent signal to us in Guyana. We must do everything possible to create more wealth but also make very sure that the share-out is fair. The fruits of wealth creation must be deconcentrated. Not only that. Just as justice must not only be done but be seen to be done so wealth must not only be equitably shared but be seen beyond doubt to be equitably shared. One very good reason why corruption is such a burning issue is that it is a disgraceful manifestation of wealth creation skewed blatantly in favour of a selected few.
This is why it is absolutely critical to make sure that independent bodies such as the Procurement Commission must become permanent, actively functioning, vigorously independent features of our national life.
And it is also why the watchdogs of democratic societies, including the media, must be treated evenhandedly under the law and why there must be no special favours, no cosy insider deals, no secret concessions, no buddy bias. Poverty reduction can only be accelerated if all are involved. And all can only be involved when it can clearly be seen that everyone is getting an equal chance to benefit.