Everyone Talks About Poverty

Although the leaders of the world economy are very articulate on the subject of the war on poverty, in practice, all the large-scale programs are bogged down.

WASHINGTON - The International Monetary Fund (IMF) meeting, which opens here today, has many important goals, including creating a partnership between the public sector and the business sector, finding ways to fight money laundering and encouraging world economic growth and employment. However, when the distinguished speakers make their presentations, they will focus on just one issue: the war on poverty.

This should not be construed to mean that poverty is truly disturbing them all that much. But there was a watershed event in November 1999. The World Trade Organization met in Seattle, and there, in that lovely, pastoral city, 40,000 people took to the streets in a series of extremely violent demonstrations. They caused havoc and destruction and effectively shut down the city's center. The meeting ended abruptly, and the protesters chalked up a victory in the form of a change in the world agenda: the poverty issue became the top priority.

True, there were quite a few extreme organizations among the demonstrators, including anarchists and anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli groups, which exploited the riots to disseminate hate messages. They are dangerous people, and the police in Washington are now readying themselves to deal with them in the course of the disturbances that are expected outside the hall where the IMF meeting is being held.

However, along with the anarchists and extremists, there are also sane demonstrators, such as environmental groups and other social organizations, whose goal is to increase global equality in order to put an end to a situation in which 20 percent of the world possesses 80 percent of the wealth. These organizations want to change the situation in which half the world - three billion people - subsist on an income of $2 a day. What they really want is a redistribution of the world's wealth.

The globalization process of the 1990s helped advance the economies of many countries, such as those in Southeast Asia, but many regions have stayed behind, most notably Africa, where there are 20 countries in which the gross national product is $300 per capita a year. In these countries, paying off external debt swallows 30 to 40 percent of the annual budget.

The moderate organizations are demonstrating for a more just world in which the social gaps will diminish. They are in favor of erasing the debts of the poor countries and advocate generous development grants, which the rich countries will give to their poor sisters. They are also demonstrating in favor of the immediate implementation of plans to feed the hungry and to create programs that will make it possible to provide a modern education to millions of people in each of these countries.

The moderates are also fighting against the barriers that governments in the United States and Europe have erected against the import of agricultural products. While such barriers protect local farmers, they are devastating to the poor African countries, whose major expert is farm products.

The capitalist system did not collapse and the globalization process did not come to a halt as a result of the violent demonstrations by the militant organizations, but the protest proved a victory for the moderate groups. The proof: at every international conference, the major topic on the agenda is poverty.

The problem is that although the leaders of the world economy are very articulate on the subject of the war on poverty, in practice, all the large-scale programs are bogged down. The debts of the African countries have not been erased, because each separate lender wants his money back. Nor are they getting grants to bolster education and health, and the projects to eradicate poverty and hunger have yet to be implemented.

A senior official of the U.S. administration said privately that the first step is to do battle against the governmental corruption that is endemic in these countries, because otherwise the money and the grants will end up in the hands of the ruling upper class and will have no impact on the life of the needy populace. Therefore, "criteria and control mechanisms" must be set up.

However, the poor countries are almost choking with a glut of "criteria and controls." And as the president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, stated at the opening of last month's World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, "a global human society... characterized by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable."

He is dead right. A country and a government cannot exist over time if the internal economic, social and cultural gaps are too large, without experiencing a violent uprising, and neither can humanity. If three billion people continue to be mired in poverty and exist on $2 a day, a violent uprising is only a matter of time.