Events

The Future of the Poor, Illiterate, and Marginalized Populations

September 08, 2004 // 4:30am6:00pm

Rajan Gupta, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, described his plan for reducing global poverty by improving education, health care, economic opportunities, the environment, security, and governance. He highlighted the relationship between reducing global poverty and strengthening global stability, noting that the poor remained especially susceptible to recruitment by criminal and terrorist groups. He called for a quicker and more significant transfer of knowledge and resources from developed countries to alleviate the problems of the poor.

Gupta began his research on poverty issues in 1998 by studying the rate and pattern of HIV infection in India. Over the last ten years, he has broadened his focus to examine global poverty and the three billion people who survive on less than $2 per day. Of this group, he is the most concerned over the one billion children under fifteen years old who are most threatened by the physical, social, and economic hardships of poverty. He has found that the poor are confronted with a staggering list of significant challenges: the highest rates of population growth, persistent internal or regional conflict, and illness due to a combination of malnutrition and communicable diseases; the lowest rates of social and economic development; medium to severe environmental degradation; inadequate supplies of energy and clean water; poor governance; and powerful rogue economic actors.

In the face of these challenges, the poor are increasingly marginalized and left behind by a rapidly changing and globalizing world that requires increasing amounts of education and knowledge. This population is exceptionally vulnerable to disease and criminal and/or terrorist activities and organizations, providing large and rapidly growing markets for the consumption and production of illegal goods and services. Coping with extreme poverty, violence, abuse, and instability, the poor often turn to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or violent and criminal activities. Poverty and inequality also help to generate sympathy for groups advocating the use of violent and terrorist activities to force social change. Gupta echoed one of the 9/11 commission's conclusions, arguing that the war against terrorism must also be a "war against poverty and lack of hope."

Gupta offered several solutions for combating these problems, including: building global cooperation to combat rogue economies involving human and arms trafficking, illegal substances, and money laundering; creating comprehensive health care and education systems for impoverished children; and creating an international strategy for providing adequate supplies of energy and clean water. He suggested that systematic and frequent use of symbols, pictures, and videos to educate the poor about health concerns could be highly effective. He also supported policies that would encourage emigrants to return to and help develop their native countries, citing South Korea, Taiwan, China, and India as examples of countries that have successfully employed such policies.

John Sewell, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, described poverty as the 21st century equivalent to slavery. Poverty reduction is now a primary concern for the United States as a threat to military and economic security, as mentioned in the 2002 National Security statement. The current U.S. debate over development incorrectly focuses on state building, and should instead look at how to improve governance and financial stability while building capacity.

The past fifty years of work on poverty alleviation has shown that it can be significantly reduced or eliminated. The percentage of people living in poverty has fallen even while the absolute number of the poor has increased. Sewell argued that population growth has slowed; most experts believe that the world population will stabilize at nine billion people. Some countries have succeeded in decreasing poverty and raising living standards. These examples must be emphasized for political reasons and to build morale.

Sewell pointed out that development goals must continually be redefined. A developing country's problems are often both technical and political. In comparing the experiences of Haiti and Brazil, he noted that political will was critical to the success of a developing country. Also, many developing countries populations have small, wealthy upper classes while the vast majority of their citizens live in poverty. These countries must learn how to redistribute wealth more efficiently.

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