I am a regular donor to Christian Aid, with a history of support that goes right back to when I was a boy. It has outlasted my attachment to the Church itself because the charity does not go in for proselytising, and they are dealing with some pretty gritty and important issues. So I get their supporters' magazine. The latest publicises their Poverty Over campaign (which in the publicity is written as POVERTY). The aim is to "deal with the root causes of poverty"; the publicity highlights eight issues: climate change, conflict, corruption, disasters, food and agriculture, health, inequality, and tax. All of these issues are closely related to poverty. But, like "Make Poverty History" before it, the title suggests that its aim is to end poverty, rather than to merely alleviate it. And here it has almost nothing to say. Perhaps because the answer is too uncomfortable for most of the charity's supporters, and perhaps even its staff, to accept.
There has been rather a lot of progress in eradicating poverty in the last couple of centuries. According to the map that accompanies the article, in 1821 pretty much the whole world was in poverty (Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands were the exceptions according to this, though the inclusion of Ireland is surely a bit shaky). Now according to the map alongside it only a minority of countries are in poverty, across the central part of Africa, and a few Asian outliers like Afghanistan and Burma. That picture seems a bit too bright, but we need to acknowledge the progress made by countries such as South Korea and China in the last 40 or so years. It is worth asking how such rapid progress has been made.
We usually think of poverty in terms of low consumption - insufficient food, poor shelter, a few clothes and practically nothing else. It is more helpful to look at the other side of the coin: low production, or low productivity. Beating poverty is about boosting the productivity of countries that are poor. It's not about dumping surplus production from the rich onto poor societies, the only other way it can theoretically be broken
And yet raising production involves wrenching change. And one change above all: moving people from the countryside to towns. In poor societies agriculture is ludicrously inefficient, and this drags the whole economy down. In towns it is much easier to mobilise people into more productive activities in manufacturing and services. What is more, it is much more efficient to deliver basic services such as education, health services, power and water to people living in towns. Pretty much every breakout from poverty, from our own in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, to China now, has invovled the emptying of the countryside and the growth of massive cities. Only when society is much more wealthy, and infrastructure much better, do we see some reversal. Now where's that in Christian Aid's eight issues?
The problem is that we in our comfortable developed societies don't like the idea of imposing such drastic change on the poor. The change is painful. Families are torn apart; initially poverty at both ends (in the country and town) is extreme. Our attitudes to the country are tinged with a folk memory of a lost rural idyll. There's another uncomfortable truth. Such changes sit uneasily with democracy. Some of the most successful changes have been carried out by benevolent dictatorships (consider China, the early days of South Korea, Singapore). The record of democracies may be better than that of kleptocratic dictatorships, but it is flawed. India has advanced phenomenally, but, compared to China, it has left huge swathes of the population behind in dire poverty without much hope of escape. Poverty Over implies turning a blind eye to progressive dictatorships.
So what should we be doing if we truly want to end poverty? Well the first point is that we can't impose progress from outside. Ending poverty is painful, and not an automatic choice; things may have to get worse before they get better; this has to be led by the locals. We have to back off a bit. The second point is that most aid should focus on urban poverty. Rural poverty may be cuddlier and more instinctively appealing (remember the Christmas campaigns about buying people goats?) but it carries the risk of perpetuating poverty rather than ending it. Rural aid should concentrate on making it easier for people to migrate: so improving literacy and education is an obvious one. But even then you get more bang for your buck in the towns. Thirdly we should promote the role of competition and businesses in the developing world, if we can. Too often local elites leach off local businesses, or create excessive regulation as a source of soft jobs and bribes. That prevents more productive employment opportunities from being created. Fourthly, promote constructive multinationals. Multinationals inject a dose modern productivity and efficiency into countries, and helps raise levels of trade. They are perhaps the best way of channelling our excess wealth into the developing world. Of course there are badly behaved multinationals, complicit in corruption and taking more than they give - but when they work well they are a better, more sustainable channel of help than any other.
Urbanisation; helping businesses; supporting the right sort of multinationals. Apart from a tangential reference in dealing with corruption, none of this gets a look in in Poverty Over. Not even education does. Instead of ideas that would really help eradicate poverty, we get a ragbag of politically correct issues that suit the tastes of western do-gooders. Christian Aid is not beginning to tackle the root causes of poverty. Perhaps it shouldn't try. Good knows that just alleviating its symptoms needs doing. That's why I will continue to support them.