Making Poverty History

Statesmen and women always have many and varied issues vying for their prioritsed attention. But there is one which remains constant and one which I urge them never to overlook.

Gandhi called poverty the worst form of violence. Nelson Mandela said none of us can truly rest as long as poverty persists in our world.

There will be those who believe that even with the best will in the world, eradicating world poverty may be a challenge we never fully meet, but I believe it is incumbent upon us to do our best.

So how come despite the billions raised in taxes to spend on the welfare state or donated to large NGOs, there is still so much poverty?

Is it because we tend to measure the success of our response by input rather than output … in terms of money given, or proportion of GDP redistributed, rather than by results produced?

In the past, there have been legitimate concerns over aid money propping up dictators, and feeding corruption and complacency rather than helping the needy.

There have been “white elephant” factories, damaging dam projects and roads to nowhere.  Nearer to home, there have been cases where the European Union has been inadvertently responsible for similar follies through its social fund and regional development budget.

Foreign aid has sometimes been seen more as a bribe to counter Soviet or Chinese influence than as a genuine catalyst for economic progress.

Some have concerns over donations to large NGOs funding generous salaries of chief executives and press officers rather than those providing aid on the ground. And even aid workers are not immune to criticism. A few years ago in Uganda, I heard condemnation of aid workers rushing around in large 4x4s and staying in the best hotels. One taxi driver, pointing to booths selling pre-paid telephone cards, told me that he believed those telephone companies had done more to take people out of poverty in his country than any of the Northern hemisphere NGOs.

Some entrepreneurs from poorer countries have even told me they believe our aid programmes and large NGOs have an interest in keeping them poor. I think that is a little unfair, but it highlights the concerns that exist.  Fortunately, there is no doubt that the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the EU and large NGOs are more aware of the need to be accountable. Domestically, it can be argued that we have concentrated on assuaging the symptoms of poverty ahead of tackling its causes.

And this may be where Left and Right diverge. For the Socialist view is broadly that poverty-alleviation has failed because the government does not tax the rich enough in order to pay for more public servants to distribute more money to the poor.  Many libertarians on the Right argue that poverty is best tackled through cutting taxes and allowing the additional wealth generated to trickle down to the poor. I believe we should be asking not to what extent we should be sending more aid, or growing the welfare state, or whether trickle down economics works, but how we should be promoting different ways to tackle poverty and exclusion, with different means of delivery and different objectives. And to what extent initiatives should be locally inspired and administered rather than top-down and State-directed.

That is why through my political group the European Conservatives and Reformists, I last year organised a Global Summit on Poverty, looking at local community non-State Solutions for Fighting Poverty.

My parents instilled a sense of ambition in me, so I make no excuse for hoping that the event can be the first step towards a profound and lasting re-examination of the causes of poverty and how we can best address it. Ultimately I hope we can redraw the scope of what we mean by aid and redefine how we can tackle poverty as individuals and communities, rather than exclusively as nations and states or through global NGOs.

I am not naive enough to think that we don’t need a welfare state or large NGOs. They clearly play an important role in helping the poor, but it’s time we championed the heroes in local communities across the world who are tackling problems in their neighbourhoods with little recognition.  Championing local community solutions may be one area where community co-operative Socialists on the Left and community Conservatives or localist Libertarians on the Right are able to agree.

At our conference, we had video messages from former Australian PM Tony Abbott, broadcaster John Humphrys and former Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

A panel on Poverty: the Reality, and Hidden Causes included Alex Le Vey of the London Community Foundation Andy Cook of the Centre for Social Justice.

Another on poverty policy featured Duncan Parker, of the Frederick’s Foundation, which provides loans to financially-excluded entrepreneurs, and Bob Woodson of the Woodson Center, formerly the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

Keynote speaker was Michael D. Tanner, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, who has written about developing innovative solutions to poverty and inequality.

A series of speakers also give short addresses about their own projects applying personal solutions to poverty.

We heard about a Church project for helping the homeless in Rotterdam, a retraining and education programme in rural Romania, a cycling scheme delivering food prepared by refugees in Cairo, a refugee project in Malaysia and many others. All home-grown and volunteer led, all producing long-term change.

Of course our conference changes nothing overnight. We may never truly eradicate poverty. But that should not stop us trying – or from looking hard at whether our efforts so far have been as effective as they should be.

Jesus of Nazareth may have cautioned that “The poor you will always have with you”, but he was not telling anyone to leave them to it; or to leave stones unturned in seeking the best ways to help.

Syed Kamall has represented London as a Member of the European Parliament since 2005. He became Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament in June 2014, and Co-Chairman in July 2017.