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Millennium goals being missed

The world’s leaders are gathering at the UN in New York this week to review progress towards the millennium development goals set in 2000. New figures released by the World Bank reveal that 1.4 billion people are now living in _blank”extreme poverty, or a quarter of the entire population of the developing world. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has singled out rich countries for failing to raise aid levels as promised. If only things were that simple.

Aid from first world governments to third world ones is especially pernicious. First world tax systems, despite being notionally related to ability to pay, are in practice only so for the poor and not-quite poor, who cannot pay for advice to enable them to exploit the loopholes in their countries tax systems.

Nor does development necessarily help the poor in the developing countries, any more than it did in Europe in the period after the industrial revolution. With each successive wave of technical development, from the advent of steam power, railways, internal combustion, electricity, information technology and communications technology, the productive power of labour was increased manyfold. But it did not produce a commensurate increase either in wages or in the return to capital. Wages remained stuck at the minimum that labour would accept.

Poverty comes with progress

The end product was that landowners became very wealthy and a mass of poor grew up, who were unable to alleviate their situation whatever they did. The situation which was alleviated in just a few places, by social democratic governments. Even in the most successful of these, Sweden, the situation has been sliding back for the past thirty years and inequality is growing. The drastic Marxist attempts to deal with the the gap between rich and poor could only be implemented by establishing police states and terrorising the population. Marxism succeeded only in making everyone poor.

The persistence and intractability of poverty as economic development took place was predicted and explained by the neglected economist Henry George in his book Progress and Poverty. But unless developing countries acknowledge the problem and act on it, official aid is a process for soaking the poor in first world countries, to enrich the privileged in the developing world.

Rich countries – poor people

Many “poor” countries are rich in natural resources. As a rich country with well off people, Norway is the exception. The Swedes do nicely on next to nothing. Oil did not abolish poverty in Britain. Many people in oil rich Saudi Arabia are dirt poor. Nor have mineral resources done anything for the poor in African countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Congo, Nigeria. There are other poor countries that are simply sub-marginal, for example they are mostly desert or so mountainous that it is difficult extract a livelihood, and one must ask why people have been forced out to live in such places.

There are futher questions, such as what sort of development is sustainable. It is not necessary to believe in the greenhouse effect to appreciate that pressure on natural resources is growing as increased demand is not being met by increased supply. The most accessible sources of minerals and energy are being, or have been, used up. “Developing countries” cannot and should not follow the first world model of getting everyone off the land and into factories and offices, and travelling in cars. On the contrary, the developed countries need to move to a different model.

It is convenient to blame the US, Britain and that unlovely body the World Trade Organisation but there is something else going on too, and it is not just corruption. Clue: ask why there is so much poverty in uncorrupt, developed Europe and the US? We would like events to prove us wrong, but it is not a question that is likely to be asked at the conference, nor is it ever asked by most of those in the anti-poverty lobby-group industry.