By:Beth Parish Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables Thomas Farer, Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver opened The Americas Roundtable on Poverty Reduction with an interesting question, “Do citizens have a right to be rescued from extreme poverty by their government?” He challenged the audience to think about whether non-poverty is a right in the way that education, fair and equal treatment under the law, and fair wages are rights.
Farer added the caveat of rescue from poverty within the context of state resources, one’s political leanings, cultural views, social background, and current economic status and concluded that these things could lead one to believe non-poverty is a right or a status to be earned. While not able to resolve this issue, Farer highlighted that no current political or economic system has developed a model that demonstrates a superior way to promote economic rights. John Hickenlooper, Mayor of Denver, echoed Farer and asserted that while poverty is deeply seeded in the U.S. and throughout the hemisphere, no government, non-governmental organization (NGO), non-profit or business working by itself will alleviate poverty. Poverty can only be addressed through the creation of wealth, and collaboration is the key.
A panel made up of former and current ambassadors, a sitting assistant secretary of state, two former heads of state, a journalist, representatives from the non-profit community, and senior leadership representing the for-profit sector, the Poverty Reduction Roundtable brought together individuals who work on a daily basis on poverty reduction issues throughout North and South America. While no one solution was delivered, this esteemed group of panelists did agree that while our region of the world has had great growth and development, the Western Hemisphere continues to have the greatest degree of economic inequality in the world. Ambassador Harriet Babbitt, former Ambassador from the United States to the Organization of American States, highlighted that while we are seeing a decrease in inequality, 20 of the most unequal nations in the world fall in our hemisphere.
The panel discussed public policy, NGO intervention, and for-profit initiatives that have helped address extreme poverty in North and South America. Public policy programs, like conditional cash transfers that offered funds for women for keeping their children in school, were highlighted as successful tools for poverty reduction in several regions. Many panelists mentioned microcredit programs that provide small loans to start businesses, as a means to help with poverty alleviation. While these programs address poverty, it was the former heads of state who brought the conversation back to infrastructure.
Carlos Mesa, former President of Bolivia, stressed that education was the answer to solving extreme poverty in Bolivia and Latin America. As the former President of one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere, Mesa stressed that without quality education and a viable infrastructure, poverty alleviation policies like conditional cash transfers would not work. Alejandro Toledo, the former President of Peru, added that the poor need access to clean water, healthcare, education, and free internet. The Presidents went on to say that while infrastructure needs were important, there must also be a profound respect for human rights, the rule of law, and rights of the press; the fight for human rights gives a voice to the extreme poor. Former President Toledo reminded the audience that the poor have dignity, adapting the adage of teaching a man to fish; he admonished the listeners not to give the fish away because the poor are screaming for the right to learn how to fish.
As a securities analyst, Luanne Zurlo saw, in practice, what the former Presidents were talking about; companies in Latin America did not have an educated labor force from which to hire. With this issue in mind, she is now working on stimulating economic development through the training of great teachers. As the President of Worldfund, Zurlo has seen the direct relationship between quality education and economic growth. Going a step beyond the educational needs Mesa identified, Worldfund believes that the key to poverty alleviation is teacher quality. While there are many teachers in the region who want to do well, many are not given the resources. With a focus on English language skills, science, and math, Zurlo highlighted that these practical skills will help area residents get jobs that will bring economic growth to the region. Playing on the theme of collaboration, Hugo Llorens, the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, challenged the donor population to look at how they can strengthen the community so democracy can thrive and deliver the "goods." While Honduras is coming out of crisis, the public’s faith in politicians, the media, businesses, institutions, and community organizations is low. Education is critical; access to quality healthcare is vital, and citizens need to understand the benefits of free trade, free enterprise, and connections to foreign markets.
Danielle Saint-Lot, from Haiti, is a member of the Vital Voices Global Leadership Network. After the devastating earthquake in January, monies had been committed to help Haiti rebuild. While NGOs have been of some help, they are also part of the problem; instead of non-profit organizations, Saint-Lot advocated for organizations like the Small Business Administration (SBA), Small Business Development Communities (SBDCs), community colleges, and universities. In addition to stimulating business growth, she said the key to the investment in Haiti is the accountability and the enforcement of the existing laws. Saint-Lot said that Haiti does not have a law problem, rather, corruption has caused a law enforcement problem. As other panel speakers noted, infrastructure has also facilitated the poverty problem in her country; poor construction, lack of building code enforcement, and lack of infrastructure exacerbated the fatalities caused by the earthquake.
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield took the infrastructure and education conversation one step further, reminding the audience that countries like Colombia, that are able to move forward and focus on economic development, the plan must be comprehensive. Using the example of a corn farmer, just offering a barrel of corn seed is not enough if the farmer does not know how to grow corn, does not have the tools to plant corn, does not have transportation to get the corn to market, and does not have a road on which to drive. The corn farmer might also fail if he does not have a school for his children, does not have help caring for his elders, and does not have access to healthcare when he is sick. Any economic development plan must comprehensively consider all of these issues. The comprehensive plan is critical for countries like Colombia who are trying to move their farmers away from growing plants used to make illegal drugs. Oscar Morales, Executive President of One Million Voices Foundation in Colombia, noted that the fight to move his country forward, especially when it comes to solving security issues, cannot only be the responsibility of the government. He said, “If only the government is responsible, then the country will not be safe.” Morales used social media as a viable tool to help citizens raise awareness about, and address the specifics of terrorist activities. No current political or economic system has developed a model that demonstrates a superior way to promoteeconomic rights.
On the panel there were calls for progressive taxes that placed the tax burden on the rich and equally fervent calls for less taxes on the rich. One panelist noted that we need more rich people and we should not try to get rid of the rich, but instead, should try to get rid of the poor.
While the panelists did not agree on one path to alleviating poverty in the region, everyone echoed the reoccurring themes of infrastructure, education, healthcare, and business. In addition to these themes, there is agreement that citizens must have trust in public institutions, must understand that corruption exacerbates poverty, and that collaboration between government, business, and the non-profit sector is critical for economic growth.
Beth Parish is working on her Doctorate in Organizational Leadership. In addition to teaching graduate and undergraduate business classes, Beth sits on the board of Rocky Mountain Microfinance and a Colorado based non-profit committed to helping individuals reach self-sufficiency through business ownership.