Poor countries are disproportionately affected by domestic war and other forms of conflict. The World Bank acknowledges that “on average, a country that experiences major violence has a poverty rate significantly higher than a country that had no violence.” The ten poorest countries, as reported by the World Bank in 2019, have a GDP per capita of less than USD 600. The list includes war-ridden countries such as Sudan, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of course, there are outliers – Malawi and Sierra Leone, for example, ranked 59th and 46th, respectively, on the Global Peace Index. The index weighs factors including a country’s level of violent crime, political terror, conflicts fought, and percentage of displaced people. Of the top ten richest countries represented on the Global Peace Index, all but one ranked in the top 27th. Four ranked within the top ten, with Iceland placing 1st. This stark contrast paints a harsh picture of the relationship between wealth and peace.
The first of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” The World Bank reported a decrease in global poverty of approximately 26% between 1990 and 2015. These years saw nearly 1.1 billion people leave extreme poverty (began earning more than USD 1.90 a day). Increased productivity and the expansion of the middle class are largely responsible for this reduction in global poverty.
However, COVID-19 raises serious concerns that this progress may be reversed. It is likely that those who can least afford to weather it will feel the global recession the most. The United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research predicts that the pandemic is likely to increase global poverty by 500 million people – 8% of the global population. Further, the World Bank estimates that between 40-60 million people may fall into the category of extreme poverty.
Not enough is being done to eradicate poverty and create a more equitable distribution of resources. According to the United Nations, nearly one in every ten employed workers lived in extreme poverty in 2018. Approximately 20,000 people die every day from malnutrition when the earth has enough resources to feed the world one and a half times over. In 2017, Oxfam, a charitable organization, revealed that the “world’s richest 1% get 82% of the [world’s] wealth.” Oxfam also claimed that the 22 wealthiest men on earth have more wealth than all the women in Africa – of which there are over 500 million.
The UN Millennium Project found that poor countries are “more likely to have weak governments.” Weak government institutions positively reinforce poverty because state institutions rely on public funding to maintain public goods, such as education, trade regulations, the justice system, police forces, and healthcare. When state institutions are insufficiently funded, the goods they can provide to the public are limited. In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked 191 countries’ health system performance. In that same year, the ten countries with the lowest GDP per capita all ranked lower than 143rd place. Myanmar and Sierra Leonne ranked 190th and 191st, respectively. Without the resources to enable taxpayers to prosper, public institutions further diminish their source of income, trapping poor countries in a vicious cycle.
“Poor and hungry societies are much more likely than high-income societies to fall into conflict over scarce vital resources, such as watering holes and arable land,” says the UN Millennium Project. In 1997, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hurdled into a civil war. In that same year, DRC also experienced its lowest GDP per capita (USD 140) since it gained independence in 1960. Militia groups and the country’s military fought for control over the country’s east, and although the war technically ended in 2004, internal conflict continues. Many militia groups extract the county’s natural resources, particularly coltan, which is plentiful in DRC. Tantalum, which is extracted from coltan, is a common – and, therefore, highly sought-after – component in electrical devices like mobile phones. Guerillas have exploited these resources to fund weapon purchases. In 2012, the United States implemented the Dodd-Frank Act to ban companies from using “conflict materials” like tantalum. However, this had the unintended consequence of increasing unemployment in the industry. As their poverty worsened, many of the newly unemployed workers were driven to join militia groups instead.
Poverty is not the only cause of war. A country’s socio-political environment, its history, or its geography may all be factors. Wars also often have a religious or ethnic component. Whether poverty is a cause of war or merely a symptom, it reinforces the likelihood of internal conflict.
The cost of poverty is too high. Poverty is intolerable on its own. Paired with an increased likelihood of war, it is beyond unjustifiable. It is relatively easier for developed countries to look inward and prioritize inequalities at home. However, it is a global responsibility to eliminate all forms of poverty, everywhere. To eradicate poverty, world leaders must first let go of their nationalistic ideologies. Barack Obama once said, “As the wealthiest nation on Earth, I believe the United States has a moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition, and to partner with others.” This “we are all in this together” philosophy will be essential if the world has any hope of achieving the United Nation’s target of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030.
Changing the world’s wealth distribution will rely heavily on rich countries. The developed world holds an inequitable amount of wealth. Free from political or religious motives, privileged countries should work collaboratively to raise the standard of living in the poorest countries. This will mean less money to spend on domestic issues. However, in perspective, it makes sense for the world to focus its resources on those who need them most. This is not to say developed countries should not spend public money at home – they should. It is to say that where first world countries can go without, they should, to help their neighbors. The biggest barrier to this approach is the peoples’ capacity for compassion. Compassion will dictate the sacrifices people are willing to endure. In turn, this will influence the countries’ political will to substantially help those in need.
Billionaires are a first world problem, but they affect us all. A large proportion of the world’s wealth is heavily concentrated on a small percentage of the upper class. According to an analysis by Forbes, the top 10 richest men hold more wealth than many countries, the likes of Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Turkey, and Belgium included. One person should not legally be allowed to have more money than they can spend, while another does not have enough to eat. Ending the era of billionaires would drastically narrow the income inequality gap.
Beyond all else, people must believe they can lift the world out of poverty. The world has already achieved more than it thought possible. International newspaper The Economist reported in 2017 that “someone escapes extreme poverty every 1.2 seconds.” In 2015, 1.1 billion fewer people were living in extreme poverty than there were in 1950. That should be evidence enough that change is possible.
Eradicating global poverty is not insurmountable. It will be hard. But it is necessary.
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