Imagine a world without poverty. What would it look like? Is it even possible? How do we get there? When people working at foundations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies dive into this topic, they typically do so with the assumption that poverty is just a natural part of the universe. And yet, if they simply looked to the anthropological literature, they would think very differently.
Poverty appeared recently — some 10,000 years ago when we entered the Neolithic Age of agriculture with its permanent human settlements, stratification of wealth and inequality, and the invention of imperial conquest. Poverty doesn’t arise, it is created. It is like all economic systems are built on hoarding behavior and the concentration of power.
The latest news are that over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time, but if we are going to end poverty, we need much more investment, particularly in building human capital, to help promote the inclusive growth it will take to reach the remaining poor.
It may frustrate the many “charity” groups who earn their livings by serving the poor to learn that more schools, trucks filled with food and supplies, and “bandaid” solutions with regard to the spread of disease or violence against women are not going to be enough. We have to bring chronic inequality to an end by radically transforming the paradigms of finance and political power. We have to change the way we sanction moral behavior as a society — before we have any hope of bringing global poverty to an end.
From there, it becomes possible to see many structures of society (e.g. tax havens, corporate subsidies, money-influence in elections, etc.) that help create poverty. But in order to see these structural causes, we must first recognize that poverty itself is a human invention. We create it by design. And by design, we can easily unmake it if we are willing to. Do we want to do it? It is not a question to our organization or other charity organizations and good people in general. It is a questions to all of those people for whom materiality is the highest value of life.