Friday, May 17, 2013

"The Root Causes of Poverty" -- Have We Got It All Wrong?

The End of Poverty
The End of Poverty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've been thinking about wealth and poverty and why the West prospers and other societies/cultures languish.

You hear about "the root causes of poverty"; the analysis generally blames the wealthy and the West for being oppressive and exploitive. In other words, "it's not their fault -- it's ours". I'm thinking nations and societies here, not so much individuals, but they come into play as well.

But what if poor nations are poor because they simply don't have the cultural characteristics that tend towards wealth creation and preservation? I suspect that most of the well-meaning remedies will fail because they are based on wealth-creating assumptions, attitudes, predispositions, and values that may not be present in the host culture.

I think we've been going about it the wrong way. I've seen tons of money fall through Africa's hands and it remains as poor as ever. Here's a thought: money is not the answer to poverty, and those "Make Poverty History" signs, directed at the West, are pointed in the wrong direction.

Instead of studying the root causes of poverty, we should study the root causes of wealth, and then assess poor countries/individuals against those criteria. Why does resource-rich Zambia languish and resource-zero Singapore prosper?

I did a Google search. The phrase "root causes of poverty" gets 1.5 million hits. The phrase "root causes of wealth" gets 20,000. I noticed these hits were in the context of a longer phrase "root causes of wealth and poverty". When poverty is subtracted out of this phrase, the number of hits are, are you ready for this? -- thirty-eight. As in 3-8. So, the analysis goes 1.5 million to 38 in favor of explicating root causes of poverty rather than wealth.

I think we're going about it the wrong way. Someone should research and write a book called "The Root Causes of Wealth".

Does anyone else think I might be on the right track here?

And that's the way the Ball bounces.
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11 comments:

Joe said...

Dang it Richard your Christian world view is showing again. If you believe as Richard and I believe that "All have fallen and come short of the Glory" then you look to the good for inspiration and ideas. If, on the other hand, you believe that mankind is good but circumstances make things go awry then you look at what is wrong and thus make it twice as bad.

RkBall said...

Joe -- When I am in an African straw-hutted village, the thing that seems amazing is not their poverty -- this life seems entirely natural -- but the West's amazing ascendancy over nature and creation of wealth. Where did skyscrapers come from?! I think we in the West lose sight of the stupendous, almost miraculous society we have created.

Anon1152 said...

" Someone should research and write a book called "The Root Causes of Wealth"."

The book may have been written in 1776.

I'm thinking of Adam Smith's "An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations".

Anon1152 said...

"But what if poor nations are poor because they simply don't have the cultural characteristics that tend towards wealth creation and preservation? "

I'm suspicious of these sorts of explanations.

If you go back in history (post WWII) you can find people talking about Japanese culture, and how inferior it was, and how they'd never be able to work like Westerners. Then Japan experienced an incredible economic boom after WWII (and despite economic problems of the last two decades or so, it's still one of the wealthiest societies in the world). What was the explanation for that success? Japanese culture.

Years ago I read an article about this. I can't for the life of me find it now. I'm still looking. If I find it I'll let you know.

RkBall said...

Hi 1152.

"What was the explanation for that success? Japanese culture."

And in saying this you have just supported my point.

Japan was willing to "repent" and, like Singapore, start at the bottom -- accepting low wages, etc. until it built itself into a powerhouse. I would argue that Confucian values are a good cultural foundation for wealth creation.

Thanks for weighing in.

Anon1152 said...

Can we distinguish between cultural explanations and political explanations? Political decisions were made (many of them by the United States) that surely had an effect on Japan's post war success.

RkBall said...

Well, political decisions emanate and are sustained or thwarted by culture, so, I don't know. What I do know is the West can take over a failed country, institute Western institutions, let the country go, and it can flop, big-time, because of culture. Think: Africa.

RkBall said...

1152: re: Wealth of nations. Modern nation-states are themselves largely a western construct. There were no nations in Africa until the West arrived. Guys like Churchill (whom I admire) created nations the way we might make decisions playing a board game.

Anon1152 said...

"What I do know is the West can take over a failed country, institute Western institutions, let the country go, and it can flop, big-time, because of culture. Think: Africa."

OK. I agree with you as far as it goes. But I'm not sure how far it goes. There were very specific policies put in place after WWII to ensure that Germany and Japan prospered. And there was one good reason for the USA to ensure that these states prospered: the USSR.

How much money time and effort was expended on Germany and Japan, and how much was spent on Africa? I think that if we looked into this further, we'd see a big difference.

Africa was a land that colonial powers wanted to gobble up for themselves. I think the motivations (and specific actions) that were taken in Africa were different than the motivations and actions involved in the rebuilding of Germany and Japan.

I'm not saying that the same actions in Africa would lead to the same result. Culture does matter. My point is only that in Germany and Japan, the west... tried harder.

Anon1152 said...

By the way: Happy Victoria Day.

RkBall said...

Same to you!

"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"