Testing the New Resolve

By Ray Waddle

The Broadway stage doesn’t usually subject audiences to a painful ethical meditation on poverty.

But that’s what theatergoers got a couple of years ago with The Fever, a scripted monologue by a man of affluence who sits in a comfortable chair and ponders aloud why the rich world’s good intentions fail to improve the lives of poor people.

The play, written by Wallace Shawn, is unflinching. It is keen to expose a core dishonesty in modern life: we believe we are decent and generous people, when in fact we are assiduous exploiters of the poor. Our privileges and purchasing power depend on their continual poverty.

“We need the poor,” the narrator declares, staring at us. “Without the poor to get the fruit off the trees, to tend the excrement under the ground, to bathe our babies on the day they’re born, we couldn’t exist. Without the poor to do awful work, we would spend our lives doing awful work. If the poor were not poor, if the poor were paid the way we’re paid, we couldn’t afford to buy an apple, a shirt, we couldn’t afford to take a trip, to spend a night at an inn in a nearby town.”

Lecturing the Poor

He includes himself in his indictment. He was raised to love beautiful things, be cheerful, and have sympathy for the less fortunate. But his sympathy doesn’t actually help the poor, he admits. He could choose to give them his money, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t want them knocking on his door. No one does. Instead, we lecture the poor, telling them that reforms must be gradual, not sudden, not revolutionary, not violent. We set the terms. The poor must wait, and wait.

Staggering out of the theater, I was impressed by his relentless logic that says modern economies make conflict inevitable between rich and poor. Is it even possible to have an ethical relationship with the greater world? That’s what The Fever asks.

Yet how different is today’s mental climate from the atmosphere of the play, which was written twenty years ago amid Cold War gloom, when communist revolution was still plausibly debated as a solution to poverty.

Today, the world’s anxious list of threats no longer puts proletarian revolution at the top. (Global warming and nuclear terrorism, yes; dialectical materialism, no.) This shift since the Soviet Union’s demise has changed the very debate about poverty. It has become far more optimistic.

The spread of global capitalism and internet media has turned poverty into an entrepreneurial challenge. We talk now of microcredit, wealth creation, fair trade, debt forgiveness, immunization campaigns, interconnectivity, and anti-malarial bed nets, not communist manifestos.

The spread of global capitalism and internet media has turned poverty into an entrepreneurial challenge. We talk now of microcredit, wealth creation, fair trade, debt forgiveness, immunization campaigns, interconnectivity, and anti-malarial bed nets, not communist manifestos. Even as the global gap between rich and poor has widened scandalously in the last generation, at least some regions have reduced poverty in the wake of global prosperity. This has given the debate a shot of businesslike uplift that is alien to The Fever’s despairing conclusions. The new assumption is: the globalized world can help poor people, and they can help themselves. 

The book The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (2007) by economist Paul Collier exhibits the change. The title gives the poverty debate a new metaphor, and the text offers some tough-minded, plainspoken analysis. The bottom billion are the extremely poor who live in fifty-eight nations that are desperately stuck. They are falling behind, he says, and sometimes falling apart.

The successes of the Millennium Development Goals in other (less) poor nations obscure the festering failures of the bottom billion. The bottom includes Chad and several other African nations; also Haiti, Bolivia, Laos, Yemen, and the Central Asian countries. The rest of the world, interconnected as never before, will eventually suffer if these continue to suffer.

A Rescue Mission?

Some are failing because of civil wars, coups, or bad governance, or because they are resource-poor and land-locked in a bad neighborhood. But their problems are not hopeless. They are fixable, but it will take a combination of strategies – smarter use of aid (to build up infrastructure and reverse capital flight), fairer trade policies, possibly military intervention. It will require a change of attitude by everyone.

Collier has stern words for ideologues. The left, he says, needs to get over its suspicion of growth. The right needs to overcome its suspicion of aid. Problems of the bottom billion require both aid and growth, help from the world community but also commitments from the very poor nations themselves to take responsibility for their futures.

“Let me be clear: we cannot rescue them,” he writes. “The societies of the bottom billion can only be rescued from within. In every society of the bottom billion there are people working for change, but usually they are defeated by the powerful internal forces stacked against them. We should be helping the heroes. So far, our efforts have been paltry: through inertia, ignorance, and incompetence, we have stood by and watched them lose.”

In this wired world of pragmatic expectations, scrutiny of the lives of the poor has never been more energized: it’s in everyone’s self-interest to know them better. “The poor” are no longer such a distant abstraction. They are part of the global conversation. Novelist William Vollmann captured some of that spirit with his non-fiction book Poor People (2007), his narrative glimpse into the daily lives of the poor (he interviewed, paid, and befriended dozens of people).

“Why are you poor?” was his customary opening question, whether in Bogotá, Bangkok, or Miami. Answers from the street varied. “Because too few people own too much money.” “We suffer because our ancestors were guilty.” “Some people are fast thinkers and some are slow thinkers. The fastest make the most money.” “Epilepsy.” “Lack of documents.” “Because I’m a drunk.” “Allah gives and He takes.” “Half destiny, half character.”

Some critics were puzzled by Vollman’s far-flung exertions. (“What’s the point exactly?”) But the result testifies to real people who are more thoughtful and resilient than prejudices about them allow.

Poor people are observed more systematically in Portfolios of the Poor, a study of the spending habits of hundreds of impoverished families abroad (see excerpt, p. 19). They are remarkably resourceful and eager for better financial services, the authors discovered.

This undoubtedly ensures further evolution and influence of the microcredit industry, which in the last thirty years opened the financial world to the disenfranchised by making small loans to poor entrepreneurs. As microfinance matures, key themes will center on broadening its services, reforming abuses, providing better assessments of results, and adapting to relentless economic change in order to give poor people a claim on the world’s riches.

The hazard of any discussion about poverty is the risk of being too abstract or too anecdotal, too sentimental about the poor or too unfeeling. The Fever’s warning still haunts: the rich world ruthlessly calls the shots and does what it wants on its own time-table. At issue is whether current optimism about eliminating poverty will wilt before the usual powerful obstructionism and habitual inertia – or create a historic breakthrough for human civilization.

Ray Waddle is editor-in-chief of Reflections.