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Saturday, 23 March, 2002, 16:40 GMT
Poverty: Can it be eradicated?
Kirsty Lang put your questions to Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement and Ian Vasquez of the Cato Institute in Washington, in a live forum on BBC 4 - the new digital channel from the BBC.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:


Political leaders from around the world are gathering in Monterrey, Mexico this week to discuss how to reduce world poverty.

Their aim at the special development summit is to provide the resources needed to reduce poverty and improve health and education in poor countries - and meet the Millennium development goals agreed by the United Nations two years ago.

The conference is also being seen as a test as to whether the new spirit of international cooperation against terrorism will be extended to tackle world poverty.

Do you think that international cooperation can reduce poverty in poorer countries? What aims would you like to see achieved at the development summit?


Hello and welcome. I'm Kirsty Lang and this is a special BBC 4 World Forum. We'll be taking some of your questions and comments through e-mail and text messages on the UN development summit which has just taken place in Monterrey, Mexico. We're going to be talking about global poverty and aid with our two guests - Barry Coates, of the World Development Movement, he's here in London with me, and in Washington Ian Vasquez of the Cato Institute.

I'm going to kick off with a question that's just come in. Rizwan in Dubai, although he says he's actually from Pakistan, obviously living in Dubai, this is directed at Barry Coates, I'll put it to you, and his question is: "Aid, aid, aid please don't give us aid, give us real access to your markets and access to all kinds of education please." Barry.

Barry Coates:
Kirsty I agree. I mean the issue of access to trade is vitally important for most of the developing countries but at the same time the poorer countries don't have the capacity to be able to take advantage of the trading opportunities and so then they're at the stage of needing the infrastructure, needing the healthcare, needing the education that would be able to get their economy to the stage of being able to even think about exporting or trading globally. And much of the developing world is still in a position where they cannot take advantage of trade opportunities that are already on offer and so aid has a unique and vital role to play, perhaps not in Dubai but certainly in many of the poorest countries.

Just briefly, Megan Gash, from the USA, says: "Do you think that countries will try and direct foreign aid towards more specific campaigns now, such as AIDS treatment or polio vaccinations since they seem to be a bit more successful than just donating money to Third World nation governments?"

Barry Coates:
I think we will see a rise to that. In the last G8 summit, the world leaders' summit in - last year in Genoa, there was say a health fund, particularly for addressing issues like HIV AIDS, unfortunately what happened was it was severely under-funded. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, had called for $10 billion and less than 2 billion was actually committed. So if these issues are to be followed through and we are to target aid on solving specific problems then it's got to be adequately funded and I'm afraid the history of such initiatives is one of kind of announcing a major new initiative and then not following through, not funding it and not changing the policy on the issues, such as, for example, on HIV AIDS, the policies on drugs and the pharmaceutical companies rights to patents and it's important that there be changes to policies as well as just ....

I'm just going to cut you off there because we're going to go - I've got a question to you Ian Vasquez at the Cato Institute in Washington, who is behind me sorry, you don't know that but I do. Your question is from Luminita Dirna in Romania, she says: "I believe the millennium goal of halving poverty by 2015 is completely unrealistic, so I'd first like to see the money put towards ending the numerous civil wars and unrest tearing apart countries all over the world, from Colombia to Algeria." So do you think that the goal is unrealistic - ending poverty by 2015?

Ian Vasquez:
No I don't think that the goal is unrealistic. We've seen countries reduce their poverty rates dramatically, especially over the past 10-20 years, China alone in the past 20 years has reduced the number of people living in poverty by more than 100 million people, that is unprecedented in world history both in its scope and the time period that it has been done. The big advantage for poor countries today is that they can achieve the same types of advances in reducing mass poverty that it took rich countries a hundred years to achieve, they can achieve these gains in 10 or 15 or 20 years, within one generation. So the goals are not realistic, I think that the methods that are being proposed at the UN summit are, that is to try to achieve this through foreign aid and it's just patently false that developments cannot occur without foreign aid, rich countries did it and China has done it without having to rely on foreign aid, even though they've received some, it hasn't been the key.

Ian Vasquez, actually both of you, I think if you can make your answers a little bit shorter, so we get some more questions from our listeners here. I've got two here, Barry for you, Blake from the USA and Vernon Keeble from England, first of all on similar topics here, Blake from the USA says: "The West has already poured a trillion dollars into the poor nations while the dictators and corrupt bureaucrats get wealthier, the people continue to suffer." And on the same theme, Vernon Keeble from England says: "Isn't it about time the West gave up trying to help Africa, it's just a bottomless pit?"

Barry Coates:
I agree with the first point - a lot of aid is wasted, there's been a lot of aid given to corrupt dictators, if you look at what the IMF and the World Bank and the US government and rich world governments have given a lot of money to Mabutu and Suharto and Marcos and other dictators to squirrel away and waste. Nobody defends that kind of aid but then to take that and say that aid can't make a difference and we can't reform aid is actually to give up without even trying and the key thing is to make aid work for the recipients not for the donors. And too much aid is spent in the interests of the countries giving the aid, rather than in the countries receiving the aid and that's the change that we need to achieve if aid is to really make a difference.

Thank you Barry. Back to you Ian in Washington, this is a question from Peter in the UK. He says: "I think Kofi Annan is right to initiate a war on poverty as that's the root cause of terrorism and an awful lot of people's quality of life is going to be improved by this effort." What do you think about that?

Ian Vasquez:
Well let's hope so. I don't think that anybody is against going after poverty and going after terrorism but again the methods used are important here and it is not at all clear that the case for aid is one where it will reduce terrorism - that case has not been made. We have been, over the past 50 years, trying as the West to reduce poverty through aid and that hasn't worked. We do know what reduces poverty and that's economic growth based on economic liberty but you don't need foreign aid to change your policies, you just have to change them and country after country has shown that.

Thank you Ian. Back to you Barry - Bikul Das from Canada says: "I've struggled from poverty when I was a child in India but we fought back and struggled hard to earn money and get an education, my family refused aid from the Government."

Barry Coates:
Yeah, I mean when aid works well it is a hand up not a hand out and I think that's really important to understand, that it's not about welfare it's actually about helping people to help themselves and that's when aid works well. But what's happened too often with aid is the conditions that have applied, that have been attached to aid, has been the sorts of things that Ian has been talking about from Washington, about kind of economic liberalisation. For the last 20 years the IMF and the World Bank has forced the poorest countries to go through these wrenching structural adjustment programmes on policies designed from Washington DC and they have patently failed.

Ok, another one for you Ian, Don in New Zealand, he says: "Whenever I'm asked to give to charity I say ask the rich first. A few million would set the charities on the right road, they shouldn't be asking the rest of us."

Ian Vasquez:
Well everybody should be able to make their choice as to how they want to help the poor and in fact Americans are very, very generous about that in terms of private giving and I think that what - there is a level of scepticism here in the United States however in terms of how best to achieve that and that scepticism is about the government being able to achieve that - whether it's direct from the USAID or the World Bank or the IMF, organisations that have time and again tried to impose conditions on poor countries but as Africa clearly shows those conditions have been ignored yet they continue to receive aid just as has been the case in Russia in the past 10 years.

Ian I've got a couple of questions here on tariffs, one from Bob in Australia and the other is Chris in the UK. Bob says: "The USA and the EU are increasing tariff protection subsidies while at the same time preaching globalisation and free trade for poorer countries." Chris in the UK says: "Mr Bush is wishing to link aid with the establishment of free trade and yet has just put massive import tariffs on steel, what does he want free trade or protectionism?" What do you think Mr Bush wants?

Ian Vasquez:
Well I think he's trying to have it both ways and he has lost a lot of credibility and it's going to be incredibly difficult for him to try to look other foreign leaders in the eye and tell them to reduce their trade barriers when he himself is not willing to do so in the richest country in the world.

Barry what would you answer to that question - that President Bush wants free trade or protectionism?

Barry Coates:
I think it's obvious that there's deep hypocrisy, that free trade is what other people ought to do and they ought to open their markets to US companies and the US won't do the same in return. And what we see is that this is not about who's right and who's wrong but it's about the exercise of power. This is an international system where the US acts as bully and unfortunately the EU does as well. And what we have is a situation where they're telling developing countries that they ought to go through the kind of economic reforms that they're not prepared to undertake themselves. And again it has been very damaging for the poorest countries in the world to have to undertake these kind of massive liberalisation policies. If you look at countries like China they have grown while remaining one of the most regulated economies in the world and history after history - Vietnam reduced poverty and that's still a country with a heavy degree of government intervention, the same with South Korea, the same with Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia etc.

I've got another one now for you Barry from Rodney in Norway, he says: "Development's not just a question of aid, it's a question of responsibility by leaders. The arms industry is one of the West's most profitable industries, how much will a reduction or stoppage of arms exports - could you put that money into health or education for instance?"

Barry Coates:
It would make a huge difference. I mean the sorts of arms deals are not only bad economically they are of course fuelling conflict and the kind of arms deals that the richest countries are promulgating around the world are absolutely reprehensible at the time that they're saying that they want to improve global security and reduce conflict. Again this is deep hypocrisy.

And a final question to Ian at the Cato Institute in Washington, it's from Ben Proctor in the USA and Ben says: "The scientists tell us there are enough resources in the world to feed, clothe and house the world population, the problem is distribution - unless the richer countries start to give up their luxuries and stop using the Third World as a source of cheap labour we'll make little progress towards ending poverty."

Ian Vasquez:
Actually that's not what the science tell us. What it tells us is that there's plenty of food to go around but that the policies of the world inhibit poor people from being productive, from making choices, from having the liberty to acquire and to produce the types of things that increase their prosperity. At the same time there are some policies in the United States and in Europe which make it more difficult for poor countries to grow crops and to feed the rest of the world but the problem is not one of resources, it's one of economic freedom and the best place to start for poor countries in changing their polices is right at home.

Now I've just got one final one actually that I want to put to both of you and it's a point that's been raised by John Tibadeau in Canada and Seth Chanowitz of the USA. John Tibadeau says: "Just imagine the elegant state dinners and various extravaganza of patronage appointees gathered from all over the world to stuff their bellies in the name of helping the poor, it's grotesque." He's obviously referring to the summit in Monterrey and this is backed up by Seth Chanowitz saying: "One cannot help but be cynical when yet another conference about poverty is held in a nice resort in Mexico." It is a bit hypocritical isn't it Barry?

Barry Coates:
Yeah it's agreed. I mean it's not to say though that there shouldn't be conferences about poverty but what we ought to do is start to treat it much more seriously and start to be a little bit more coherent because what isn't on the agenda here is debt for example, the fact that many of the poorest countries are labouring under massive debt. What isn't on the agenda here is these unfair trade rules that we've been talking about. And instead the way to address poverty is seeming to reduce it to a little bit of aid money which, by the way, just restores aid to what it was 10 years ago and we need something far more comprehensive and something far more coherent. So if they're going to justify their lavish dinners they need to come up with something a lot better than we've seen so far.

And Ian what do you finally think about these lavish dinners in the rather pleasant resort of Monterrey?

Ian Vasquez:
They're probably quite nice but I think it's a metaphor for the self-serving nature of these types of summits where aid bureaucracies and aid consultancies and even big businesses that benefit from aid contracts come and propose programmes that are self-serving, especially after 50 years of failure, 50 years of having very little to show for the aid that is already being spent. So there's very little accountability in the system - to this day the World Bank will not allow an outside agency to audit its projects and its lending and there's a problem with that.

Well thank you, I'm afraid that's all we've got time for. Thank you to our guests Barry Coates and Ian Vasquez and thank you for all your questions and comments. You've been watching a special BBC 4 World Forum with me Kirsty Lang and until next time goodbye.

See also:

21 Mar 02 | Business
More aid urged for world's poor
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