Lessons Learned: The Global Poverty Act

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SEATTLE — The Global Poverty Act, introduced to the House of Representatives in 2007 by Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) and to the Senate by then Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), failed to pass having never come up for a vote in the Senate.

The Act would have required sitting presidents “to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to further…the elimination of extreme global poverty, and the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing by one-half the proportion of people worldwide…who live on less than $1 per day”. The Act also stipulated that the U.S. would spend 0.7 percent of its annual GDP on foreign aid.

Though the bill passed in the House and through the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, it died in the Senate at the end of the session without making it onto the legislative schedule. Though the failure of the Act was a blow for foreign aid activists and people living in poverty around the globe, the current movement for poverty relief can still learn from this failure.

Opponents have proven themselves willing to praise the idea of poverty relief, while scrutinizing allocations for aid even more than domestic spending. In response to the Global Poverty Act, conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation released the following statement in 2008: “The goal of reducing poverty is admirable and is rightly included among the priorities of U.S. foreign assistance. However, the U.S. should not adopt a policy…of elevating poverty-alleviation efforts above other priorities for U.S. foreign assistance…”

Proponents of foreign aid must be prepared to defend aid allocations as a priority among foreign policy goals. Poverty alleviation is linked to greater economic development and security in the international community. Speaking to this point, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that “development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers”. Additionally, increased spending power in the hands of people struggling with poverty translates to immediate economic stimulation.

This case must be made in Congress and to the general public if poverty relief legislation is to stand a fighting chance of passing. Advocates of aid legislation should be prepared to debate those who insist the U.S. should get something in return for aid in the form of policy changes in foreign countries. Assistance provided on the stipulation the receiving country will concede to trade allowances with foreign nations could compromise the integrity of U.S poverty relief efforts.

As asserted by the Heritage Foundation in its response to the Global Poverty Act, the U.S. “…should emphasize the importance of good policy in development, including economic freedom, good governance, and the rule of law.” However, these priorities should not come at the expense of aid. Without dealing with the day-to-day crush of hunger and poverty, progress on corruption and good governance will be severely limited.

The inclusion of economic development aid in legislation cannot be understated, not only to be successful in the real world but to pass the gauntlet of critics barring legislation. Even critics of the Global Poverty Act agreed the chief means of combating poverty is through economic development. Successful aid legislation must take this into account in the future.

New studies on poverty relief have revealed aid is successful when it takes the form of assets, training and cash. Immediate sustenance of poverty-stricken people gives them time to learn the skills necessary to support themselves. By combining this approach with the distribution of productive assets like livestock, economic stimulation can be achieved through aid.

The failure of the Global Poverty Act almost ten years ago paved the way for a greater understanding of poverty-relief legislation. By learning from the failure of this piece of legislation and others like it, proponents of ending global poverty can increase their effectiveness in the future.

Will Sweger

Photo: Flickr

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Will Sweger

Will Sweger is a freelance writer living in Seattle. Previously, he served as a US Army infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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