BERKELEY, California — When viewed in its entirety, global poverty can seem like an unbeatable adversary. Every year, public and private interests throw billions of dollars in technological and financial resources at the problem; yet, 80 percent of the planet still lives on less than $10 a day.
What stops these resources from translating into a higher standard of living for the world’s poor? Khalid Kadir, a UC Berkeley lecturer in the International and Area Studies Teaching Program and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, notes that local political constraints often play a key role in limiting how far financial and technological resources go.
“You can’t address poverty without first addressing local political structures,” notes Kadir. “To a very large degree, that determines who gets what, regardless of the amount of money provided by either governments or NGOs.” When local political structures fail to hold government officials accountable, resources are often stolen or offered as patronage.
Local corruption has long plagued poverty reduction efforts. According to the United Nations Development Programme, one trillion dollars (USD) are paid in bribes every year. U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon addressed the effects of local corruption on foreign aid in a 2009 statement for International Anti-Corruption Day, noting, “The vulnerable suffer first and worst.”
The United States has taken significant steps in the way of reducing corruption’s limiting effect on the impact of foreign aid. One example is the Millennium Challenge Account, which requires countries to address corruption and transparency issues before receiving foreign aid.
Corruption, however, is not the only limiting factor in the local distribution of foreign aid. According to Kadir, the competing agendas of local politicians and power brokers also play a major role. Kadir uses the example of passive pond-and-marsh water purification systems to illustrate his point. While such systems are effective, low-tech and seemingly ideal for developing countries, Kadir notes that they are often unattractive options for local politicians: “They’re not the kind of thing local politicians can trumpet. They want their names on big, shiny high-tech water treatment plants. The problem, of course, is that these kinds of facilities are difficult to maintain. That’s why you have derelict water-treatment plants all across Latin America.”
Projects like passive pond-and-marsh systems also run into roadblocks in the form of land availability. Says Kadir, “You need quite a bit of land for the ponds and wetlands, and land tenure in the developing world is often a very complicated issue, typically involving local power brokers who may have differing agendas.”
With so many limitations on the effectiveness of foreign aid, how do we ensure that financial and technological resources are utilized to their full potential? Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, a Global Poverty and Practice Postdoctoral Fellow at the Blum Center at UC Berkeley, believes that cell phones may be the answer: “Mobile phones have disseminated rapidly in the developing world, and they are a powerful tool. They make it much easier to galvanize and mobilize people—they can actually force politicians to take responsibility for their actions.”
According to Opoku-Agyemang, accountability means better use of foreign aid: “If a politician is aware that his actions are monitored, that he is going to face consequences for them, then you can see some fairly good outcomes.”
While technological and financial resources play an important role in poverty reduction, their effectiveness is limited by local politics. Communications, advocacy and ground-level operations can all play a vital role in helping to conquer these limitations.
– Parker Carroll