Poverty Fixation Will Not Solve Global Turmoil - Increasing Opportunity Is Key

30/09/2016 10:17

Last week I joined the rest of the aid world in New York at the first global summit on refugees and migrants to take place alongside the UN General Assembly. Much discussion centred on the horrors continuing to unfold in Syria, as well as Yemen, South Sudan, Iraq and of course the refugee crisis. Rightly so. Globally, there are more than 65 million forcibly displaced people - with more than 21 million formally recognised as refugees. The war in Syria is the worst humanitarian catastrophe for a generation, a tragedy on an unimaginable scale. But although the scale of this turmoil compels our attention, it is all too easy to fall into despair.

The extent of the chaos unfolding in some parts of our increasingly interconnected world is often linked with poverty, inequality and rising disparities between rich and poor; and these are major problems. However, framing such complex issues purely in terms of poverty and inequality invariably leads to political pigeonholing which polarises opinion, shuts down debate and prevents us from focusing on the underlying causes. Instead, we should reframe these issues around opportunity. Specifically, the inequity of opportunity.

In the face of current headlines, it is easy to forget that much of our world is better than it has ever been before. Extreme poverty has been cut in half in just two decades, child and maternal death rates have fallen drastically and Africa's growth rate is strong. Within catch-all terms like 'developing countries', 'the Global South' or 'fragile states' we have seen the development of Nairobi's silicon valley, the signing of a peace deal in Colombia, a booming middle class in India and China, unprecedented primary school enrolment worldwide, and Polio all but eradicated. Despite its current travails, Europe is experiencing the most peaceful period in its history. The global trend is upward.

But still, there are many who are left behind: fragile states like Somalia, despite the economic growth being experienced in much of East Africa; pockets of fragility in West Africa's economic powerhouse, Nigeria. And with today's world ever more connected, the people trapped in those places are increasingly aware of progress elsewhere and the opportunities they are being denied.

And in large swathes of the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, it is anger at this exclusion from the opportunities so many of us enjoy that has created a narrative for extremist groups to exploit. Mercy Corps research has shown that anger at injustice, particularly from weak or corrupt government, is a leading reason that young people take up violence. In Nigeria, our research has shown that Boko Haram has taken advantage of youth ambition to become upwardly mobile and respected within their communities.

It is not just poverty that angers these people - it is the injustice that other people have opportunities that they do not. In some cases this pushes them into violent conflict, the leading factor behind refugees and migrants.

So we are faced with a paradox. Today's technologies, access to education, literacy and financial capability should mean that equitable opportunity is more accessible than ever before. They have certainly enabled some great successes. Yet, it is in part those very factors that are fuelling turmoil, by creating a window onto a world of opportunity that many people still cannot reach.

What needs to be done? There are a number of solutions, but we need courage and honesty to pursue them.

Firstly, we need to accelerate the pace and distribution of progress through more inclusive governance. The pace of change is not meeting expectations and its distribution is too uneven. Discrimination, corruption and injustice are a result of weak governance, and this prevents those on the margins having access to the opportunities others enjoy. We must invest in governance models that make people feel included, especially youth, to enable the benefits of globalisation to be more widely shared.

Secondly, we must increase economic investment into fragile environments because without this, the vast quality-of-life gains we have experienced across many geographies will be undermined. Operating in states of fragility and volatility is certainly more risky, but businesses can seek out new growth markets while working to stem instability which can affect established markets. Local and regional businesses can contribute to and benefit from domestic growth and stability, and expand their reach and their social impact by partnering with development NGOs and working with governments where appropriate.

In truth, these solutions have been identified for some time, but here is where courage and honesty are required. Working on governance and investment in fragile states is complex, uncertain and risky. It is likely that many efforts will not immediately succeed. It is possible that in pursuit of lasting solutions, taxpayer-funded aid money will not have the fully desired effect.

When that happens, politicians and the tax-paying public must have the courage to accept that with risk sometimes comes failure - but that failure, combined with a commitment for learning and transparency, is acceptable and can result in longer term success. We accept this in the private sector; we should accept it in the aid sector too.

In turn, aid professionals like me must have the honesty to talk about how difficult and complex these problems are. We should not oversimplify what we do in search of funding, nor overclaim our successes. Sometimes a simple message about alleviating poverty is appropriate, but sometimes it obscures the deeper reality - that it is inequity of opportunity that is driving much of the turmoil we see daily on our television screens.

With this knowledge, and with courage and honesty, we must build on the rhetoric of the New York meeting to identify practical solutions. In today's globalised world, where instability in one place can affect stability in another, we must find ways for all individuals to access opportunity, so they can contribute and achieve irrespective of where they were born.