Poverty: The Greatest Ethical Challenge Facing the World Today, and a Proposal to Resolve it
by Zhang Ruiwen, Eton College
Entry for Essay Contest 2017, High School
Poverty is the greatest ethical challenge of our time, and almost always tops governments’ list of priorities. Although just coming to the fore of public and academic discourse in the past century, it is an implicit factor in nearly all major issues facing the world today, whether local, regional, or global, from human and drug trafficking to terrorism and, in some cases, war. The alleviation and ultimate eradication of poverty worldwide faces many challenges, but humanity has made great steps over the past few decades in this noble struggle, and, taking this and current poverty alleviation programs into account, there is indeed hope for the future. It is our moral imperative not only to completely destroy poverty but to lift the impoverished to the standard of human dignity-and this is only the beginning.
Poverty is the greatest challenge not only because of the many ethical issues involved in it its spread and the fight against it, but also because of the many other evils that stem from it. It is simple to see that those in poverty are more likely to fall victim to numerous exploitative criminal institutions such as drug and human trafficking, prostitution, and robbery. Sustained poverty also causes an increase in terrorism and war, by forcing those in poverty to fight for scarce resources, or allowing them to be taken advantage of by opportunistic terrorists because of their lack of education and desperate circumstances. Thus, it is clear that poverty is the greatest ethical challenge facing humanity now.
One of the greatest ethical issues involved in the fight against poverty, and one that should be the cause of great shame, is that it is completely preventable, yet still a global menace. This is an issue of social justice. People living in poverty don’t have a choice. No-one wants to constantly struggle through life in such a manner as the impoverished do. Those able to help in any possible way have a moral duty to help the less fortunate–even if some try to paint the impoverished as unwilling to help themselves and undeserving of aid–purely because we can. The issue at hand is not whether we should cut back on support for the impoverished; rather, it is that we must all contribute and fight until those in poverty, regardless of their particular circumstances, are liberated from the cruel grasp of destitution.
Another ethical issue is that of government corruption. Certain organizations, corporations, individuals, and governments are increasingly reluctant to work with other such entities to combat poverty due to the perception of corruption, for fear that some corrupt officials will merely divert the aid resources elsewhere. In many instances, government policy and action, or cooperation with the government, is the only way to alleviate poverty. Thus, corruption is an obstacle to the alleviation and ultimate eradication of poverty.
Extreme population growth is another pertinent ethical issue within the greater ethical issue of poverty. Moderating population growth and damaging poverty-inducing fluctuations in population is thus key to resolving the issue of poverty. Unfortunately, there is huge disagreement on how to go about doing this, with some saying certain methods are unethical.
A government’s duty is to help all its citizens, no matter what. This is the moral and legal basis whence it derives its authority. In a similar vein to the idea of the right to a legal appeal or a minimum wage, the government should be neutral and fair when treating its citizens, all of whom should be viewed as equal in dignity. With great power, comes great responsibility. It is clear that those in poverty are suffering, and thus greatly deserving of the government’s help. Moreover, although some might consider public measures as stifling economic growth under some circumstances, they greatly contribute to, among other things, equitable distribution of income and thus the degree of moral standing of a country and its society. Thus, the issue is the abundance of capacity to resolve the problem, but the lack of political will to do so.
Furthermore, poverty leads to many other serious and harmful issues, such as human trafficking, drug trafficking, and social conflict and violence. Thus, also implicit in the inability or unwillingness to alleviate poverty is some inability or unwillingness to solve these issues. Opposition to poverty alleviation takes many forms, from the inactive and those who seek reduction of public assistance, to those who would like it abolished completely. The only way to effectively counter these challenges is to raise awareness on a broad scale.
However, among the very few things our constantly differing global society can agree on, poverty reduction and eradication is one of them, although there are different views on how to achieve this. The fact we can agree on it is already a good start. Given the extent of international intergovernmental cooperation currently existing on issues as broad as economic growth, climate change and refugees, it is thus even easier and just as important to realize such cooperation to tackle as important a moral imperative as poverty.
Furthermore, at the same time as it is a government’s duty to care for its citizens, It is also the individual’s duty to contribute to protecting their community at all levels, from their town to their country, and this means countering poverty at all levels; this could be through using sustainable methods of industry. Regarding the issue of overpopulation and its contributions to poverty, the solution should be a call to engage in discourse in such a way as to ensure policies are carefully crafted not to restrict freedoms, but to provide incentives, such as tax relief and educational resources, that in the aggregate, will help a nation achieve its population goals. It should also become more of a widespread consensus that family planning is the only ethical and moral choice for a society facing the challenge of overpopulation. To do so is not only completely safe and unharmful, but also to put the greater good above the self.
Nevertheless, certain entities are most likely to engage fully in initiatives when it is in their own interest. Because dramatic wealth inequality is a known cause of violence, poverty alleviation on the part of the wealthy and powerful makes this less likely, and therefore contributes to the creation of what Confucius called a harmonious, civilized society (in this worldview, it is the moral duty of the influential and powerful to help those who are weaker.) However, taking a realist view of the world, such entities doing so today would also be to their own benefit. For example, companies have recognized that there is great value to be unlocked in alleviating poverty, not only because of improved reputation’s benefit, but also because moving people just above the poverty line helps to increase consumers for their products and the productivity of their labor force. Companies will always be driven by the profit motive, and thus it would be beneficial for companies to help in alleviating poverty, and as long as this works, it is a valid method.
This also links in with the previously highlighted issue of preventability. Of the many alleviation programs currently in place, three of the most frequently instituted are investment, teaching of basic skills, and direct provision of resources. These can most frequently be performed by governments, corporations, organizations, and individuals. What’s left to strive towards in these areas is merely to increase their efficiency and scope.
Although different countries have different social, cultural, and economic backgrounds, those seeking to resolve poverty in developing countries can look to the Chinese model for inspiration. Since 1979, more than 700 million people have been lifted out of poverty. This has been due to a combination of decreased government and greater participation of market forces, and pro-growth policies that strive to ensure an equal distribution of wealth, among other things, which is possible in all countries. However, we must ensure going forward that poverty hasn't merely been shifted from one place to another, such as a decrease in rural poverty but an increase in urban poverty, or vice versa, as was the case in the US at a time when the financial and manufacturing sectors where booming while the rural agricultural sectors were suffering.
In conclusion, it is clear that poverty is the greatest ethical issue facing mankind today, not only as a root cause of many other ethical issues, but also as one with many sub-issues within itself. Over the past few decades, we have seen that it is indeed possible for poverty to be alleviated and eradicated, on a relatively large scale–China's lifting of more than 700 million people out of poverty from 1979 to 2012 has unquestionably proven this. What's left now is for us to unite and share resources and ideas so that in the not-so-distant future, we can indeed say with great certainty and confidence, that just like fascism and tyranny, poverty has truly been relegated to the dustbin of history.