The history of poverty

I have recently watched a brilliant documentary called Poor us: an animated history, by Ben Lewis.

When we watch the news or read any data about poverty in the world, it’s easy to become skeptical about humans’ ability to eradicate poverty.

According to the World Bank, 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, and a further three billion people live on less than $2 a day. Approximately 600 million children live in extreme poverty, and an estimated 30,000 children die each day due to poverty. Furthermore, around 2.6 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation and about 885 million people do not have access to clean water.

We have all come across these facts… but is there a reason to be skeptical? Is the situation really getting worse?

I have recently watched a brilliant documentary called Poor us: an animated history, by Ben Lewis. The hour-long documentary can be found on YouTube and it’s highly educational. The film takes you on a journey that starts in the stone age and continues through the world’s earliest civilizations, passing through the industrial revolution until it reaches our modern time. The film discusses how poverty and society’s attitude toward poverty have changed throughout history. But most importantly, it provides a unique perspective on poverty, highlighting the remarkable progress that humans have made over the last 200 years.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs said that during the first decades of the industrial revolution, living standards did not increase significantly. However, the industrial revolution was responsible for setting the world on a course of huge reductions of extreme poverty.

About 90 per cent of the world lived in poverty in 1800. As of 2011, 15 to 20 per cent of the population lived in poverty. This means that, in the course of approximately 200 years, we were able to reduce poverty dramatically in the world. I thought this data was astonishing!

According to Sachs, when you define poverty as a lack of reliable access to basic needs such as food and water, virtually everyone in the world was poor thousands of years ago. Not only the vast majority of the population was poor, but life expectancy was also dramatically lower.

If we could see some of the world’s earliest civilizations, we would probably notice that everything looked poor, except for one or two palaces where the kings or chiefs lived – the billionaires of ancient history. For a long time throughout history, poverty was accepted as a fact of life. There were certainly no worldwide goals set by the United Nations to eradicate poverty like we have today (in fact, there was no United Nations).

As societies got richer, they developed different attitudes toward poverty. The ancient Greeks, for example, seemed to think poverty was essential. They thought that if wealth were equally distributed, then nobody would ever work again. After all, poverty is what makes the rich, rich.

The Chinese on the other hand, developed sophisticated programs to prevent extreme poverty. Confucius believed that in a well governed country, poverty was something to be ashamed of, but in a badly governed country, wealth was something to be ashamed of.

The film also makes an interesting point about the outflow of money from poor countries to rich countries, and how the system of providing aid to developed countries might be flawed.

The entire outflow of money from poor countries to rich is estimated at one trillion U.S. dollars. This represents eight to 10 times the entire official foreign aid these countries receive. A reform of this system would do more to eradicate poverty than all the foreign aid that these countries get. When we look at the bigger picture, we realize we might be getting closer to eradicating poverty than we think. Maybe, for the first time in history, we have the knowledge and the means to do it. And that is something to be excited about.


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