Efforts to End Poverty
THE rich have already put an end to poverty—for themselves. But efforts to relieve all mankind of poverty have always failed. Why? Because the rich generally do not want anyone or anything to spoil their privilege. King Solomon of ancient Israel wrote: “Look! the tears of those being oppressed, but they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power.”—Ecclesiastes 4:1.
Can people with influence and power change society to eliminate world poverty? Solomon was inspired to write: “Look! everything was vanity and a striving after wind. That which is made crooked cannot be made straight.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14, 15) A look at modern efforts to end poverty illustrates this well.
Theories of Prosperity for All
In the 19th century, as a few nations amassed unprecedented wealth through trade and industry, some influential people gave serious attention to the matter of poverty. Could the earth’s resources be distributed more evenly?
Some theorized that socialism or communism could achieve an international classless society in which wealth was distributed fairly. Of course, the wealthy were deeply disturbed by these ideas. But the slogan “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” attracted wide acceptance. Many hoped that all nations would adopt socialism so that the world could become a Utopia. A few wealthy nations adopted aspects of socialism and established welfare states that promised to care for all citizens “from the cradle to the grave.” They claim to have eliminated life-threatening poverty among their people.
Socialism, however, never achieved its goal of an unselfish society. The objective that citizens would work for the benefit of the community rather than for themselves proved elusive. Some resented having to provide for the poor, noting that the generous provisions for the poor made some among them disinclined to work. The Bible’s words have proved true: “There is no man righteous in the earth that keeps doing good and does not sin. . . . The true God made mankind upright, but they themselves have sought out many plans.”—Ecclesiastes 7:20, 29.
Another hope was called the American Dream—the dream of a place where anyone willing to work hard could become prosperous. Around the world, many nations adopted the policies—democracy, free enterprise, and free trade—that seemed to have made the United States rich. But not all nations could replicate the American Dream because North American wealth did not result merely from its political system. Its immense natural resources and easy access to international trade routes were important factors. In addition, the competitive world economic system produces not only winners who prosper but also losers who suffer. Could the nations that are prosperous be encouraged to help those that are still poor?
The Marshall Plan—A Way to End Poverty?
After World War II, Europe was devastated and many of its people felt threatened by starvation. The U.S. government was concerned about the popularity of socialism in Europe. So for four years, it gave vast sums of money to restore industry and agriculture in those countries that would accept U.S. policies. This European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan, was considered a success. In Western Europe, U.S. influence increased, and life-threatening poverty became rare. Was this the way to end global poverty?
The Marshall Plan’s success led the U.S. government to offer aid to poor countries worldwide, helping them to develop agriculture, health care, education, and transport. The motive, freely admitted by the United States, is self-interest. Other countries also tried to extend their influence by offering foreign aid. Sixty years later, after spending many times the amount spent on the Marshall Plan, the results were disappointing. True, some previously poor nations achieved spectacular wealth, especially in East Asia. Elsewhere, however, even though aid resulted in fewer children dying and more of them receiving education, many nations were still extremely poor.
Foreign Aid—Why Disappointing
Helping poor nations to get out of poverty proved to be more difficult than helping wealthy nations to recover from war. Europe already had industry, trade, and transport. The economy just needed repairing. In poor countries, even when foreign aid provided roads, schools, and clinics, people still suffered extreme poverty because those countries lacked business, natural resources, and access to trade routes.
The cycles of poverty are complex and not easily broken. For example, disease causes poverty, and poverty causes disease. Malnourished children can be so weakened physically and mentally that when they grow up, they cannot care for their own children. Also, when rich countries dump surplus food on poor countries as “aid,” local farmers and retailers go out of business, leading to more poverty. Sending money to the governments of poor countries may start another cycle: Aid is easy to steal, so it can lead to corruption, and corruption, in turn, can lead to more poverty. Basically, foreign aid fails because it does not tackle the fundamental cause of poverty.
The Cause of Poverty
Extreme poverty is the result when nations, governments, and individuals act only to promote and protect self-interest. For example, governments of wealthy countries give low priority to ending world poverty because they are democratically elected and must cater to their voters. Thus, they prohibit farmers in poor countries from selling their produce in rich countries in order to prevent farmers in rich countries from losing business. Also, rulers of rich countries heavily subsidize their farmers to help them outsell farmers in poor countries.
Clearly, the cause of poverty—the tendency of people and governments to protect their own interests—is man-made. The Bible writer Solomon put it this way: “Man has dominated man to his injury.”—Ecclesiastes 8:9.
So, what hope is there of an end to poverty? Can any government change human nature?
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A Law to Deal With Poverty
Jehovah God gave the ancient nation of Israel a body of law that if obeyed would prevent most poverty. Under the Law, every family, apart from the priestly tribe of Levi, received an inheritance of land. The family inheritance was secure because land could not be sold in perpetuity. Every 50 years, all land was to be restored to its original owner or his family. (Leviticus 25:10, 23) If because of illness, disaster, or indolence anyone had to sell his land, it was to be returned to him without payment in the Jubilee year. No family would sink into generations of poverty.
Another merciful provision of God’s Law allowed a man who had suffered adversity to sell himself into slavery. He would receive the sale price in advance to pay off his debts. If he had not repurchased himself by the seventh year, he was to be set free and provided with seed and livestock in order for him to start farming again. In addition, if a poor person had to borrow money, the Law forbade fellow Israelites to charge interest. The Law also commanded the people to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that poor people could glean. Thus, no Israelite would have to beg.—Deuteronomy 15:1-14; Leviticus 23:22.
History shows, however, that some Israelites did fall into poverty. Why did that happen? Israel did not obey Jehovah’s Law. Consequently, as in most lands, some people became rich landowners and others became landless poor. Poverty occurred among the Israelites because some individuals ignored God’s Law and put their own interests ahead of those of others.—Matthew 22:37-40.