The 2005 Kennedy School Spring Conference culminated Saturday afternoon (May 14) with a plenary panel on the issue of global poverty.
Each of the four experts who joined Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood in the discussion brought forth a different perspective on how best to define and address the complex problem.
Dani Rodrik, Kennedy School professor of international political economy, began by telling the audience that there is good news: The absolute number of poor people worldwide has decreased.
“The bad news is that this has been a very uneven process,” said Rodrik. Asia has done well in the previous two decades but Latin America and Africa have not. “Africa is now the center of global poverty,” he said.
Tommy Thompson, who traveled the world as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services during President George W. Bush’s first term, made the argument that the problem is best attacked through improving health care worldwide, especially for women and children.
“I strongly believe that we have to transform our foreign policy into one that is based on medical diplomacy,” Thompson said. Africa could not grow economically, he said, when three people had to be hired to do one job because two were going to die from HIV/AIDS.
Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin, spoke of his frustration when the Department of Defense scrapped the Comanche helicopter after sinking $8 billion into the program. “All I could think of is, ‘How many wells could I build in Africa … how many hospitals … that could help change our foreign policy and actually help build these countries?”
Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, called for addressing the political and social inequalities that exist in poor regions. “I think inequality is what we should be focused on,” she said.
In addition, Birdsall lamented the chaotic aid system that leaves charities and NGOs stepping over each other in many countries. In her view the United States has lost the humanitarian leadership role it maintained for many years, and without American leadership many poor countries are left in a “dangerous vacuum,” she said.
Mark Rosenzweig, director of the Center for International Development at the Kennedy School, presented another idea: to open borders rather than wallets – using immigration as a means of improving the wages and skills of the poor.
“We’re talking about a poverty alleviation program on a global scale that entails changing the settings of people who are poor not by waiting for governments to reform themselves but rather [by] allowing these poor people to go into those settings where those reforms are already in place,” Rosenzweig said.