Zero consistency in “Zero Poverty” campaign

“Today we invite you to come with us on a special journey; to open your eyes and look at poverty. Open your ears and listen to the voices of poor people! Open your heart and meet people! Open your mind and understand that we are all human persons!”

With these colourful words, the president of Caritas Europa launched his organisation’s campaign “Zero Poverty”. At a time when personal insolvencies, housing repossessions and unemployment figures are at extremely high levels, one should assume that such an initiative must be a worthy endeavour.

So what exactly is Zero Poverty about? The presentation on the campaign website is ambitious:

“Our vision is Zero Poverty. No one should live in poverty. [...] Anyone can help to make the ZERO POVERTY vision a reality. You can find out how on our website.”

The “how” refers to 13 missions specified by the initiative. Supporters are advised, for example, to buy Fair Trade coffee and flowers. They are also asked to buy local products, both because it “guarantees jobs in the area”, and because “they are often organic products”. Further, saving energy is recommended, because the world’s poorest are most affected by climate change. Suggestions include “one minute less in the shower every day” and to “use less water for cooking”.

Nobody denies that Caritas’ work on the ground is extremely valuable. However, their attempts to appear fashionable by sounding like a campus workshop are less impressive. We learn from their campaign materials that minimum wages and welfare payments are too low, that globalisation leads to downward-pressures on wages and working conditions, that executive pay is excessive and therefore a strengthening of corporate social responsibility is required, and that the “female perception of the role of women is not matched by an equivalent change in attitudes among many men”.

Caritas’ targets are not just potential volunteers or potential donors. While the importance of civil society actors is mentioned, this is immediately qualified by adding that “this does not mean that governments can leave it up to ‘everybody’ to alleviate poverty; on the contrary they have to take up their role.”

This role is a highly extensive one, according to Caritas. Governments should increase child benefits, sickness benefits, welfare benefits, pensions, plus spending on healthcare, social housing, homecare, public employment and many other programmes.

With its impressive network of social service providers, the unique strength of Caritas is their vast local knowledge and long-standing experience in the day-to-day practice of poverty mitigation. In their field, there could hardly be a more authoritative voice. That is precisely what makes it so disappointing that Caritas engages in a campaign which reminds one of a school teacher who attempts to imitate teenage slang to appeal to his pupils.

I suppose it hardly needs pointing out the ludicrous inconsistency of all this. What happens to poor non-fair-trade growers if we buy fair-trade products? What happens to growers in poor countries if we buy local (for those in rich countries)? After giving a presentation on fair trade I was once asked “given all that should I buy local sugar or fair trade sugar?”! And, of course, as we see from Patricia Morgan’s blog post last week, simply increasing welfare payments to the needy is a good way to increase the supply of “needies”.

It is feel-good campaign throughout, which shows in the fact that there is no such thing as a trade-off anywhere. All the bad things in the world are somehow correlated, and so are all good things. I wonder how they would respond to the trade-off between environmental and social targets, for example. If we insist on cutting our energy use, I can’t think of a way to do that which would not be highly regressive (unless some terribly complicated compensation scheme is thought up). Permitting energy to be cheap is a highly targeted anti-poverty policy, and one which completely avoids the problems of targeting that Patricia Morgan describes. Low energy rates are not ‘tapered away’.

Why doesn’t this visionary take the simple route. Just abolish prices on everything. There would be no rent, no medical fees, no fuel costs, no air fares to the free resorts which everyone could visit at anytime. With no use for money inflation would be a meaningless concept. A financial crisis would be impossible. No debts, no worries.Think of it. Every morning a man could stroll to a cafe for breakfast, pausing for a free newspaper. The waiters would have no need of wages and cheerfully work for nothing. So would the cook. Meanwhile you home would cleaned by the free maid service. When you returned all would be swell. And so on forever.

Broadly speaking, poverty has been genuinely addressed at two tracks. One track is through markets opening up, price liberalization etc, which I would call a structural track, that follows changes in fundamentals. The other track is followed by social entrepreneurs, NGOs like Caritas, and charitable trusts; which I would call an agency track, that does not question the fundamentals but still makes tangible progress towards (absolute) poverty reduction. Both tracks count and both have their own trade offs and paths. I suppose, if the respective institutions know which track they are up to, and dont assume that the tracks cross, there will be less disappointments.

Precisely. The reason why I find the campaign so disappointing is that Caritas tries to sound like a leftie political group, instead of just being what they are: a civil society actor that does an impressive job in its field.

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