It’s time for a 21st century war on poverty

By Makai McClintock

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a “Nationwide War” on the sources of poverty, an effort, he proclaimed, that would “strike away the barriers to full participation” in our global society.

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The initiative was based on a central understanding of the multifaceted and complex causes of poverty. To identify these causes and implement solutions would require the maximum participation of affected communities and nations. Equally central to the initiative was an understanding that, given these complexities, one could not feasibly overcome the challenges of poverty without assistance and orchestration on a national level. To this end, Johnson established the Office of Economic Opportunity, situated in the Executive Office of the President itself, which would support economic development initiatives by providing funding, coordination, and development and implementation assistance for community-based plans of action.

Johnson’s revolutionary vision uniquely focused on the causes of poverty as identified by the poor themselves. He preached a seemingly commonsensical philosophy for approaching poverty that to this day has yet to fully gain traction in the economic development community; given the resources and support, the poor can overcome their own problems. It’s our job to help, not to lead the way.

Over the years since Johnson’s War on Poverty, the United States has launched countless initiatives aimed to fight global poverty and economic inequality. The US, however, based these initiatives mostly on the causes of poverty as identified by leaders and researchers in developed countries. In doing so, US leaders developed a perplexing situation.
Over the past 50 years, Africa has received over one trillion US dollars in aid, which has not only failed to significantly improve the quality of life for Africans, but also fueled conflicts and corruption that have even worsened the quality of life for millions of individuals.

President George W. Bush, in a 1999 speech on education reform, used a particularly insightful phrase, coined by speechwriter Michael Gerson — “the soft bigotry of low expectations” — that particularly applies to Africa’s current situation. developed country has meaningfully reduced poverty or increased long-term economic prosperity through international aid. Despite this simple truth, the United States continues to push a futile agenda of sending aid to Africa.

The reasons for this support are simple: our politicians have low expectations for Africans, their governments and their future.

It’s time to return to economic development programs in the spirit of Johnson’s war, to take a practical, locally-based approach to economic development while supporting federal-level orchestration of such initiatives. While the political and social climate of the 1960s provided inauspicious ground for these types of locally-based yet federally-supported initiatives, recent social and political phenomena in the US have resulted in two unprecedented paradigm shifts, making the current social and political climate partially well suited for a new approach to international aid.

The first involves the recent shift in US regulatory law from command-and-control structures to a “New Governance” model that focuses on decentralization, guided discretion and accountability through stakeholder precipitation and performance indicators and metrics. The second involves the recent paradigm shift in regards to the US approach to poverty, which has evolved from the mass confrontation and non-negotiable material demands popular in 1960s activism to an economic development paradigm that centers on negotiated policymaking, performance monitoring through economic growth metrics and a focus on the wills and desires of affected localities. These changes have created a fertile social and political ground for a new “War on Poverty”, one that goes beyond the traditional international development paradigm of constant aid and material support.

It’s time for a new approach to development, one that focuses on inclusivity, investments in sustainable growth and the promotion of self-help systems through which the affected can lift themselves out of poverty. By deemphasizing the role of financial aid in the international aid “tool belt”, we can strive to create meaningful and long-lasting economic development that grounds itself in long-term investments to give the poor the tools they need to be successful. The fact of the matter is simple: so long as we allow our “soft bigotry of low expectations” to perpetuate our inclinations to merely “throw money” at the problems in Africa, we will not see any real improvement anytime soon.

Makai McClintock is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]