How do We Reduce Misery Caused by Poverty Around the World?

A few weeks ago I had a post looking at the success of a number of countries. I noted that countries that do well include,

(in no particular order): the US, Canada, Northwest Europe, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and, until China began applying a heavier thumb, Hong Kong. Those also happen to be the countries that would attract the most foreigners interested in being citizens, so this quick and dirty list should pass a basic smell test. (If some of these nations don’t have much of an immigrant population and don’t rank on high on the destination of potential immigrants, it is because they are very selective about the who they let in as opposed to being shunned by would be immigrants.)

So what do these places have in common? It isn’t natural resources. Just ask the Japanese. (Plus, in countries outside of the list above, being blessed by nature somehow correlates with suffering from the “Resource Curse.”) It isn’t Democracy as we know it. That’s a relatively new thing for South Korea, Hong Kong was ruled by foreigners for most of the last century, and then, of course, there’s Singapore. It isn’t coming into the post-WW2 period wealthy; quite a few countries on the list were in miserable shape in 1945. It isn’t a matter of exploiting other countries (which Americans of a certain bent are always fond of claiming is the US’ secret) – South Koreans will proudly tell you that the country has never invaded anyone in well over 2,000 years. Switzerland, too, is proudly neutral. The Scandinavians have also been pretty pacifist for well over a century as well. Small government? As much as libertarians like to claim Singapore for their own, ignoring the massive government participation in the economy (think Temasek, Singapore Airlines, Mediacorp, Singtel, Singapore Power, etc.). Nor did Japan, Inc. qualify. Something about about geography and environmental factors that these countries have in common? Nope and nope.

To be blunt, there doesn’t seem to be a factor or group of factors that can be applied to these countries but not to countries that are “developing.”

Let’s go the other way on this post. Most of us care about poverty. We’d like to see a world with less poverty, and more opportunity for everyone. Put a different way – it would be a wonderful thing if Bolivians, Burundians and Bangladeshis were able to live the lifestyle enjoyed by people of Switzerland, South Korea and Singapore. But wishing is easy. And useless. So… how do we get from here to there in a reasonable amount of time?

My answer is that it will take changing the culture. For example, most countries that do well tend to have a reputation for punctuality which is rarely shared in less developed countries. Of course, there is more than just punctuality. Find out what other aspects of the culture of South Korea, to use a specific example, work and export that culture. After all, South Korea was in very bad shape at the close of WW2, and by the 1980s was a force to be reckoned with. If Burundi makes the same transformation over the same period of time, many, many people’s lives will be much improved.

But at this blog, a lot of people don’t like “culture” as an answer. For reasons I frankly don’t get, saying culture is a big driver of economic outcomes is viewed is racist by many people. OK. Fine. But if then how do we do it? How do we reduce the misery that comes from the poverty that is so pervasive around the world?

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