Derek Newberry

What About U.S.?

In the several days since the news that Yunus’ microfinance movement would be coming to the U.S., I’ve had some time to consider what this says about how we treat the BoP institutionally. To me, the fact that Yunus’ forays in NYC are seen as so newsworthy illustrates the “us and them” (or “U.S. and them”) mentality we have in dealing with poverty.

By this, I mean that in general, there is a thick barrier separating domestic poverty programs from those that work internationally. Just go to Kiva or Microplace and try to find a U.S. based project to invest in. We at New Ventures don’t cross this line either, maintaining ourselves as an internationally-focused organization, and the same principle works for the many poverty-focused organizations that bill themselves as domestic in scope.

Odd that in this age of globalization, goods and capital are increasingly flowing across borders indiscriminately, yet we think that how we impact poverty should be determined and defined by national boundaries?

I remember thinking that Paul Collier was implying as much during a talk I attended a while ago in which he discussed his book The Bottom Billion. To paraphrase, he made the argument that we shouldn’t target support for the poor in China or India because those countries’ growth rates are high enough, people are reaching the middle-class etc. In other words, unlike the poor in sub-saharan Africa, they’re doing just fine.

I took issue with this assumption because it is based on a world view that is to me a bit outdated and generally flawed – one that treats people as being a part of homogenous national group, undifferentiated by factors such as income, quality of life, etc. This view, held by Paul Collier and implicitly by many international poverty-alleviation organizations states that if a country such as the U.S. or China is “developed” or growing rapidly, then we shouldn’t focus support there because “the Americans” or “the Chinese” are well-off.This strikes me as disingenuous – in terms of “development” standards, the BoP in sub-saharan Africa and the U.S. in some ways have more in common with each other than they do with well-off people in their own countries. Consider that the AIDS rate in parts of my city, Washington D.C. rival rates in sub-saharan Africa, consider the over 40 million Americans with no health insurance, consider that our poverty rate is still in the double digits here.

Some might say that this isn’t a fair comparison, that poverty in the U.S. doesn’t mean the same thing because standards of living are higher here. But if we think of poverty not as a measure of whether you own a TV set or other material goods but as a characterization of what Amartya Sen defines as capabilities – the opportunities you have in a given society to pursue self-fulfillment – I would argue that poverty in the U.S. or China or India for that matter is as destructive and burdensome as poverty in Zimbabwe or Azerbaijan.

This framing matters a great deal. I wouldn’t claim that institutions like the World Bank or ours have invented poverty, but certainly we have a great deal of power in framing it, in defining it, in determining how to approach it. So what do you think NextBillion readers? Is this U.S./ international divide to poverty-alleviation efforts positive or problematic? Should we focus our efforts in countries with high growth like China or India?