Invited statement for a workshop/conference at the United Nations.
By Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus, Adelphi University
Is there is a causal relationship between poverty and inequality on the one hand and global, nay, even regional, conflict on the other?
Our response is often “yes,” there is. But how do we know, especially when one looks at the United States and sees rising rates of both poverty and inequality, and very few public protests? However, we do know that a child born into a family in the top 25% of family income has a nearly 90% chance of graduating from a four-year college, while a child with the same native ability born into a family whose income is in the lowest 25% has less than a 10% chance of earning a baccalaureate degree.
In addition, we know from the Southern Poverty Law Center that there are over 1,600 organized groups in the U. S. that promote bias, hate, and conflict.
Even if there is a correlation between poverty and inequality on the one hand and social conflict on the other, this does not prove causation. Yet we know from research reported by Oxfam that poverty is a consequence of inequality and extreme wealth, and we know from experience that it can result from both drought and flooding. Oxfam also has argued persuasively that extreme wealth and inequality is economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive, environmentally destructive, unethical, and not inevitable. (Oxfam.)
If this conclusion is not powerful enough, we also have moral and ethical reasons to mitigate the causes and consequences of poverty and inequality. As Gandhi, raised a Hindu, said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”
In addition, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights (including freedom from fear and want) should be protected by the rule of law.”
The moral and ethical imperatives for reducing poverty and inequality also are known and expressed in the texts and teachings of the major religions. Most caution against the pursuit of excessive wealth and urge the sharing of wealth with those less fortunate.
In Luke 6:20-21, we read, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be satisfied.” The Jewish Siddur states: “Be just to the poor and the orphan; Deal righteously with the afflicted and the destitute.” The Quran urges believers to “support poor people, orphans, and captives.” (Krueger.) According to Buddhism, poverty is to be cured because it is a form of suffering. (Loy.)
From these religious sources, we can conclude that, since poverty and inequality are almost universally deemed to be unjust, they must be structural, that is, man-made, and not part of the natural order; therefore, they must be dealt with by us, you and me. That is, we must acknowledge that we humans have the capacity to create good works as well as cause ill effects.
What, then, are the obstacles to correct these conditions? Prejudice? Greed? Lack of opportunity?
While we try to cure prejudice and greed through education and public policies, especially with regard to gender and racial equality as basic human rights, and by promoting the force of law instead of the law of force, we know that this is a continuing challenge. What more can we do to increase opportunities for productive work for all people that results in improved individual circumstances and sustainable and stable communities, with or without visible conflicts or protests?
One approach could be to turn the research studies and reports on topics such as potable water, clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and rural healthcare, among others, housed at the United Nations and related to the Sustainable Development Goals, into accessible information available to young people trained in entrepreneurship. These new entrepreneurs would study the techniques of problem-solving: learning to place oneself in another’s position, learning to define the problem, learning to ask for ideas, creating and testing a plan, etc.
They could then be prepared to turn the information held by the United Nations into business plans that would attract investors interested in addressing the issues of poverty and inequality by creating new opportunities for business development and employment. If successful in reducing poverty and mitigating the effects of inequality, these initiatives could also help reduce conflicts over scarce resources, whether water, land or oil.
As preparation, such projects would encompass both education for peaceful conflict resolution and civic participation as well as for business development, and be consistent with the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the principles of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI).
Therefore, let us imagine that students at our universities can organize this information into usable and actionable plans, and that business leaders would see the value of supporting new ways of correcting the imbalances of wealth and opportunity. Perhaps this would be a path to correcting the corrosive effects of poverty and inequality and reducing the causes of conflict, whether manifest in protest or in withdrawal from civil society.
But how would we start? What are the impediments to action? What can we do that would be different from other efforts?
First, let us stipulate that the faculty and students of UNAI member institutions not only seek opportunities for volunteer service, but also for professional and career development, especially in opportunities for community development on a regional or global scale.
Second, let us ask the Secretary-General to charge the appropriate agencies of the United Nations to open their research findings and observations about development needs to specially selected and prepared teams of university students and faculty. These students could be joined by others participating in the UNAI-ELS sponsored essay competition, “Many Languages-One World Global Youth Forum,” which this year will be based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The teams would organize the information they found into searchable databases useful for crafting community and business development plans designed to address specific issues.
Third, let us introduce these budding business and social entrepreneurs, and the plans they develop based on solid research findings, to university trustees and investment committees, asking them to invest in these new enterprises. Such initiatives would not only address the issues of poverty and community needs, but also help young graduates build enterprises with a social purpose and the prospect of profitability, thus creating employment for many others.
By themselves, these goals are noble enough, but with the potential for reducing conflicts as a by-product of regional cooperation and community development, they seem even more compelling.
Will you join me in trying to start the effort? Should we start by asking for volunteers and organizing a time to design the effort? I hope so.
Krueger, Alan B. “Inequality, Too Much of a Good Thing,” in Inequality in America, edited by Benjamin M. Friedman. Boston: MIT Press, 2003.
Loy, David R. “Buddhism and Poverty.” Buddhism and Poverty
Oxfam Media Briefing, 18 January 2013. Ref:02/2013.
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