Addis Ababa: The Next Discussion on Poverty and Development
Religion & Liberty Online

Addis Ababa: The Next Discussion on Poverty and Development

A new stage is set for an old conversation. This week marks the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FFD3) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Bringing in representatives of almost 200 countries, it has drawn attention from the anti-poverty crowd across the globe. Whether they are members of NGOs, churches, celebrities, or politicians, many concerned about the developing world have their ears turned to Ethiopia.

FFD3 isn’t the first conference of its kind. The original summit took place in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2002. It led to what was called “The Monterrey Consensus,” a companion to the frequently referenced “Millennium Development Goals.” The second summit was held in Doha, Qatar, in 2008, where some of the vague agreements of the first conference were made more explicit.

The Millennium Development Goals, commissioned in 2002, were the start of a massive surge of foreign aid to the developing world. The success of this top-down approach has been mixed at best, and, as Anielka Münkel of PovertyCure explains, is based on a fundamentally faulty view of the human person. While clarifying old objectives once again, FFD3 is also trying to refine its focus. If global leaders are willing to commit, there will be an opportunity to set in motion the revised “Sustainable Development Goals.”

These 17 goals are meant to serve a couple of different purposes. On one hand, they are intended to unite the international community once again under the banner of ending extreme poverty. Regardless of whether the Millennium Development Goals helped decrease global extreme poverty efficiently (or at all), it is certain that they played a role in directing global attention to the issues at hand. At the very least, the Sustainable Development Goals may very well perform the same function. How effective they are in their stated purpose is an entirely different question.

Digging a little deeper, there is conversation at FFD3 about what may have made previous relief efforts less successful than expected, and how to improve future efforts. That is encouraging. There is now a consensus that a full blown focus on foreign aid was never the correct approach, and that private finance and Foreign Direct Investment must be given more attention. In fact, embracing private sector finance is one of the major distinctions of FFD3 from previous conferences.

Practically speaking, the Sustainable Development Goals are going to be useless unless FFD3 convinces nations and investors to commit sizable funding. In a speech by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, he calls for the billions of dollars in current foreign aid to come along side “trillions in investments.” If financing materializes in such huge sums, the new goals will be on their way to implementation. But one has to ask, is there any amount of aid that can really end global poverty permanently?

Though the private sector has been acknowledged as playing a positive role in international development, there is confused rhetoric over its place and power. Part of the conversation at FFD3 is addressing the problem of tax evasion by multinational corporations. One proposed solution is to adopt an international tax structure, enforced by the U.N., so that governments could capture more revenue to be invested in infrastructure and spent on relief programs. This tactic puts pressure on the sovereignty of nation-states, and lies on the assumption that government revenue and its corresponding spending is the best way to create wealth and alleviate poverty.

Corresponding with Pope Francis’ recent encyclical and the United Nations convention on climate change to be held in Paris this November, it is likely that the concluding document of the FFD3 — the Addis Ababa Action Agenda — will contain the results of negotiations on climate finance. In fact, there is a considerable spotlight on renewable energy, protection of natural resources, and management of the global commons as they are related to “sustainable” development.

It is interesting that the modern state has conveniently grafted the ideas of poverty relief onto environmentalism, opening the door for never ending intervention. As Fr. James Schall said in an interview with Acton Institute’s Religion and Liberty, “Probably no idea, except perhaps ecology, gives the state more unrestricted power than such ideas about poverty.”

The Sustainable Development Goals themselves should draw due skepticism from those who support liberty and free-enterprise. Nonetheless, the supporters of free-markets will find some reasons to celebrate. FFD3 has been drawing attention to issues of corruption and a lack of transparency in foreign aid budgets, both of which are sources of inefficiency in the fight for development.

FFD3 holds great influence on the international stage. But it will only yield results if countries can move past paternalistic thought and develop an approach that puts the individual at the center of their own development. It isn’t likely to happen overnight.

But as Christians, and as advocates of freedom, we can be glad that there is a renewed, intentional focus on the plight on the poor. Now it is our job to promote a better understanding of poverty, the poor, and of development as a whole.