“Voice and genuine participation engender dignity and self-respect”
BY GERALD HELLEINER
Editor's note: Renowned University of Toronto development economist Gerald Helleiner, who was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by U of G last month during winter convocation, gave the following address to students graduating from the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences.
Much of my professional life has been concerned with the reduction of global poverty and inequality. The inequality of the distribution of the world's income and wealth has an impact on global political stability, the global environment, the very future of our planet. But it is, above all, a profoundly moral issue.
What drives most of those working in this field and keeps them there over the years is not intellectual curiosity or the result of economic or political or other scientific analysis. Rather, the prime motivation for those with concern for global poverty and income distribution — whether in NGOs, business, government, academia or religious communities — is a matter of values, values that I am confident we all share.
Yet how difficult it seems to be to translate these universal values into actual global practice.
“Poverty” is not merely a matter of incomes and opportunities, of infant mortality and literacy rates, life expectancy and the incidence of disease, important as all these certainly are. It is also a matter of insecurity and, even more, a sense of powerlessness. When asked in surveys around the world what they most wanted, materially poor people have replied consistently that, among other more obvious needs, they desperately wanted a voice, a sense of participation in the decisions that affect them, a greater sense of their own importance. Voice and genuine participation engender dignity and self-respect, and these are fundamentally important to us all.
Policies that have a harsh impact on poor and voiceless people are often less malevolent than they are thoughtless. Sometimes they are undertaken for the greater social good, as the powerful see it, with the politically weakest, as always, unable to be heard or to protect themselves against baleful side effects. But such policies are also sometimes quite well-intentioned, ostensibly directed at the problems of the poor, as they are perceived “from above.” In these cases, for better outcomes, it would be sufficient for the decision-makers simply to listen more. Genuine listening, it turns out, is a rare phenomenon.
From all of this, it follows that “process” is enormously important in the pursuit of so-called “development.” This is probably the most important professional lesson that, over the years, I have had to learn. Existing processes, unfortunately, leave a lot to be desired. All of this is true both at the global level and at the national or community level.
Countries, as well as individuals, need to have a voice, a sense of participation, in the institutions and decisions that affect their welfare. By and large, the poorer countries, like poorer people, do not today feel they have such participation, such a voice.
They do not feel that the global economy is governed fairly or that its current “governors” take their interests seriously into account when they make their major decisions. Nor, even when they truly are trying to be helpful, do they always, or even usually, listen well. Top-down prescriptions and conditions on assistance are more typical.
Powerlessness in the face of blows from nature (drought, flood, pests, tsunamis) is extremely difficult to endure. But natural disasters are, in an “aweful” (as in “full of awe”) sense, understandable. Powerlessness in the face of harmful human decision-making is another matter entirely.
How can anyone, poor or rich, explain the size of global military expenditures — now in the order of $1,000 billion (a trillion) per year — relative to those on global poverty reduction?
U.S. military spending in Iraq (population 24 million) is today five times the total net resource flow to sub-Saharan Africa's 700 million, much poorer, people. The U.S. military budget will expand this year — it seems almost casually — by roughly double the amount estimated to be sufficient to meet the UN's millennium development goals (an amount that shows few signs of materializing). It is not earthquakes or floods but human decisions to withhold the necessary funding that are responsible for unnecessary deaths that in Africa alone are, every month, twice the number who died in the recent (one-off) Asian tsunami. Month after month, this monstrous experience continues.
To those who know these facts, they are more difficult to endure than tsunamis and other natural disasters.
One day, the voices of the poor may be better heard and human decision-making may improve, but such change seems to come only slowly. What can we do in the meantime?
There is a universal cry: “Listen to me, please listen to me.” In my experience, simply listening and “walking with” those whose interests need support and protection (while continuing, of course, to advocate for them in the corridors of power) go a very long way. Progress can and will be made. (I have seen quite a lot of it over the years — the product of sustained effort from many quarters). But, perhaps especially when change is slow and successes are few, genuine support, friendship and accompaniment — some call it solidarity — matter profoundly.
Whatever your walk of life, whatever your politics or religion, work to assist, to walk with and, above all, to listen to the weak and the vulnerable — both at the global and at the local levels. If you cannot assist directly yourself, try to support those who do. A nation or a community's greatness, it has properly been said, is best judged not by its wealth and power but by the way it treats its most vulnerable. “Progress” in the development of our global village will be judged by future historians — I am sure of it — on the basis of the degree to which it supported, and listened to, its poorest and most vulnerable.
Perhaps all that is novel about my appeal is that I do not make it from a pulpit. I make it as a practising economist. Yes, I base my appeal on values. In my own view, economists who (in the popular conception) “know the price of everything and the value of nothing” should be kept well away from policy matters. (Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, was, after all, a moral philosopher.) But I am also able to say unequivocally that the “scientific” evidence on these matters is quite clear: When the weak and vulnerable acquire more voice, policies and outcomes are more frequently of benefit to them. And when programs and projects reflect the views of the prospective beneficiaries, they are much more likely both to “work” and to be sustainable.
It is easy to succumb, in the face of obstacles and disappointments in the struggle for a fairer world, to cynicism and despair. Please don't. Don't succumb. The world needs the knowledge and skills you have acquired at university. It needs people like you with hard heads. But even more, it needs people who combine them with soft hearts. It needs them to counter those — and their numbers are legion — who have their heads and their hearts the other way around.
As Tommy Douglas used to say: “Courage, my friends. It is not too late to build a better world.”
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