The human race has never been better off. We’re healthier, we’re smarter, we live longer, we’ve made immense progress in the sciences, and collectively, we’re more prosperous than we’ve ever been. Yet, we’re very aware that we’ve still got a long way to go. Turn on the news and it’s awash with reminders of our failings. As the Boomers hand over controls to the younger generations, great shifts are underway. The challenges humanity faces today are remnants of the most pervasive older ones, like hunger and poverty, combined with some newer ones, like climate change. There are renewed calls for commitments, fresh perspectives and creative solutions everywhere. Leading these, is the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda, “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity.”[*] And of these SDGs, Poverty is the foremost. The United Nations, the world’s premier governing body “recognize(s) that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.”
The first Sustainable Development Goal aims to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”.
Poverty has been around for as long as we have governed ourselves. We aren’t the first few generations to have tried to fight it, either. So what makes poverty so difficult to overcome, especially where societies are successful and governments mean well? We reckon a key reason is that poverty is less a standalone issue in itself and more an amalgamation of other, incredibly complex issues. In fact, persistent poverty is usually an indicator of one or more other social issues that concern inadequate education, economic opportunity and good governance. In effect, we’re saying that getting a handle on poverty requires, to some degree, getting a handle on education, healthcare, economics, equality and governance. The exact formula is delicate enough to have evaded us for centuries. And even then, it’s not all that’s required.
We chatted with RESULTS board member, Pankaj Agarwal, about ending extreme global poverty in our lifetime
He shares a Board of Directors seat with Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and contributes 10% of his household income to the organization annually, but Pankaj Agarwal tends to introduce himself as a volunteer at RESULTS. A registered nonprofit organization, “RESULTS is a movement of passionate, committed everyday people. Together they use their voices to influence political decisions that will bring an end to poverty.” Pankaj began his work with RESULTS back in 2008, but that is not the beginning of his story as an advocate of poverty alleviation and eradication.
When he was a four or five year old boy growing up in New Delhi, Pankaj remembers walking with his mother, on a cold and foggy winter day, excited about having bought himself a new sweater. He recalls they “walked past a child my age shivering, hugging himself for warmth as he begged for food and money.” Pankaj asked his mother if he could give the boy his own sweater since he had many more, and as soon as his mum agreed, Pankaj peeled off his sweater and gave it to the cold child on the street. Immediately, several other children, also freezing and hungry, came running out for sweaters. This was Pankaj’s first understanding of not only the fact that there were so many who had so little but also, that he was so small and so powerless against a great big problem. He grew up, like many Indians, averting his eyes from poor people everywhere. And they were everywhere in India.
In 1983, Pankaj was invited by a friend to attend an event by The Hunger Project, where he learned that 35 million people were dying of hunger and poverty every year, and 28 million of them were children. He also learned that “according to the United Nations there was enough food in the world to feed everyone (this research was from the 1970s, more than 40 years earlier)! What was missing was the political will to get the job done.” He had spent his life until that point being aware of a greater problem and feeling guilty for being powerless against it. “Suddenly, I felt whole again – there was something that I could do to end the suffering that I had tried desperately to hide from.” And so, at the age of 17, Pankaj became a participant in the fight against poverty.
We wanted to learn from Pankaj about his experiences and his long commitment to a fight that – if we’re honest – can be so intimidating, difficult, and hopeless. The following is the conversation that ensued.
What distinguishes RESULTS from others in the field, especially those working towards eradicating poverty?
RESULTS is a key participant in the fight against poverty. And for several reasons, not the most important of which are…
- RESULTS is fully committed to the World Bank’s goal of ending extreme global poverty by 2030.
- As far back as 1977, research indicated that while we have the capacity to end extreme poverty, the political will is missing. RESULTS tackles this issue explicitly. The organization works with lawmakers across the political spectrum to drive policy change and increased investment in domestic and global health, education and economic opportunity.
- And finally – perhaps most importantly – RESULTS has a significant multiplier effect, something called the “RESULTS Leverage”.
With a modest budget and a relatively small number of dedicated volunteers, the organization encourages governments to spend billions towards the ultimate goal. This is done by lobbying government officials, building relationships, and writing op-eds and letters to editors in newspapers.
Every dollar invested in advocacy with RESULTS is raising millions more for the programs and policies that will change our world.
RESULTS’ 50 staff and (little army of) 2,000 volunteers are able to conduct primary and secondary research, analyze policy, advance legislation, and help steer government investment toward the highest-impact solutions to poverty. Like, for example, consider the racial wealth gap in America, which RESULTS has most recently been studying. Black Americans have 7 cents to the dollar in savings for white Americans. Latin Americans have 8 cents to the dollar. RESULTS champions the causes in scope to help level the playing field for greater equality and access to resources.
And there’s more still. RESULTS covers all the relevant bases. They work with the best private and public organizations, so that they can mobilize far greater resources for eradicating extreme global poverty by 2030, and for ending poverty in the USA.
What are some of RESULTS’ achievements?
Pankaj states that although it’s impossible to attribute 100% of government or economic actions to RESULTS’ work, the following have occurred after some campaigns that RESULTS and its partner organizations have undertaken:
1. The preventable deaths of children under 5 have fallen by well over half since 1990, from over 40,000 per day to about 16,000 per day. We now believe the end of these preventable deaths is within reach.
2. In 2017, both the US House and the Senate passed the READ Act, legislation that will improve the lives of millions of children around the world, who don’t have access to a quality education. Read More
3. The grassroots outcry this spring helped put a stop to proposals that would have gutted Medicaid and stripped health insurance from millions of low-income Americans.
4. RESULTS volunteers played a key role in Congress, finally making permanent crucial provisions of pro-work tax credits that raise roughly 16 million people, including up to 8 million children, above or closer to the poverty line.
5. The US Senate reintroduced legislation this month that will help pave the way toward the end of preventable child and maternal deaths around the world. The Reach Every Mother and Child (S. 1730) makes sure the U.S. does its part to support countries to reach this ambitious goal. Read More
6. 19 million people are now receiving lifesaving AIDS drugs, from a few hundred thousand people a few years ago.
7. Check out more of RESULTS’ historical achievements here.
So, what are the 3 biggest challenges RESULTS faces?
- Funding and staffing: There are many more countries, under-represented areas, and elected officials to work with still. More money means more staff, and therefore, more reach.
- Learning how to do deep advocacy takes time and energy – this is not something we all learn in civics class! But we see it has tremendous impact.
- Often, people don’t realize the power that they hold as constituents to truly shape what’s happening on Capitol Hill. Breaking through this skepticism is essential.
Ok… If you could change something unilaterally, what would it be?
I’d love to invite some of the most influential government leaders and philanthropists to support our cause! Having them work with us has the potential to unlock many more resources, inspire many more people, and ensure we meet our 2030 commitment. I’d love to see more people inspired to get involved and take action; we’ve seen the incredible influence a relatively small group of people can have. Now imagine if we multiplied that by hundreds or thousands!
You say we must all get involved. What is your top advice for others who are concerned about and interested in eradicating poverty?
No, really. The World Bank, UNICEF and USAID are all in agreement that extreme poverty can be eradicated by 2030. This is not just a childhood dream anymore, it’s a very real and concrete possibility! But it’s only possible through our participation. No problems are solved by sitting on the sidelines. And we must stay committed too. This is a slow, steady and cumulative effort so we must stay the course.
“But in the end, I think to myself, our generation’s legacy to the future will be that we ended something terrible, something we have fought for thousands of years. Poverty will have ended on our watch and with our efforts. Come 2030, nobody will live on less than $1.90 a day.”
He finishes, “imagine how happy we will feel when our grand-kids visit a ‘Poverty Museum’ and ask us about what it was!”
So there it is. Poverty can, indeed must, end in our lifetime. But in order to get there, it’s imperative that we all get engaged. We must each do what we can. But do, we must.
[*] “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, United Nations, sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld.