Q: What do the conflicts in the Middle East, pestilence in Africa, and chronic poverty in the Philippines have in common? A: The West’s insistence that it can “help” the Third World. How many more times will the West’s intervention in the Third World end in disaster? Many more times — because the First World presumes to “help” the Third World on the basis of a flawed understanding of the nature of Third World poverty.
At the heart of the manner with which the West misunderstands Third World poverty is our simple definition of poverty:
Poverty is a habitual entering into commitments one is inherently incapable of honouring.
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In the context of the above definition, the fundamental root issue that underpins Third World poverty is population. Increasing one’s population involves a commitment to the people who constitute said population — one entered into not just by a country’s government, but by the very people who are members of said population itself.
What fuels population growth? Originally it was the luck of the draw. Back in the old days, communities that are lucky enough to find themselves in places where food is abundant grew big. Others were not that lucky. Left to her devices Mother Nature has a lot to do with population levels. In a lot of cases, she will keep it in check. In human societies, natural selection will then work to shape genes and culture to adapt to whatever Nature brings on.
Human population skyrocketed when humans figured out how to exempt themselves from Mother Nature’s fury. The dawn of technology enabled people to eat when they want, where they want. The key metric that describes the value of technological development is energy capture — specifically how much energy is available per capita to consume. In rich societies, energy is so abundant that it allows people to use it for lots of activities that are non-essential to basic survival. In poor societies, energy is enough only to keep a body functional enough to produce the energy it needs to live.
So in First World countries, there are many times more kilojoules available to the average person for every kilojoule he expends in his daily activities. In the Third World, there is a lot less — which is why poor people don’t have the time nor resources to do much of anything beyond scrounging around for their next meal.
Why then did the populations of Third World countries balloon to their enormous sizes today? Two words: foreign technology.
Much of what enables countries like, say, the Philippines to sustain their enormous populations is underpinned by foreign technology. Agricultural, economic, financial, and health technologies are at work helping the people of the Third World multiply and keep their offspring alive to sexual maturity (thus ensuring that population growth is sustained).
The offspring of people who lack these modern technologies are characterised by a high infant mortality rate — because lack of food and the impact on health this lack brings will kill most children before they reach reproductive age. So in pre-technological societies, population is kept in equilibrium with those societies’ inherent ability to capture energy.
The populations of “modern” Third World countries are not in natural equilibrium with their inherent energy capture capability. Foreign technology is an artificially-introduced variable in the resource management equations of such societies. Third World countries are entirely dependent on foreign technology to boost their energy capture capabilities to “modern” levels. In the Philippines, for example, the very research facility that developed farming technologies to increase the yield of the national staple — rice — is owned and managed by a foreign organisation. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has been operating in the Philippines since 1960 and is credited with developing much of the high-yield rice crop varieties that are now cultivated by major rice producers around the world.
Still, the Philippines remains a net rice importer. Its population has grown to a size that utterly dwarfs its inherent and its foreign-credited ability to produce rice combined. Indeed, even with the IRRI planted well within its shores, the Philippines still had not learned to produce enough rice for itself!
What sorts of help do the West have to offer impoverished countries like the Philippines to rescue them from their poverty? You guessed it: more foreign technology.
The same problem besets the Philippines’ ability to generate enough electricity for itself. The Philippines relies on externally-supplied power generation facilities and fuel. Because its domestic currency (a rough reflection of its domestic production prowess) is weak vis-a-vis world-standard currencies, it will likely forever struggle to keep its citizens electricity-happy. An electricity-enabled lifestyle, suffice to say, remains an alien lifestyle in the Philippines. And those who enjoy it to the fullest are really a small elite dependent on something not inherent to their society. Until the Philippines can produce its own fuel and power generation technology and facilities, it is at the mercy of foreign markets and even its most elite citizens at high risk of catastrophic lifestyle failure.
Trying to solve a problem created by foreign technology using more foreign technology is like trying to pay off debt by borrowing more money. It’s a fool’s way of life.
Albert Einstein once said:
You cannot solve a problem using the same thinking that created it.
Foreign capital (of which “technology” as we define it is one form) will not cure the poverty of societies that remain inherently unable to embrace, absorb, and embed, foreign capital to productive (as opposed to consumerist) ends. Living within one’s means involves aspiring to a living standard commensurate with one’s inherent ability to produce economically valuable stuff to sustain that living. The Philippines, like many Third World countries aspire to live to a standard way beyond that inherent ability. And that is why the Third World remains poor despite the First World’s “best efforts”.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.