Delhi has served as a capital for over a millennium. So there is no shortage of impressive buildings of considerable antiquity. Many British era buildings now serve other purposes. I once went on a guided tour of British Raj buildings in the South Campus of Delhi University. The grand ballrooms were partitioned to make accommodate pigeon hole offices and dusty files covered every available surface.
I remarked to my father how grand things built so long ago seemed and how they had lasted despite the visible neglect. He remarked that it was important to remember that at the time, all major construction was only for the rich.
Thomas Robert Malthus is remembered for his gloomy views on overpopulation, but he echoed the above sentiment when he wrote:
The histories of mankind are histories only of the higher classes.
Malthus advocated moral restraint as the best means of easing the poverty of the lower classes. Many thinkers since from Marx to Muhammad Yunus have offered a variety of advice.
Today, I came across this short history of poverty.
One thought that came to mind was how fragile prosperity can be and how easily one incident can bring things down. In his book Banker to the Poor, Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus described one such incident he saw himself. Yunus was a founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh which provided micro loans to start small businesses. He described a woman who out of almost nothing had built a stable business and seemed set to leave her life of poverty and enter the middle classes.
Then her husband fell sick. Bills mounted. She had to mortgage parts of her business to pay for treatment. Within a couple of years all her economic gains were wiped out.
There are no magic bullets in economics. No single system or method that acts as universal panacea. All aspects of life, from food to safety to civil rights to healthcare need to advance. Ultimately the lesson of fifty years of development programs in India has been that while not all people may know what is best for them, on the whole they usually have a much better idea than any authority figure who tries to help them. Systems that promote such initiative and provide opportunities tend to do better than those which don’t.
Also, no amount of targeted economic stimulation can take the place of a caring society. Poverty is both an economic and a social problem. Consider this, suppose we gave everyone in India $10,000 tomorrow. Would this end poverty? Not a chance. I personally know of cases where it would be the worst thing you could possibly do. I know of families where the husband would drink away the money. I know of people who would rush to target their neighbors and seize the new wealth.
An example of what sudden wealth can do is already visible in oil producing countries. Nations with an educated population and strong civic institutions like Norway used it to build a better society while other societies actually regressed into totalitarianism and have terrible records in all social spheres.
Poverty is a social problem as much as an economic or a political one.