The following are Professor Thomas Pogge’s closing comments at the “Impact: Global Poverty” meeting to launch ASAP in the UK and Ireland, held at the University of Birmingham on May 23, 2011. Here, Professor Pogge outlines some of the primary aims of ASAP globally, and some of the ways in which academics might leverage their unique expertise in efforts to address global poverty.
Start with the thought that the central purpose of ASAP is to reduce poverty. Upstream from this purpose we must ask: what is poverty, what are we to measure our work against? Here, it is important to communicate with poor people themselves. Poor people may not make a strong distinction between poverty and other vulnerabilities; they may see lack of resources as intimately intertwined with vulnerability to violence, for example, and with indignities suffered from officials. Maybe we should then also see their problem in broader terms. This upstream work of specifying what the fight is about takes on special importance, because in the next two years the new international anti-poverty agenda will be decided upon. What’s going to come after the MDGs? We should work to educate and try to steer that agenda a little bit. We should be heavily present in the coming debates.
Downstream from our central purpose we must ask how the cluster of deprivations we identify can be addressed effectively by academics. How can we best help reduce these deprivations? Here we should remember that there are certain things academics are good at and others they are not so good at; and also that there’s a lot of stuff already out there. So, rather than ask blandly “what is to be done?”, we should ask more specifically: “how can we add ourselves to an already existing poverty infrastructure in order to make this infrastructure most effective?” Perhaps one important contribution we can make is coordination. Anti-poverty efforts as they are now are certainly not well coordinated. As academics, we can collaborate across disciplines and also coordinate beyond the academy, making use of an extensive network of academic institutions that already reaches into pretty much all areas of the world. Through this academic network, we can establish collaborations with civil society in many countries and collaborate with their NGO communities. We might become something like an umbrella organization that would better coordinate the efforts of different types of groups within and across different countries, including here all groups that are seriously focused on poverty reduction, regardless of any specific religion, ideology or political affiliation they may have.
I started pessimistically this morning by saying that we’ve failed to make much of an impact in the last 30 years or so. We have not been able to protect the world’s poor from a massive shift against them in the distribution of global household income. There are various reasons for this. One of them is an excess of “good ideas”. Look at the World Social Forum, where 30,000 people have 30,000 good ideas – which are bound to drown out one another. What we need is more unity: the ability to coordinate on one really good and strategically important idea and then to join forces to push it through. And so perhaps we should think of ASAP as something between a loose network and a tight organization moving in lock-step, something like a platform that mobilizes and coordinates the efforts of academics, unifying us behind a very small number of important reform ideas that we can actually achieve with the help of organizations outside academia. Then we can be, I think, massively effective: we can light fires in many countries, and can become an important voice that keeps governments focused on the poverty problem and prevents a repeat of the scandalous dilution of government promises that we witnessed around the millennium.