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Opinion

A first step for the global poor – shatter six myths

Abject poverty takes a terrible toll. We can stop it. But we must start by separating fact from fiction.

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This seems like the fair objective, pursued in the belief that reducing disparity supports social stability. But it's wrong.

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There's an enormous opportunity cost to devoting limited resources to better-off, mid-tier developing countries. Their citizens, while struggling, aren't dying by the millions every year. The last billion are. The fact that rich nations spread resources broadly and thinly may be easy to explain politically, socially, or economically – but it's much harder to justify ethically if we really believe every life is of equal value.

Today, first-world ideals of relative equality lead to diffuse aid and philanthropic efforts, effectively paid for with the lives of the poorest. The desire to support relative well-being is a critical distraction from the question of absolute human survival.

If we're serious about saving lives, rich nations should devote disproportionate financial and technical resources to the very worst-off – to build a floor for their survival, and to deliver the basis for self-sustaining growth and wealth of their own creation.

What's true

Getting past popular misperceptions that impede progress for the very worst-off, what is true about extreme poverty?

Today, it overwhelmingly slaughters the young.

The gap between what the rich world has promised at United Nations summits, but has yet to actually deliver, means that every year four million more children won't make it to their fifth birthday.

We have the resources to eradicate it.

The world's richest 500 individuals have the same income as the poorest half-billion. The developed nations aren't close to the UN commitment to devote 0.7 percent of gross domestic product to aid. The US is at 0.2 percent, and private and philanthropic sources don't come close to narrowing that gap in the poorest countries. But this isn't simply a redistributive exercise. We know more now about the progression from subsistence agriculture to micro-enterprise and light, sustainable manufacturing exports – and how self-directed growth lifts people out of poverty.

It is a question of will – and working smarter.

For wealthy nations: it is the will to listen harder to those we would serve, to experiment, to adapt, and to work smarter. For citizens in civil society among the poorest nations: it is the will to push past disappointment, past corruption and cynicism about the legacy of colonialism, and to believe in what is possible.

The rest of this series will explore the path out of extreme poverty for the last billion. What have we tried, and why have we gotten stuck? Where do we agree? Are we prepared to succeed? And if we are, what would it take? (Tomorrow: Why aid has made so little difference.)

Mark Lange, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, is working on a book about financing the next green revolution.

We want to hear from you. What do you think about the effort to end extreme poverty? Send your ideas, stories, and reactions to .

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