Are We Our Brother's Keeper? Edward W. Scott Jr. Speaks on Fighting Poverty around the World

January 5, 2010

At the National Cathedral’s Sunday Forum last month, CGD’s co-founder and chair of the board, Edward W. Scott Jr., laid out his vision for a better world: economic opportunity and good health for all. In a wide-ranging conversation with Cathedral Dean Samuel T. Lloyd III, Scott focused on three main topics—expanding trade to promote economic development, solving critical problems in public health, and achieving gender equality worldwide.

At the top of his list of priorities, Scott underlined the limits of traditional development assistance, emphasizing the need for economic policies that allow poor countries to trade with the rest of the world. “Aid is not going to bring countries out of poverty,” he said. “The only way they’re going to get out of poverty is to develop their economies. And one of the most important ways for them to develop their economies is to export things to the rich countries.” He said that rich countries stifle the growth of developing countries’ export sectors by charging them high tariffs. Bangladesh and other countries with very poor populations pay higher tariffs than the developed nations of Western Europe, Scott lamented. “[Developing countries] are not a threat to our economy and yet we have these extraordinarily burdensome tariffs on these countries. And it really has to do with politics.” Lifting the barriers that prevent developing countries from accessing developed country markets is predicted to have profound, positive effects. “If we had unfettered free trade in the world,” Scott said, “500 million people would be almost instantly lifted out of poverty.”

As another top priority, he listed what he described as ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the public health sector. He explained that, while we know how to prevent diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, they continue to kill millions in the developing world. “The truth is that the AIDS, TB, and malaria issues are emergencies—they’re like a forest fire…the fire is not out on these diseases. We have encouraging results, but there’s a long way to go.”

Finally, on gender equality, Scott highlighted the powerful effects that empowering women and girls has on issues ranging from health to economic development. He cited research linking girls’ education to an increase in women’s earning power, decreased incidence of HIV, and decreased incidence of domestic violence. However, he lamented, gender equity is an area where, as he put it, “talk is much more prevalent than action.” He discussed how cultural sensitivities can complicate efforts to solve problems like child marriage.

Scott has helped create a number of anti-poverty organizations including DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) now known as ONE, which is dedicated to building public and political awareness about extreme poverty and preventable disease especially in Africa. Most recently, Scott launched the Center for Interfaith Action, an organization whose mission is to research and promote faith-based development work. Scott said the importance of faith communities in development can be seen when you go to Africa “You go into a small village,” he explained, “they may not have a clinic, they may not have electricity, but they've got a church … so if you want a very effective distribution system for distributing information and doing very hands on support, there's nothing better than the faith institutions.”

Drawing on his experience with CIFA, Scott highlighted one success story of how the development and faith communities can forge effective partnerships. In Nigeria, where more than billion dollars have been committed to fight malaria, CIFA identified that the critical challenge lay in convincing the population to change their behavior and protect themselves against the disease. “If you just pass out bed nets and leave, people use them for wedding dresses or they use them for curtains or whatever,” says Scott. CIFA helped to bring together Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim leaders to launch a campaign to promote widespread action against malaria. “It’s probably the biggest collaborative Muslim-Christian collaborative effort in the history of mankind,” Scott emphasizes. “So it’s a big deal.”

Later in the audience Q&A section of the interview, Scott suggested ways ordinary Americans can get involved in reducing poverty worldwide. Beyond simply donating money, he suggests getting educated about issues of global poverty and development. He recommends the 2005 film “The Girl in the Café” as a fun and easy way to start. “It’ll give you a good laugh, and you’ll have advanced your understanding of global poverty by leagues.” Then, says Scott, start to educate your family and friends. Finally, volunteer, either in your own community or abroad. “Those things actually have a multiplier effect which is very, very beneficial.” National Cathedral Dean Sam Lloyd added a suggestion of a book to add to your reading list—Dale Hansen Bourke’s A Skeptic’s Guide to Global Poverty.