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October 24, 2002 Meaningful work is key to solving world poverty: Economist




by Mark Rieger

One of Concordia’s longest-serving economics professors recently turned his attention to a subject that doesn’t get much attention in his field. For the past few years, Jaleel Ahmad has been studying poverty and trying to find ways to alleviate it.

“Poverty is increasing, and I find this is a challenge to economists, to try to explain it and find ways of counteracting it,” said Professor Ahmad, who has been at Concordia since 1970. He has done research on unemployment and child labour, and this led to his current focus.

He remarked that many of his peers are more comfortable with the mathematical side of their field, and do not typically spend much time thinking about the social aspects of economic issues.

“They understand poverty, but they don’t feel inclined to do anything about it,” he said.

Dr. Ahmad acknowledged that studying poverty is difficult because there are many differences between the poor in the industrialized world and those in developing countries.

“The poor in Sausalito [California] do not have the same degree of deprivation as the poor in Sierra Leone, but what they do have in common is that they have no source of income.”

For Dr. Ahmad, most current efforts to alleviate poverty, either by encouraging the poor to fight for political power or by simply giving them money, are misguided and ineffective.

“The view is that people are poor because they’re not empowered. I think the lack of empowerment is the effect of poverty rather than the other way around,” he said. He argued that making people richer would increase their political power, and criticized the current focus on increasing empowerment as approaching the problem of poverty from the wrong starting-point.
Dr. Ahmad was equally critical of the idea that the transfer of funds to the poor would end poverty.

“Transfer measures, fiscal measures, taxing the rich and giving to the poor — that might work on a short-term basis, but it’s not a solution,” he said. He noted that although Canada has had a state welfare system for many years, our social safety net has not eliminated poverty in this country.

“I’m not against safety nets, but the income you get from work has a different psychology. Welfare may serve [the purpose], but in the end, it is demeaning.”

Indeed, Ahmad suggested that the only way to eliminate poverty is to provide meaningful work to the world’s poor in labour-intensive, small-scale industries like services and the production of handicrafts. Unlike those who believe that protective trade barriers would aid such industries, Ahmad suggested that free trade would be more helpful.

“There’s nothing wrong with international trade,” he said. “International trade allows you to increase your income. Poor people would be richer if we bought their goods at a fair price.”

Dr. Ahmad, who has been a visiting professor in countries including Australia, China, Sweden, and most recently South Korea, said that a good first step toward fostering the kinds of small-scale industry he favours would be to make loans more readily available to poor people who wished to start their own businesses.

He noted that it is because loans are often hard to get in developing countries that more small enterprises have not been created, and said he hoped institutions like the World Bank would do more to develop small business loan programs.

In spite of the potential challenges in implementing his proposals, he clear about the goals of his work.

“There’s no reason to tolerate poverty,” he said. “We’re so rich, it should be eliminated.”