by Mark Rieger
One of Concordias longest-serving economics professors recently
turned his attention to a subject that doesnt 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 dont 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 theyre 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 its 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.
Im 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 worlds 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.
Theres 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.
Theres no reason to tolerate poverty, he said. Were
so rich, it should be eliminated.