We can be the generation …

DEAUVILLE, FRANCE - MAY 27, 2011 : British Prime Minister David Cameron in press conference during G8 - Deauville, France on May 27 2011


This amazing story of human progress shows what’s possible.
We can be the generation that eradicates absolute poverty in our world.

David Cameron, Speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, 24 January 2013


For the first time in history, global economic prosperity, brought on by continuing scientific and technological progress and the self-reinforcing accumulation of wealth, has placed the world within reach of eliminating extreme poverty altogether.

Jeff Sachs, Can Extreme Poverty Be Eliminated?, Scientific American September 2005


You are right. We do have an historic opportunity this year to Make Poverty History.

Tony Blair, 16 April 2005, Campaign Diary


But in this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved, and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.

… Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.

Nelson Mandela, Trafalgar Square, February 2005


It’s an amazing thing to think that ours is the first generation in history that really can end extreme poverty, the kind that means a child dies for lack of food in its belly. This should be seen as the most incredible, historic opportunity but instead it’s become a millstone around our necks. We let our own pathetic excuses about how it’s ‘difficult’ justify our own inaction. Let’s be honest. We have the science, the technology, and the wealth. What we don’t have is the will, and that’s not a reason that history will accept.

Bono in an interview to the World Association of Newspapers for World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2004.


For the first time in human history, society has the capacity, the knowledge and the resources to eradicate poverty

Thabo Mbeki, President South Africa opening World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, August 2002


in the new global economy we are, all of us, the richest countries and the poorest countries – inextricably bound to one another by common interests, shared needs and linked destinies; that what happens to the poorest citizen in the poorest country can directly affect the richest citizen in the richest country; and that not only do we have inescapable obligations beyond our front doors and garden gates, responsibilities beyond the city wall and duties beyond our national boundaries, but that this generation has it in our power – if it so chooses – to abolish all forms of human poverty.

Gordon Brown, speech to the Federal Reserve Bank, New York, 16 November 2001


The challenge is a huge one. But the prize is very great. We are the first generation in the whole of human history that has the chance to eradicate basic illiteracy from the human condition. And we can do this within fifteen years. Let’s resolve today – together – that we will do what needs to be done to make this happen.

Clare Short, UK Secretary of State for International Development, Speech to World Education Forum, Dakar, April 27, 2000


Hunger is man’s oldest enemy. There is now the scientific knowledge and the institutional arrangement that makes it possible to overcome hunger, not only within the United States but throughout the world. This can be done within the lifetime of people now living, if there is the political will to do so.

The Heritage Foundation, 1984


Mankind has never before had such ample technical and financial resources for coping with hunger and poverty. The immense task can be tackled once the necessary collective will is mobilized. What is necessary can be done, and must be done.

The Brandt Commission, North: South A Programme for Survival 1980


No child will go to bed hungry within ten years.

Henry Kissinger, First World Food Summit, Rome, 1974 


Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty,

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Special Message to Congress, March 16, 1964


The world has been greatly changed, especially during the last century, by the discoveries of scientists. Our increased knowledge now provides the possibility of eliminating poverty and starvation, of decreasing significantly the suffering caused by disease, of using the resources of the world effectively for the benefit of humanity.

Linus Pauling – Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1963


Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world–or to make it the last.

President John F. Kennedy, Address Before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations, September 20, 1963


I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago. The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. … To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required–not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, Washington, D.C., January 20, 1961.


More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. …For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people.

Harry S Truman, Inaugural Address Given at Capitol Building, Washington, DC, Thursday, January 20, 1949


For the first time in history the counsels of mankind are to be drawn together and concerted for the purpose of defending the rights and improving the conditions of working people – men, women, and children – all over the world. Such a thing as that was never dreamed of before, and what you are asked to discuss in discussing the League of Nations is the matter of seeing that this thing is not interfered with.

Woodrow Wilson, League of Nations (8th September, 1919)

22 thoughts on “We can be the generation …”

  1. Pingback: The history of being the first in history to end poverty | Humanosphere

  2. I get the point, and yes it’s right to be cynical about grandiose claims.  But of course the people you quote are all correct – it has been possible for a long time to end poverty, in the sense that there’s enough resources and technical knowledge to make sure that everyone has at least a minimum of health and wealth.  But this litany of hubris also proves the NGOs case in a way – we can end poverty but we choose, on some level, not to, because of power and politics, which is exactly what campaigning is about (I am reminded here of Norman Geras’ book ‘The contract of mutual indifference’ – well worth a look).
    Of course the people you quote are the very people who do have the power, so perhaps we should be pointing at their hypocrisy rather than our own naivety.  

    1. @Claire – Thanks. I don’t think I am being cynical – I just quoted the speeches. The implied cynicism is in how we each react to this list. I make no allegation of naivety, or of hypocrisy. As you say, we could have abolished poverty (at least since Kennedy); but we have not.

      I think it is interesting to ask why Kennedy succeeded in putting a man on the moon, but did not “abolish all forms of human poverty”.

      I think the big difference is in the assumption of responsibility. In the Man on the Moon Speech, Kennedy said:

      First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

      Compare that to his pledge on poverty:

      For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.

      This commitment is more vague: it is ‘man’, not ‘this nation’ and it is an assertion of possibility rather than a commitment to achieve.

      For all kinds of domestic political and geostrategic reasons, Kennedy really meant it when he said the US would put a man on the moon. And because he really meant it, he used his power to make it happen. His commitment was turned into a budget and an operational plan to deliver a specific goal. Nearly 4% of the US federal budget went into the Apollo moon landing programme in the mid-1960s. In retrospect, it looks as if he did not mean the commitment to end poverty in the same way.

      When you look at all the commitments to end poverty on this page, they do not seem to match the commitment to put a man on the moon. “We can be the generation that eradicates absolute poverty” is not a commitment to do so, on behalf of the UK or anyone else. And unless governments put their shoulder to the wheel as the US Administration did to putting a man on the moon, it will not be achieved. Again.

      1. The problem with poverty is that just one ‘we’ isn’t enough – if the US committed itself to end poverty worldwide and even gave it the same amount of resources and attention as it gave to the moon landings, that still wouldn’t make it happen – every individual country would have to have that level of commitment and do something about it through social policies, funding etc.  Tough – not impossible.  

        1. Claire

          I agree: ending poverty is harder than putting a man on the moon. But that suggests to me we need a stronger commitment to put the means at the disposal of the ends; what we have got (and keep getting) is a weaker one.


        2. Claire:
          There are many more than “one” we or a few in Davos or the west.  Governments and citizens in many poor countries have, and are, ending poverty with or without help or third party exhortations. Might be useful to hop on the train and start helping them with concrete stuff

      2. Owen
        Brilliant. You are right to be a little sceptical and you are right to force us to reflect on the gap between rhetoric and action. However, rhetoric can shove action in the right direction a little faster.  Stress *can*.
        Anyway, ta
        ps  as a (devout) student of 60s America, especially on US social policy, I think I should point that the LBJ quote was referring to the Economic Opportunity Act (1964). This act was a central plank of Johnson’s War on Poverty programme, the overwhelming focus of which was domestic. Apologies for pedantry!

      3. Kennedy created the Foreign Assistance Act and USAID. If my reading is right, his administration was also more receptive to funding IDA replenishments, as opposed to Eisenhower. 

        1. @Jisheng – that’s true. But you would be hard pressed to assert that Kennedy and LBJ put the same energy and commitment behind ending world poverty as they did behind putting a man on the moon.

          1. Owen–True, but Eisenhower wasn’t concerned with the moon then. Neither did he have a development budget, I think. Wasn’t the moon exploration a step to lead to space technology, which could be said to be helping development today?

          2. Not poverty as such, but: 
            Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.
            Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress (1862)

          3. I got a good laugh out of this, even if it wasn’t intended to come across that way. The problem I see with these pronouncements is the implication of “we.” In the development community, I think “we” often forget (or simply fail to recognize and accept) that the majority of the world’s population are either impoverished themselves or are not, and don’t care. Sweeping statements of eradicating poverty are unrealistic and based off a false pretense of charity in the hearts of all. Any hope I have in “eradicating extreme poverty” (whatever that even means) lies in capitalizing on human greed… figuring out ways to establish ethical, principled market systems in areas that simply don’t have them and benefitting those that take a chance on those investments. We can throw all the inspirational speeches, growth diagnostics, bilateral aid, FSOs, etc. that we have, but until that recognition happens, we fight a losing battle with hoards of technical knowledge as our weapon. Perhaps a speech on that. 

            1. Agreed.
              Although the development community is guided by good intentions, it is easy to forget that many, many people are either unable or unwilling to contribute. I recall a poll conducted in Canada a few years ago that found that among the ten types of charities in the survey, those that focused on international development were the least trusted by the Canadian public.
              Establishing the technical knowledge is only one step on the ladder.

              1. Colin

                Do you have any insights into why the public are less enamoured with development charities? Is it because they find the cause less compelling, or because the distance of the intended beneficiaries makes them less trusting that their money will arrive and make a difference? If the latter, will information technology and transparency make a difference to that?

                Thanks for commenting.


              2. Where is this “ethical, principled” market system you speak of? Wouldn’t it be wiser to figure out ways to introduce economic policies like those that existed or exist in countries undergoing outstanding economic growth and outstanding reductions in poverty? Most recently and spectacularly, we had Japan in the 60s to 90s, the Asian tigers of the 80s till now, and China from the 90s up to now. In none of them was growth spurred by the establishment of ethical, principled market systems. In all were and are a common set of policies, which include infant industries, keeping exchange rates advantageous, copying and then mastering foreign technology, and so on.

            2. Poverty is another ISM. A man made segregation tool (the haves vs.the have nots). Poverty is just as destructive as racism, classism, and militarism. The world has more than enough food and resources to take care of humanity. Where we lack in supply and demand is compassion and accountability. It is shameful that millions will go hungry today and each day that follows, because of the gross global mis-distribution of food. It is abhorrent that this generation of promise and possibilities will continued to sit by and allow resources, education, health care, and justice to be hoarded instead of properly allocated to those who are in need. Poverty is systematic. Poverty is cruel. Poverty is a man made disease that can not cure itself.  We, the common man must be the physicans of change. 

            3. Pingback: Absolute(ly Not) Zero | Charles Kenny | Global Development: Views from the Center

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