To find policies that are likely to alleviate poverty, it is best to look at actual successes and failures. In recent decades, the biggest single accomplishment is the post-1979 (post-Mao) economic growth in China. Xavier Sala-i-Martin ("The World Distribution of Income," Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2006) finds that the number of persons below a standard poverty line fell in China by about 250 million from 1970 to 2000. This massive poverty reduction occurred despite an increase in the Chinese population of more than 400 million and rising income inequality within China. The second-best story is the economic growth in India, where the poverty count fell by around 140 million people from 1970 to 2000.
Also illuminating is the greatest tragedy for world poverty — the low economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa. In this case, the number of people in poverty rose by around 200 million from 1970 to 2000.
These examples suggest that the key question for poverty alleviation is how to get Africa to grow like China and India. An important clue is that the triumphs in China and India derive mainly from improvements in governance, notably in the opening up to markets and capitalism. Similarly, the African tragedy derives primarily from government failure. Another clue is that foreign aid had nothing to do with the successes and did not prevent the African tragedy.
One reason for this is that foreign aid is typically run through governments and, thereby, tends to promote public sectors that are large, corrupt and unresponsive to market forces.
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