Global poverty eradication is at the heart of the newly minted Strategic Development Goals (SDGs), but is that possible and what do finance ministers do to enable their countries to meet expectations of the SDGs? That was the focus of a high-powered debate during the recent Ministerial Forum for Finance Ministers at Harvard. Responding to a substantive background paper authored by Rifat Atun, Professor of Global Health Systems, Harvard University, and Donald Kaberuka, former President of the African Development Bank, former Minister of Finance of Rwanda, and Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School (read the paper here), discussants, including the Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, the Honorable Mehmet Simsek, argued that through a combination of deliberate strategies including investment in health and education countries can create the enabling conditions for increased economic mobility. Pointing to the examples of Turkey and Brazil where there has been significant growth in the middle class over the past two decades partly enabled by deliberate efforts to use health investments, discussants also noted that these countries could afford to upscale investment in health and social sector programs because they already enjoyed high rates of economic growth over the past 15 years.
Harvard Kennedy School’s Ricardo Hausmann, former Economics Minister of Venezuela, made the point that poverty is the absence of development and argued that without the supporting infrastructure of development—roads, electricity, water and sanitation—other piecemeal interventions such as cash transfers are not sufficient to precipitate sustainable reductions in poverty. While Brazil and Turkey showed significant improvement against all major health indicators resulting from concerted investments in health, and there is evidence these strategies helped catalyze social mobility among poor communities, neither country is close to eradicating poverty. The question for participants in the debate was what are finance ministers in resource constrained countries to do to demonstrate progress against the SDG’s poverty reduction indicators? The bottom line: there is no silver bullet. Poverty reduction requires sustained effort over many years driven by a national commitment to economic transformation founded on stable governance, comprehensive approaches to achieving better health outcomes, strong emphasis on education for productivity, and improvements to basic national infrastructure.