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Global Poverty and American Citizenship

Ethiopia, Africa

A few thoughts on how a privileged American might see their relation to the extremely poor world. What can we do and why?

Complete Video Script

The impact of big issues like these — globalization, conflict, climate change — it seems beyond any one individual's control. But when we act collectively, we do make a difference. Walking with people like Ana, Abadi, Lisa, Diego, Marta — the hard-working people who make the developing world develop — shows the human value of tackling hunger. And the uptick in extreme poverty in recent years has made fighting it more urgent than ever.

Traveling through Ethiopia and Guatemala, witnessing both the lives of people in extreme poverty and the economic realities of our world, makes me consider my relationship to it all. Why should I care? What should I do? How can I as an individual make a difference?

Like many people I want to do something to reduce the obscene gap between rich and poor. But we can also go beyond our own modest individual efforts and support a much broader solution. That's exciting — and it's an opportunity.

America spends 700 billion dollars a year on our military to make us safer. That's hard power, and hard power is necessary. But it needs to be complemented by soft power. Soft power is investing in development, diplomacy, stability. And that also makes us safer.

Soft power is real power. It's good for our national security. For example, for the annual cost of one extra soldier deployed overseas we could dig a hundred wells in thirsty villages. It's a societal choice we make.

The accepted goal among wealthy nations is to invest around one percent of their GDP for development aid — and lots do. While many Americans think we're giving far more than that, in reality the United States gives less than a quarter that amount. For every $100 of our GDP, we give less than 25 cents in development aid.

So, what are the options? As we've seen, generous giving to hard-working NGOs is important. But when it comes to fighting poverty and fostering development, smart US government aid programs and fair-trade policies have a far greater impact than all philanthropic efforts combined. How our government responds to these challenges does make a difference. And, when we act together as a nation, there's certainly reason to hope.

Considering all the wealth in our world, 700 million people living in extreme poverty is just not right. We can end hunger in our lifetime. We can do it because we care. Or, we can do it because it'll make our world more stable and our country safer. Or we can do it for both reasons. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves wishing you thoughtful travels.