Since the modern era of international cooperation began, there have been efforts to eradicate poverty in this world. Ultimately, these efforts have run into roadblocks. Poor governance in many parts of the world is highly correlated with poverty. While wealth in the world has increased, rapid population increases have made it difficult to spread that wealth around. Thus, while there have been some successes in terms of reducing poverty, especially with economic liberalization, there remains a lot of work to be done. The statistics can be staggering. Over three billion people live on less than $2.50 per day and 80% of people live on less than $10 per day. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day because of poverty and over one-quarter of children in the developing world suffer from malnourishment and stunted physical development. Not only is there a high level of poverty, but in many countries the gap between rich and poor is widening rather than shrinking (Shah, 2013).
Clearly, there are significant challenges preventing the eradication of poverty. Growing populations are one -- new people mean increasing resource consumption, and this is growing at a rate faster than resource development. Indeed, this is a negative feedback loop. The more people are lifted out of poverty, the more they consume. Thus, eliminating poverty only serves to exacerbate one of the key underlying causes of increased poverty. But the problem is more complex than simply expanding populations. In many countries, the resources exist to address poverty, but the political will or ability seems to be lacking. Moreover, among nations with the wealth and power to affect change in other parts of the world, there also seems to be a lack of leadership in the world. Solutions are not especially creative, and can be bogged down in administrative processes and attempts to appease myriad interests. There is a genuine need for truly transformational leadership to tackle poverty.
The Poverty Problem
Part of the issue with poverty is simply to define it and determine how many of the world's people are genuinely poor. Deaton (2001) points out that even simple metrics like dollars/day are misleading because of variable purchasing power and variable levels of dependence on subsistence agriculture, paid housing and other costs. Is a person truly impoverished when they provide all of their own food and do not pay rent? How much luxury should be allowed in the determination of poverty? Deaton notes there is a disconnect between statistics and the actual experience of people on the ground -- rising GDPs per capita do not necessarily reflect rising living standards any more than dollar/day figures without context truly reflect a person's level of impoverishment.
Regardless of how one counts poverty, however, it clearly still exists in the world. People in many countries struggle to find the necessities of life, including water and health care, or the necessities of advancement like education and housing. But the challenges of even defining poverty highlight the complexity of the issue, because the next natural step in reducing poverty is to understand the underlying causes. Some poverty is induced by conflict -- millions in Syria are now impoverished when they were not as of a few years ago, for example. Addressing temporary poverty is a different matter entirely than addressing systemic poverty, as exists in large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa or on the Indian subcontinent.
Political stability is clearly an antecedent for the eradication of poverty, yet the international system has no serious mechanisms in place for ensuring such stability, let alone good governance. Another antecedent is that nations must have populations in line with their resources. Some impoverished nations stand almost no chance of escaping poverty because they have large and rapidly-growing populations but constrained geography. This is the situation in a country like Bangladesh, which is lucky to feed itself let alone use its resources to drive economic growth. Yet, this is not the case in much of Africa, where poverty persists even in nations rich with resources.
The current poverty reduction strategies have had limited success. Neo-liberal policies have encouraged high levels of economic growth around the world. In some nations, particularly those of eastern Asia, the result has been to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Even many of these countries, China included, struggle with rising populations that simply move the bar every time more people are lifted out of poverty. The OECD promotes a "Social Inclusion" policy that seeks to encourage opportunity, empowerment and security as antecedents of economic development and therefore the capacity to move people out of poverty (Porter & Craig, 2004). Many international bodies and agencies have similar programs, but they all run into problems of a lack of jurisdiction. Participation in neoliberal global organizations is voluntary, and implementation of their ideas remains contingent on good governance. Encouraging governance does not equate to actually development of good governance.
The Role of Transformational Leadership
There are a few key concepts that differentiate transformational leadership from the more conventional transactional leadership. While the latter is focused on incremental improvements and processes, the former is built on charisma, inspiration and quantum leaps in vision, tactics and approaches. Transformational leadership is capable of making major changes in a short period of time. As Bass and Riggio (2006) note, transformational leadership is "a better fit for leading today's complex work groups and organizations, where followers not only seek an inspirational leader…but where followers also want to be challenged." Working within the established system does not provide sufficient inspiration to tackle the challenges of poverty eradication. The pace of progress is slower than the pace of growth in the world's poor, which is why we still face a world filled with poverty.
Townsend (2003) points out that the drivers of anti-poverty policies are typically not those within the poverty-stricken communities. Rather, they are from three types of institutions -- government, international agencies and corporations -- that while having the power and wealth to dramatically reduce poverty often have goals that run counter to poverty reduction. At best, these institutions will promote activities that increase economic activity, but as Deaton and others point out, increasing economic activity only reduces poverty when the wealth creation is coupled with improved wealth distribution.
Transformational leadership is critical to driving new thought, ideas and programs that might have improved performance in the eradication of poverty. Moreover, transformational leadership has the ability to unify the complex web of groups and institutions that are working to eliminate poverty. Each body has its own interests, focuses or areas of specialty. Yet, if these groups are better organized and work with each other, they can be more powerful than if they all work independent of one another. Globalization is a good example of this -- nations and institutions have worked in close concert to liberalize the flows of capital, goods and people, to tremendous effect. If the same level of coordination was applied to poverty reduction, it would likely be effective. While globalization starts with a strong liberal vision, poverty reduction does not appear to have a vision nearly as coherent. It could and should, given how simple the concept is on paper. Because of a lack of leadership and vision, poverty reduction becomes immediately bogged down in details such as defining poverty (Deaton, 2001). Yet defining poverty is not as important as starting work on eliminating it -- with so much work to be done there is no need to become embroiled in analysis paralysis.
Antrobus (2000) discusses the role that transformational leadership can play in the advancement of the status of women around the world. This not only has a direct effect on poverty reduction, but provides us with evidence of how transformational leadership can affect other social justice issues like poverty. At the international level, she highlights the effectiveness of transforming values on the international stage. The current approach to poverty is driven almost entirely from the neoliberal, pro-globalization framework. To be more effective, there needs to be a transformation to approaches that are driven from within impoverished nations and communities. Anti-poverty approaches cannot simply be driven by neoliberal interests, where poverty reduction is a side effect contingent on external factors (governance, peace, systems of wealth distribution, etc.). Transformational leadership is required at the international level to do two things. The first is to reframe the poverty problem and poverty reduction approaches in terms of the interests of the poor, rather than the interests of the rich. This might help in overcoming some of the resistance that exists among powerful institutions to making the changes to their systems that presently restrict the ability of those systems to lift people out of poverty. The second thing is that transformational leadership needs to arise within impoverished communities to put their needs at the forefront of the discussion of poverty reduction strategies -- the fight against global poverty needs its own Gandhi or Mandela operating within to foster a strong, coherent vision of objectives.