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The Poverty Problem: Pinpricks of Insight From Rimini, Italy

Sometimes there seems to be a world of significance packed into a single moment, or a single sentence. At Pio Manzu’s four-day conference about global poverty, the speakers’ roster is packed with smart, worldly people, and there were a half-dozen moments that caught my attention.

Sometimes there seems to be a world of significance packed into a single moment, or a single sentence. At Pio Manzu’s four-day conference about global poverty, the speakers’ roster is packed with smart, worldly people, and there were a half-dozen moments that caught my attention.

That’s how I thought about the statement from Francesco Morace, director of Italy’s "Future Concept Lab": Optimism too is a form of intelligence. That statement is not only true, it’s also a whole way of imagining the world.

Here are a couple others.

Sir Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist and advisor to Tony Blair: "We need a critique of overdevelopment — while letting the developing countries continue to develop." It is, frankly, hard to imagine starting a serious conversation in the U.S. about the concept of "overdevelopment." What has happened to the America of thrift, of self-reliance without credit cards, of conservation with a little "c," the America where shopping was a task and recreation was possible without spending any money?

Graca Simbine Machel Mandela, a determined advocate for children, women and human rights, and the wife of Nelson Mandela: "I stand before you as an African, and as an African woman. We are often seen as victims, silent victims — in the pictures of poverty in Africa. Silent victims, helpless victims, so broken that we cannot take care of our families or contribute to the community." As she said this, an image from the previous day immediately popped to mind: A picture just like the one she described, of an exhausted African woman, with the six grandchildren she was taking care of, after her daughter and son-in-law fell to AIDS. Such pictures try to humanize Africa, but they often do just the opposite. "African women are not broken," said Mandela defiantly, "and neither is the continent."

Mandela also pointed to what must seem almost ludicrously unjust, from the perspective of the $1-per-day world: "It is remarkable to note what the western governments produced overnight to rescue the banks, in comparison to what they have produced in the last decade for the alleviation of poverty."

Tariq Ramadan, a prominent and controversial Muslim intellectual: "The global economy is producing poverty." We don’t often think of poverty in such direct, systemic terms — but as the economy "produces" wealth, and opportunity, and innovation, it also produces poverty. Put in those terms, it’s worth asking how the economy could be adjusted to produce less poverty — as we often "tweak" it to produce more investment, or more home buying, or more trade.

Ramadan also offered what is clearly intended as a cutting critique of Western ideals in international relations: "We all have ideals and practices. We need to be self-critical enough to acknowledge that our own practices fall short of our ideals. And we need to be humble enough to avoid comparing our ideals with your practices."

Actually, that’s one that sounds good, even reasonable, but isn’t. It depends very much on what my ideals are, and what your practices are.

The most startling thing in all these sessions, presentations, and speeches was something that was never once said. No one — not one speaker — blamed the U.S. for the economic devastation ricocheting from one side of the globe to the other. Imagine if a terror attack had somehow done to our financial system what we have done to it.

Imagine if China’s banks had collapsed, and done to our financial system what we have done to it. The scorched-earth rhetoric on the cable shout-shows would have been unrelenting.

And yet not one of these speakers took the microphone and blamed the U.S. That was, in fact, a remarkable expression of both humility, and, I think, respect.