From Welfare World to Global Poverty

The Challenge of World Poverty: A World Anti-Poverty Program in Outline
Gunnar Myrdal
New York: Pantheon Books, 1970

Eric Hobsbawm famously described the twentieth century, and lived it, as an Age of Extremes. Gunnar Myrdal, who lived that century no less than Hobsbawm, writing his first piece in 1919 and his last in 1984, offered a different perspective on the era. Where Hobsbawm painted a century of division and violence, wrought primarily between West and East, Myrdal’s was a century divided between the haves and the have-nots: in which inequality, not violence, was the primary key and north-south the principal geographical register.1 Much like Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, Myrdal’s The Challenge of World Poverty reads today almost as a valedictory statement on that century. Unlike Hobsbawm, however, who took his Marxism confidently with him to the global scale, Myrdal appears to have become less sure, over time, about the international political inferences to draw from his social democratic politics.

Published in 1970, The Challenge of World Poverty arose, as did so many of Myrdal’s books, from an invitation: this time to deliver the Herter Lectures at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. Myrdal was only too happy to accept the invitation to Johns Hopkins. Just two years before he had published his second magnum opus, Asian Drama. And while there had been some (perhaps wildly) positive reviews, there was also plenty of criticism. Myrdal himself felt that the book had been “misunderstood.” The Challenge of World Poverty was his opportunity to clarify.

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About Simon Reid-Henry

Simon Reid-Henry is reader in geography at Queen Mary, University of London and a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. His most recent book, The Political Origins of Inequality: Why a More Equal World Is Better for Us All (Chicago, 2016), explores global scale inequality from a critical and historical perspective. He has written previously on the politics and intellectual history of development, humanitarianism, security, global health and, in his 2010 book, The Cuban Cure: Reason and Resistance in Global Science (Chicago, 2010), on political epistemologies of medical science.