Dr. Oscar Arias Sanchez, winner of the 1987 Nobel peace prize, chided the United States government and the general population for turning their backs on citizens caught in the web of poverty during his final Karl Taylor Compton lecture at MIT on Monday.
"The war on poverty wasn't lost--the American government just called it off," Dr. Arias told an audience of about 200 that crowded into Rm 10-250 to hear the last of his three Compton lectures entitled "How Much Poverty Can Democracy Endure?"
Dr. Arias, former president of Costa Rica, noted that 15 percent of the US population lives below the poverty line while the richest 20 percent control 89 percent of the nation's wealth. He charged that the well-off and middle class have abdicated their sense of responsibility for the impoverished. "We have lost our sense of community," he said. "We have lost our sense of commonality."
During a question-and-answer session that followed the lecture, Professor Emeritus Franco Modigliani, the 1985 Nobel Prize winner in economics, said Dr. Arias exaggerated the inequality by not considering age and the fact that being poor is not a permanent condition in this country. Dr. Arias allowed that Professor Modigliani might have a point.
Noting that US poverty has become less transitory in the past 20 years, Professor Modigliani said, "Whether you're rich or poor, it's good to have money."
During his talk, Dr. Arias described the plight of a 7-year-old Nicaraguan girl named Lisa. Her father and two uncles had been killed in the war. Lisa walks five miles a day to bring home contaminated water. Violence is so rampant that the police refuse to enter her town.
"Will Lisa be able to provide for her mother in her old age?" Dr. Arias asked rhetorically. "How long will Lisa's mother remain alive?"
Lisa's life is not unusual in the Third World."Unlike the United States, the poor represent the majority of the population in these countries," Dr. Arias said, wondering how long the developed nations would allow the Lisas of the world to languish. "The richest nations have the moral obligation to address the needs of the impoverished."
Noting that the sympathy for the poor of the 1960s had given way to apathy in the '80s and antipathy in the '90s, Dr. Arias challenged the democracies of the world to regain their social consciences. "Our journey is as formidable as our destination," he said.
Dr. Arias, 56, studied law and economics at the University of Costa Rica and earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Essex in England. After serving as professor of political science at the University of Costa Rica, he was appointed Costa Rican minister of planning and economic policy. He won a seat in Congress in 1978 and was elected secretary-general of the National Liberation Party in 1981. In 1986, Oscar Arias was elected president of Costa Rica.
The following year, he drafted the Arias Peace Plan to end the political crisis in Central America. It was signed by all of the Central American Presidents, and Dr. Arias won the Nobel peace prize. He used the prize money to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress.
Dr. Arias's first Compton lecture, "Demilitarization: A Major Factor for Development," was delivered on January 13. The second lecture, "Latin America Facing New Challenges," took place on February 24. The series was sponsored by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the School of Architecture and Planning and the Provost's Office.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 1997.