Thursday, October 16, 2008

Global poverty: the challenge won't go away till it's answered

October 17th is International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, and since it's the 17th on this side of the dateline, I want to talk about ... poverty.

In fact, there's all too little to be said about it, because every word has been said not once, but a thousand times. Ten thousand.

The observance of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty can be traced back to 17 October 1987. On that day, over a hundred thousand people gathered at the Trocadéro in Paris, where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, to honour the victims of extreme poverty, violence and hunger. They proclaimed that poverty is a violation of human rights and affirmed the need to come together to ensure that these rights are respected. (

So, then what happened? That was 21 years ago, and the poverty in the world today is much deeper and more desperate than it was in 1987.

A few days ago I blogged about the rise of the insanely, ludicrously rich (, and I gave a few statistics that should make you stop and think. In case you missed them, and don't have time to click across to the other page, here they are again:

Half the world's population, nearly three billion people, live on less than US$2 a day

Over 800 million people do not get enough food to meet their energy needs.

More than 840 million adults, of whom 538 million are women, are illiterate.

In developed countries more than 100 million people live below the poverty line, more than 5 million people are homeless and 37 million are jobless.

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the poorest 48 nations (ie a quarter of the world's countries) is less than the wealth of the world's three richest people combined.

If it's cold, hard facts you need to see, go here: ... and some of those facts might astound you. They shake me, and I already know most of it.

And in case you think poverty is confined to Africa, Asia and South America ... wrong. Poverty in America is rampant, agonizing, and deeply confusing. How is it possible to have starving, homeless, hopeless, illiterate people in a country where millionaires are as common as house flies?

If pictures reach you better than stats and numbers, play this:

Anything else I can add on this page is superfluous, yet a large part of me longs to tackle the subject and find a solution. But how do you cure a disease like poverty, when I can so easily paste in a quote like this:

The top three countries with the most billionaires are: United States with over 400, Russia with 87, and India and Germany with 56 each. (

Not billions, but trillions of dollars are tied up in the hands of just a few people, while charities like Oxfam beat their brains out daily to get ordinary working folks to give $5 to help feed a family in Africa, Bangladesh, Haiti or ... you name the place.

Three billion people live on less than $2 per day.

The three richest guys in the world are Buffett, Slim and Gates, with about US$180,000,000,000 between them.

Right. That certainly makes sense. And I KNOW that Buffet and Gates are working to alleviate poverty in the world. Darned if I can find any reference to anything Carlos Slim HelĂș does to help the poor of his native Mexico, where the poverty is beyond comprehension of description.

Now, you could just tell some of these billionaires (see the list of the Top 100, on Wiki, as linked above) to "hand it over before you burn in hell." But with three billion people people living on $2 a day, it's going to take more than a massive charitable handout to fix the problem, because continual and enormous charitable handouts too often lead to economic chaos, loss of self-esteem, and the stagnation of the desire to find and cure the causes of the disease rather than treating the symptoms. This much is a sad fact, proven many times over.

It would take about $30 billion a year to end world hunger, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which estimates that 925 million people don't have enough to eat. (

In simple terms, to end world hunger -- and buy us the time to find a sound, long-lasting solution to poverty -- world leaders like America, Russia, China, India, and European bright spots, would have to cut back their military spending by a fleabite ...

In 2003, the United States spent about 47% of the world's total military spending of US$910.6 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (

These facts are not secrets. Someone like me ... and I'm a writer, not a political commentator ... can dig them out in about ten minutes flat.

Oxfam and such charitable organizations do a great job and are worthy of our applause, but it's too little. We could end world hunger for a fleabite skimmed from the top of what we spend on guns and bombs, biological and chemical weapons ... and the nukes, damnit. Stopping world hunger would buy us the time -- and it could be decades; it could be a century -- to find the answer to world poverty, because poverty is a very different thing from simple hunger.

You don't solve poverty by feeding people. You start by feeding them, getting them clean water; and then you work out how to build a strong, stable system of employment and income, leading to homes, schools and hospitals ... and the rest of the picture should start to take shape as the people themselves spend decades working on the vast and intricate model of a new culture which is slowly built, brick by brick, on the solid foundation of enough to eat + somewhere to live + a job to do + the local school and hospital.

Prosperity has to be built. It won't just happen, and it's not as simple as a trillion dollar charitable donation ... although, yes, the kneejerk reaction is to want to just seize the billions from the guys on that Wiki list, and give them away! (That might be satisfying, but it's not the answer, guys: chill. Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean.)

For myself, I'm sure there are solutions ... but the best the folks at the bottom of the social ladder (like me, like you) can do, is lobby politicians to get something done at the top. That $5 you give to Oxfam is fine and dandy, but though it might feed a hungry family in Haiti for a couple of days, it won't even begin to help solve the global problem of poverty.

That magic is going to have to come from places like1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500 ... and Kirribilli House ... and 10 Downing Street.

Show me the petition, guys, and I'll sign it!

Here's hoping,

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