I’m not feeling well today and was originally going to take the day off from posting, but then I realized it was Blog Action Day and the topic is Poverty. Given that this is one of my pet issues, I refuse to pass this opportunity by. I apologize that the post is going to be rehashed material from some of the courses I’ve taught.
That said, here’s a way to understand world poverty: 50,000 people die of poverty-related causes every day, including 34,000 children under the age of five. Since numbers don’t really do justice, here’s a picture: imagine that roughly every two minutes, a school bus full of children crashes, instantly killing every one of the children on board. Or another: roughly every second three seconds, 1 child dies from poverty-related causes. Lastly: roughly 17 times the amount of people lost during 9/11 die every day to poverty-related causes.
Take a second to think about that.
Obviously, were this many of our citizens to die daily, we’d see it as a huge problem. But the fact that we don’t know the people who are dying doesn’t change the fact that they are. And we can’t claim ignorance like the generations that preceded us – we know this is happening every day, yet we aren’t doing anything about it.
There has to be our reason for our inaction – and, in fact, there are four of them that com up rather often. Thomas Pogge catalogs these reasons in the introduction to World Poverty and Human Rights. It’s an excellent book that moves beyond the typical, philosophical approach of showing that we have reasons to act differently towards the issue and actually gives well-reasoned and -researched suggestions for how to go about it. Also, importantly, all royalties from the book go to Oxfam UK, so please do consider ordering it so that we all benefit from it.
I’ll present these reasons and follow them with a short passage for why we ought to reject those reasons.
Four Easy Reasons to Ignore World Poverty
- Preventing poverty deaths is counterproductive because it will lead to overpopulation and hence to more poverty deaths in the future.
- World poverty is so gigantic a problem that it simply cannot be eradicated in a few years, at least not at a cost that would be bearable for rich societies.
- World poverty cannot be eradicated by “throwing money at the problem”
- World poverty is disappearing anyway.
Wherever poverty is alleviated and women gain better economic opportunities and control in the institutions of society, birth rates drop. Furthermore, our ability to produce food actually increased faster than the relative increase in population. The root problem is not lack of food or resources, it’s the distribution of resources.
Furthermore, there’s a callousness in this type of reasoning that few people are willing to admit. Were it our children starving to death, we wouldn’t think people withholding help to them based on a supposed lack of resources would be justified in doing so. The fact that it’s their children has a lot to do with how quickly we are to admit this reason.
Pogge’s research shows that a transfer of 1.2 percent of the aggregate annual gross national incomes would eradicate massive world poverty in the next couple of decades. 1.2%. Surely we can live without that penny on every dollar – and us living without it means that hundreds of millions can actually live.
This one is obviously true. We have had many failed attempts at just throwing money at the problem. The issue is that this strategy is a short-term response. Were we to focus on the education, infrastructure, and governmental aid to the nations that have the most debilitating poverty, we could feed the children of today so that they become the learned and competent adults of tomorrow.
We have enacted many pledges which rarely are carried to action, but even when they do, they still underscore the problem. With what we’ve pledged (but not followed through on), Pogge’s research suggest that there will still be 250-million deaths from poverty-related causes over the next 19 years. If we back out of our pledges like we historically have, there will be many, many more hundreds of millions of deaths in that same period.
I really encourage you to ask yourself if you’ve been using these four easy reasons as reasons to not act on the problem of global poverty. The research and reasoning simply does not justify and support these reasons, and the millions of people dying every year provide ample justification to start doing something about it. In the end, the 1.2% from us stops those buses from crashing every minute of every hour of every day of every year.
But What Can I Do About World Poverty?
In reality, the only solution to world poverty is a combination of individual and collective action. You don’t have the resources of a government, but you’re individual actions influence the way your government works. But the point is that you have to start acting before our governments will do anything.
So, here’s what you can do:
- Become educated about World Poverty
- Persuade others to join you
- Write your politicians
- Develop a small way to help with that issue that you do on a regular basis
While wanting to help is admirable, it’s critical that you become educated about the issues. It’ll increase your confidence that what you’re doing helps, and it will better help you…
An easy way to “own” an issue is to get T-shirts for the issue and actually wear them. It markets the issue, but it also places you in the position to be an advocate for the issue. Warning: this requires some courage.
Draft a well-written but personal letter to your politicians letting them know that you care about the issue and that you expect them to do care and act, as well. If you have a small coalition forming, cite that coalition so that they know they’re not dealing with just one person but a block of voters.
Evangelizing is great. Donating money to organizations that champion your issue is even better. The best thing you can donate, though, is your time and elbow grease – for that’s what most groups don’t get.
The point here is to start small. Don’t become the regional president of Amnesty International without attending a few meetings. But attend a meeting. Volunteer (for one day) to hand out fliers or mail newsletters.
Yes, I’ve said this before. I’ll no doubt say it again when I get the chance. If you really want to help but don’t know where to start, check out my favorite non-government organization for World Poverty: The Heifer Project International. They not only help people in ways that make sense for their culture, but they also promote the “Pay it Forward” ethos through their program. Combining teaching people to fish while infusing the “teach others” ethos is a powerful solution that’s both effective and ethical.
I’ll end on this: imagine if everyone took seriously the fact that we each are responsible for ourselves, each other, and the world we hand over to the next generation. Imagine if we saw the starving children as a personal problem that we need to do something about rather than “an issue.”
The problem with the world is that the bad people in the world understand how their actions effect the world and actually do something – they understand that killing thousands terrorize people into submission…that warping their minds with hate gets people to carry out collective horrors…that withholding food from people starves their kind out of existence. What if the good people mobilized into action with the same zeal?