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Ending Poverty One Person At A Time

Mal Fletcher
Posted 19 June 2009
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A few years ago, at a Make Poverty History rally, Nelson Mandela said: 'Sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.'

I recently interviewed Dr Tony Campolo for a new TV series. Campolo is a respected sociologist and author and professor of sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. A former advisor to President Bill Clinton, he is widely recognized as a leading advocate and campaigner on social justice issues.

I put it to him that making poverty history sounds good, but that for many people it remains little more than a noble dream, given the size of the problem.

His response was characteristically succinct: with the enormous reserves of wealth still held within the developed world and the forces of globalisation and digitisation in media, we are the first generation in history which could realistically put an end to poverty.

There are, of course, many factors that contribute to extreme poverty. Population growth is one. Every month, there are 7 million extra mouths to feed across the world and the world's population will reach about 9.5 billion people in the year 2050. Twenty years later, says the UN, it might start to decline.

Rising food prices are another real problem, especially for people who rely on food imports. Sadly, even when prices are low, millions will starve, because the poorest of the poor live in isolated areas, eking out a living on small landholdings a long way from where food is distributed.

Meanwhile, diseases like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and malaria add even more misery to the lives of the very poor. Every year, there are around 500 million new cases of malaria alone, most of them among children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Then there's the issue of international debt. For decades, many poor countries have had to spend more on debt repayments to rich countries than on meeting the needs of their people. And the penalties they've been charged for unpaid debts have often exceeded the amounts they receive in aid.

If the international community is serious about knocking extreme poverty on the head, this has to be one of its first priorities. The G8 meeting in Scotland promised to reduce debts, but years later many of its own targets are still not met and poor nations are yet to see any cancellations of their debts.

As an international community we must also invest more in research and development - for drugs to fight killer diseases like HIV/AIDS, and for crops that are better able to tolerate drought and pests.

Some US companies are already using genetic engineering to develop these kinds of tolerance, but in Europe there's a huge debate about the impact of GM foods. Yet research has to continue - and it has to be funded more by governments and not just private companies so that the profit motive doesn't muddy the waters.

The weight of poverty statistics alone can leave us feeling totally overwhelmed - more than one billion people still live on less than one dollar per day.

Yet we can each make a difference, even if just on a local scale.

Recession is, of course, never good news. Three hundred and fifty people go bankrupt each day now in the UK and millions are out of work, many of them school leavers and university graduates. Yet for those of us who are still in work, recession gives us an opportunity to rethink our priorities.

By releasing ourselves from the bondage of perpetual consumption, we can free up resources to help the poor - at home and abroad. We can adopt what might be called a more deliberately and strategically generous lifestyle.

Such a lifestyle begins with a choice to live more simply. Excessive comfort often breeds a mentality of reliance on things, where material possessions start to 'own' us.

Even before recession took hold, people in various sections of society were looking for ways to live more frugally; because of concerns for the environment and a desire to make a difference to issues of financial inequity.

Groups like the 'Frugalistas' - mainly middle class women who've taken to growing their own food, recycling clothing and reducing their carbon footprint - are helping to free resources for distribution to the less fortunate.

A simpler lifestyle involves a decision to adopt an attitude of contentment. This wasn't a popular concept during the years of our economic boom, where the major aspiration was to consume as much and as quickly as possible.

Yet given our present circumstance many people are rediscovering the joy and release of being grateful for what we still have, when our natural tendency may be to focus on what we've lost or to covet what belongs to someone else.

A simpler lifestyle also involves what I like to call giving dangerously. I am by no means a master of this, but it means going beyond the call of duty in our support of good causes, aid organisations and people in need.

Giving dangerously also means releasing resources in a very strategic way, with clear long-term goals. If we give only in response to the latest headlines, when the media moves on to another story, the money dries up.

Giving time can be just as value-adding as donating money - and it's more readily available in an economic downturn. A good friend has adopted what he calls the 'fifteen minutes of inconvenience' principle. He deliberately gives up fifteen minutes each day to do something which inconveniences him but benefits others in the community.

Volunteering time to help the work of NGOs or faith-based charities like Habitat for Humanity can also be both personally rewarding and a positive way to impact poverty.

Whether or not we do, in fact, make poverty history in this generation, whether or not we live up to Nelson Mandela's challenge, time alone will tell.

I suppose one has to wonder whether our innate human capacity to selfishness and greed might somehow get in the way of our good intentions. But as Dr Campolo reminded me, for the first time in history the goal is within our reach and there is no excuse but not getting involved.


Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2009

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Keywords: making poverty history | g8 | tony campolo | social justice

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