Tipping the scales

MDG 1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty

I remember seeing poverty as a child. I remember being astonished by the annoyance of people with fancy clothes and cars when being approached by a beggar. I remember asking my mother if we could give the poor lady we passed by every day some money or perhaps something to eat. I remember the shock when that lady in rags, pulled me close to her chest and gave me a hug and a kiss, when I gave her some coins.

poverty cartoon 2

The agony of poverty is something you can become numb for, but any child witnessing it for the first time will be startled and confused by it and tell you it is not fair. Why do we loose this feeling overtime? Is it because after a while it just starts to feel, -as we say it in Dutch- like mopping with the tap open? Like whatever we do won’t make a difference and remaining sensitive to it is just an extra worry in a life full of stresses of its own? And as the voice poking at your conscience becomes an inconvenience, it’s easiest to just look away and push all thoughts about this to the back of your mind.

There may even be times when you say that money doesn’t solve anything and having it can actually be stressful too. Sometimes you may even long for a life without possessions. It sounds appealing; simple and free. Low expectations, low stress and loads of time to savor the little things in life.

poverty cartoon 3

Living the simple life by choice is obviously in no way the same thing as living the poor life because you were born on the wrong side of town, with the wrong skin color, going to the wrong school (if any at all). It’s this enormous inequality that is most painful to witness. So, in my opinion we should not be talking about fighting extreme poverty but about fighting inequality. Luckily, the International Monetary Fund is getting on board as well because, as IMF’s Managing Director told BBC earlier this year, inequality in the world is actually on the rise!

People living in extreme poverty will have no problem confirming it’s not a desirable way to live and I’m sure they would agree that it best be ended asap, just as the Development Goals aimed to do. However, I’m afraid convincing those living in extreme wealth that their lifestyle is a problem, will be less easy. Billionaires will say they earned to be where they are and earn what they earn, because they worked hard for it. Oh sure, they’ll donate to charity, but never in such a way that it would threaten their lifestyle or change the world’s wealth distribution in any significant way.

Even more so, they will speculate on global markets in a way that prices on basic foods become painfully expensive for those at the bottom of the food chain, as the short video below demonstrates. The snarky old chap with his expensive suit and charming bow tie explains: 

I was a student and had a summer job on wall street and fell in love with investing. I thought this was wonderful! Because all I cared about was the world and what was happening in the world and what would be happening in the future. So I decided to become an “evil speculator”.

(…)

Politicians love to say it’s evil speculators, but the reality is; we’re running out of food. The inventories of food worldwide are among the lowest in recorded history. If we have a couple of bad crops like we did in 2008; if the weather goes bad; that’s why prices go higher. Of course investors see an opportunity and they go in and buy…

(…)

This sort of thing has happened throughout history. We’ve had periods when some people do well and other people do badly. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It’s the way the world has always worked.

In an opinion piece in the Guardian earlier this week, Zoe Williams writes about how it’s time to point some fingers and stop acting as if poverty is just a part of the world’s fabric and that nobody is to blame. To be precises, she writes:

Poverty is not a naturally occurring germ or virus; it is anthropogenically created though wealth extraction. Any goal that fails to recognise this is not only unlikely to succeed, but can only be understood as a deliberate act of diversion, drawing attention away from what might work; in its place, the anodyne, fairytale language of hope, in a post-ideological world where all politicians just want what’s best and a billionaire is just a benefactor you haven’t met yet.

Williams sees the same hardening and indifference towards poverty I spoke about at the start of this blog and poses some interesting questions of her own:

One is constantly told, on the progressive side, that social democracy has had its day because people generally have become meaner; attitudes to poverty have hardened, and generosity has withered, the man on the street is actually very judgmental about people who can’t support themselves or their families. But how would attitudes look if we had spent the past 30 years asking questions about the rich: their characters, their honesty, their industriousness, their contribution to society? If the problem facing the British economy had been identified as the destabilising effects of extreme wealth, how long would it have been before the wealthy themselves came to be scrutinised?

poverty cartoonShe emphasizes that looking at the extremely wealthy and pinpointing things that may be hurting society are not to be pushed away as bitter remarks from envious people. It’s time to pull on those heartstrings and feel again what we all felt when we were children: it’s wrong and unjust and must be addressed, if we are to take these SDG’s seriously!

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About Epi B

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. - Albert Einstein
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