It is my contention that the whole world needs freedom from poverty. It is not just the desperately poor who need that freedom. In tolerating a situation in which two billion people survive on £9 a week, we are all implicated and all need setting free from the slavery of poverty.
This article explores this freedom, and the casual, underlying and root causes of poverty.
If you live in a prosperous country and are middle class you may not be fully aware of what it means to live in poverty and what it would then mean to be free from poverty. “Freedom from poverty” may not greatly stir our emotions but to those who experience poverty on a daily basis, the possibility of freedom from that poverty would stir the deepest of longings.
- Imagine being a mother and not being able to buy enough food to feed your family.
- Imagine being the wage-earner but finding that day after day there are no jobs available.
- Imagine being a parent and having to stand helplessly by while your child dies for want of simple medicine which is not available to you.
- Imagine having to walk 5 miles to collect muddy water which you know contains life-threatening bacteria.
- Imagine being a child wanting to be a doctor but being told that even a secondary education is financially impossible.
This is not rocket science. At a family level these could be solved easily by digging wells, providing schools and medicine and an investment in the infrastructure of these societies. It is only when we look at the worldwide picture that the whole situation can seem hopeless.
But there is hope. Freedom from poverty could be achieved if individuals in more countries, and also the well-off in developing countries really decided that they could no longer tolerate their fellow human beings or fellow countrymen living in abject poverty.
Altruism, charity and love cry out that poverty should simply not be tolerated. But logic says the same thing. Even if we are motivated by self-interest, we need to realise that in lifting the poorest out of their poverty the whole community benefits.
A new way of thinking
Imagine if the millionaires of India were motivated to help the low-caste millions by sharing some of their resources and allowing freedom of opportunity in jobs and creating a climate of freedom from poverty. India could become a prosperous nation and that prosperity could be shared by all the population. The underprivileged would no longer be dependent on aid from the West and the country could be a source of development investment into other less-developed countries.
In the United Kingdom we need a new way of thinking. We can still help whether it is through volunteering, campaigning or giving money. But we must realise that we are no longer world rulers. We do not have a divine right to tell the developing world how they should be doing things. We have some expertise to share but that needs to be given with a spirit of humility being willing to learn from others and resolving together what works best in their culture and circumstances.
I am often saddened to receive emails, letters and proposals from projects around the world. I am saddened firstly because we can’t possibly help all of them. But I am saddened mostly that we have taught them to beg, casting their net wide without even expecting a reply in the hope that one of the recipients might consider a donation.
What I really want is somebody to say, “See what we have done; come partner with us; we need you but you also need us; learn from us and we can learn from you!”.
Partnership is the key. We need equal partners. As a charity we have a legal responsibility to monitor how funds are spent but this should not be reflected in our attitudes towards our partners. Accountability is necessary but this should be two-way. I remember handing out a copy of our annual accounts to a partner in India. He was amazed and said, “No other agency has done this”. We expect vulnerability and transparency from our overseas partners but we too need to be transparent and vulnerable.
In the United Kingdom we have benefited from the world’s resources and it is time to give something back. In the past we benefited by transportation and selling and exploitation of slaves. We have benefited by cheap natural resources and unfair trade restrictions. We have a limited window of opportunity to give back to the world. How long do we have? Perhaps 50 years, perhaps less. There is no guarantee that the western system will last. All empires of the past have eventually fallen. Perhaps we need to treat the rest of the world as we would want them to treat us in future!
In talking about freedom from poverty we need to address the causes of poverty and the effects of poverty. Of course we want to deal with the root causes, but when disaster or famine strike we can’t sit idly by debating the causes. We sometimes have to deal with the effects of poverty.
The casual causes of poverty.
There are many causes of poverty and at different levels. There are the casual causes of poverty such as natural disasters, lack of education and lack of access to medicine. These can be treated without necessarily going any deeper. For example Dubai has a lower rainfall than Somalia. But Dubai has water to spare whereas a drought in Somalia can cause famine and death. An earthquake of magnitude 7.1 in Christchurch, New Zealand, although causing much structural damage resulted in no direct deaths whereas a similar earthquake in Iran caused 40,000 deaths and left 500,000 homeless. We need to look at underlying causes to see the difference.
- A remote area may lack in access to health care. This is a major cause of poverty. Providing a rural clinic may meet some of the need, but poverty can cause malnutrition and so the clinic does not deal with the underlying cause.
- Lack of education certainly is a cause of poverty but the provision of schools may not be possible because of corrupt local officials or a political or religious system may not allow the education of girls.
- Lack of locally grown food will produce poverty but the dumping of an excess produced under the common agriculture policy of the E.U. can destroy the profitability of local farmers.
- People of “low-caste” will have a very low-income to live on but it is the lack of freedom to seek better employment in the job market which keeps them enslaved in poverty.
Underlying causes of poverty.
There are many underlying causes of poverty. Here are some of them:
- Famine is a man-made disaster. A drought may have natural causes but combined with subsistence farming or war and conflict can easily result in thousands of deaths and many more losing everything they have.
- Disease is a cause of much poverty but is the unequal spread of medical resources which causes so much hardship by preventable diseases such as diarrhoea and malaria.
- War and conflict results in untold deprivation by creating famine, enforced subscription of child soldiers, loss of possessions through looting, loss of harvests and livestock to soldiers resulting in critical loss of social and material structures and whole populations being reduced to extreme poverty.
- Unfair trade can result in produce designed for export having it’s price being held artificially low keeping thousands at subsistence level.
- Corruption is also an underlying cause of poverty. Local and national officials and politicians often steal what is given and make it impossible for an enterprising farmer or worker to rise above the level of poverty he finds himself in.
- Racial hatred is an underlying cause of poverty. Racial hatred has caused untold misery in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo Sri Lanka and South Africa. Racial intolerance can also keep whole populations in subjection resulting in poverty.
- Religious intolerance has been a contribution to poverty in Northern Ireland, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, India, Chechnya and many more places. Jews, Christians, Hindus and Moslems have all been oppressed by each other.
- Political and economic systems have created enormous poverty. More people died in China during the “great leap forward” than died in the second world war by the monumental famine produced by a failure of an economic system. The jury is still out on the effect of unbridled capitalism on the world’s poor.
- Dictatorships too have caused much distress. Pol Pot in Cambodia, Adi Amin in Uganda and Gaddafi in Libya for instance have caused poverty or death for millions.
Root causes of Poverty
We have looked at some of the underlying causes of poverty, but beneath these are what I believe to be the “root causes”. In a nutshell the root cause is human nature or what the Bible calls sin.
– these are the root causes.
Human nature has positive and negative connotations. Selflessness, compassion and love are human attributes and if applied to economics, and the way we treat our fellow-man, would result in the whole world being set free from poverty.
Capitalism is based on the notion of universal selfishness. The theory is that if we all look after just our own interest then we will all benefit. But capitalism has failed miserably to bring freedom from poverty to large sections, indeed the overwhelming majority of humanity.
Consumerism is based on a desire to have things that we do not always need and based on the crazy idea that possessions bring fulfilment. Do we really need 50 pairs of shoes to be happy? Consumerism is based on greed but is the main engine of growth in developed countries. A system which encourages us to buy things we really don’t need, produced by people living in relative poverty, corrupts us all.
Racism is based on fear of other cultures, often with an instinctive feeling that we are somehow better and different from those “over there” or have come “over here”. Are we really aware that a statement such as “British jobs first” could have a dramatic effect on the livelihood of others?
Freedom from poverty is the great need of so many people living in absolute poverty around the world and in relative poverty in developed nations. But freedom from poverty does not just effect the poor. I believe that tolerating poverty corrupts us all. Every man, woman and child in the world, billionaire and peasant alike would know greater freedom if poverty were to be abolished and relegated to history.