Guest Blog – A Crisis of Conscience

Published October 17, 2008 @ 11:31AM PST

Wanted to follow the recent pieces on world hunger and declining humanitarian funding with a post by Alison Woodhead of Oxfam, about Stand Up and Take Action, which starts today. (To take action through, click here.)

Sometimes, it seems like writing about humanitarian relief is simply describing a parade of horribles – which makes Alison’s post, about what we can do to help change the situation, all that much more important.

A Crisis of Conscience

The numbers are mind boggling; the sense of panic is contagious. The global financial crisis has galvanised world leaders into finding unimaginable sums of money almost overnight to prevent banks collapsing, shore up failing systems and reassure nervous punters.

The arguments for urgent action to avoid systemic collapse are of course genuine and persuasive. But they reveal something extremely dark about the world’s priorities: we can find the money to bail out banks, but not to prevent the deaths of 30,000 children a day from povert

Mostly these children die quietly, far removed from the scrutiny and conscience of the world. It may be easy for us to ignore, but every day is a Financial Crisis for over half the world’s population who struggle for survival on less than $2 a day. The crisis on Wall St. and Main St. is no excuse to ignore the crisis in Kroo Bay – the infamous Sierra Leone slum whose residents face dehumanizing extreme poverty like millions more in the world.

The US bank bail out alone totalled $850bn. That would clear the accumulated debts of the 49 poorest countries in the world twice over. It is about 53 times as much as the annual cost of getting every child into school. And more than it would cost to give basic healthcare to every man, woman and child on the planet for an entire decade

Here is what we urgently need to stop the Poverty Crisis:

  • $16bn a year to achieve education for all
  • $50bn a year to achieve health for all
  • $50bn a year to help developing countries adapt to the impact of climate change
  • $200bn a year to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals
  • $30bn a year to end hunger
  • $50bn to cut in half the number of children dying from poverty

Duncan Green, our Head of Research, offers a further breakdown on his blog.  Or, check out the video we made with, Scarlett Johansson, John Legend, and others that helps put these numbers in perspective.

Some argue that these bail-outs are guarantees and loans rather than ‘real money’, and that therefore comparisons with spending on poverty are meaningless. Unfortunately there are plenty of other stark comparisons that do involve actual cash: Global military spending was a little over a trillion dollars in 2007.

The awful fact is, while current comparisons with spending on poverty are shocking, they are only going to get worse. Even in good times, many governments were reneging on aid promises; those now facing recession are more likely to follow suit. And other international processes may also be threatened – governments hunkered down against recession are less likely to have the political imagination and courage to reach the kind of agreements required on climate change – negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto protocol are scheduled to climax in Copenhagen in late 2009. East Africa is already suffering the onset of climate change, in the shape of unpredictable and devastating combinations of floods and drought.

So here’s a more heartening number: last year on world poverty day, over 47 million people took part in a record-breaking mobilisation against poverty. This year, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty are aiming for 1% of the world’s population – 67 million people – to stand up and take action.  You can take part on Beating a world record is an inspiring experience, but more important than the ‘standing up’ is the ‘taking action’.

Activist and journalist Jenerali Ulimwengu has dedicated his life to fighting for better governance in Tanzania.  During Stand Up and Take Action this year, Ulimwengu will spearhead demands for the government to make sure that poor people have access to clean portable water, improve access to healthcare.

In Madhya Pradesh, India, Yogesh Jain last year mobilized more than 200,000 people to protest at the districts’ lack of healthcare, clean drinking water and resources for education. As a result of the massive mobilization, government officials conducted surprise inspections that resulted in the allocation of funding for repairs and the allotment of government land for school construction. Mr Jain will be standing up and taking action again this year.

In the end, people created poverty and people will eradicate it. The movement against poverty is growing – embracing both rich country activists who are ashamed to live in a world where governments consistently break their promises to tackle poverty, and people living in poor countries, who are demanding better governments with the determination to improve the lives of their most disadvantaged citizens. With every government focused obsessively on the financial crisis, there has never been a more urgent time for ordinary people to stand up and demand that poverty stays at the top of the world’s agenda.

A reminder of the most shocking number of all: 30,000 children die every day from poverty — a child every 5 seconds. If that isn’t a crisis, it’s hard to imagine what is.

The author, Alison Woodhead, is campaign manager at Oxfam and a board member of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty.

Image: Slum in Sierra Leone – Photo by Save the Children


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