Poverty – a response (Blog Action Day)

15 10 2008

Coming from what I now realise is a fabulously wealthy country to one that is closer to what is normal for most of the world’s population evokes a number of reactions. Shock isn’t quite the word as television images and shorter trips to poorer countries prepared me somewhat in terms of what to expect, but there is still an emotional response to seeing a man with deformed feet wearing just rags sleeping in a gutter by the side of the road each morning on my way to work. Not that poverty is the only story here, most locals in town have a mobile phone, many have motorbikes and there are some privately owned cars. On the whole people are well dressed, shops have stock and a level of chubbiness is seen as a sign of success. But amongst the well dressed, chattering crowd are gaunt individuals dressed in rags holding out hands in supplication, and for even the tidily dressed life can be hard, little is wasted and resources are eked out. Even the middle classes are routinely forced to collect their water from standpipes and bore holes.

An obvious response to the sight is guilt, but I don’t think that it’s entirely appropriate. I’m not directly responsible for the conditions here, neither are my direct ancestors. When British administrators were diverting Ghana’s natural resources for their own benefit my great-grandparents and grandparents were ploughing other peoples’ land or driving other peoples’ trains. None of my ancestors were colonialists, professional soldiers or worked for companies that exploited the colonies. Any money I have I’ve earned for myself as computer programmer so what wealth I have is largely free of blood money. And but. But I benefited from a system that was built on the wealth of empire. The university I went to was built by Manchester cotton barons. I may not be guilty, but I have benefited from the crimes of others.

There is also the basic obligation of humanity. As a human I cannot sit and allow my fellows to live in avoidable misery. The measure of a society is not how rich the wealthiest are but how it treats the weakest. This mustn’t be a mushy, woolly emotional response to evocative TV images but instead needs to be a considered, sustainable approach where results matter more than ideology. Our aim must be to eliminate a world in which millions die every year of preventable diseases and a significant proportion of humanity live in absolute poverty, not to produce a perfect free trade environment or a socialist idyll. We need to consider what actually works rather than indulging in flashy, expensive experiments.

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