During our trip we visited ActionAid projects in the following countries: Pakistan, Nepal, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The projects ranged from education and skills development to disaster relief and HIV/AIDS. What did the people affected by the projects have in common across the different countries? Why are these people suffering such poverty that they require outside aid? What do we mean by poverty anyway?
The world bank compares poverty globally by examining the income of people in those countries in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms (where PPPs measure the relative purchasing power of currencies across countries) but also recognises that the social and psychological effects of poverty are terrible qualities experienced by the worlds poor. It is not possible to quantify or compare these effects among countries and people however so the economic variable is a more useful comparison tool.
Absolute or Extreme Poverty is then defined as having a daily income of less than 1 USD. Moderate Poverty is defined as having a daily income of between 1 and 2 USD. Most estimates from international organisations indicate the number of people living in extreme poverty as approximately 1 billion and the number of people living in relative poverty as 2.5 billion. The current world population is approximately 6.5 billion. Why does nearly 1/6th of the worlds population live under conditions of extreme poverty and why should we care?
A question like this is never going to have a single answer and the reasons for poverty are unique to each area. However, by examining the factors which affect each region it is easy to identify contributing factors which are closely inter-related and work in combination to trap people in the misery of extreme poverty. The often-cited “Poverty Trap” is not just a theory. It is a real and terrible economic phenomenon which has been studied by top economists such as Jeffery Sachs (special economic advisor to Kofi Anan) [Ref. 1]. His conclusion is that extreme poverty is a vicious circle that cannot be broken by the people afflicted by themselves - a certain amount of outside aid is necessary. Moderate poverty is not a vicious circle in that economic growth can and has occurred without outside aid. The aim of the UN millennium project on ending extreme poverty is therefore to help countries trapped in extreme poverty to progress to at least moderate poverty from where they can continue to grow economically.
Why does 1/6th of the world’s population live in extreme poverty?
Factors which combine to cause poverty:
Geographical Remoteness - people living in geographically remote areas suffer from economic and social service isolation due to poor or non-existent transport routes and from the lack of arable land. The projects we visited in Laos, China and Vietnam were located in 3 separate countries but were all located in remote mountain villages within 100 miles of each other. The routes to these locations were extremely rough and could only be navigated by 4×4 in dry seasons (not at all in wet) and for one we had to travel the last 6Km on motorbikes as the trails were much too narrow to allow access by car. Also, mountainous regions yield far fewer crops than flat terrain and so limit agricultural output. Subsistence farming is the norm in these locations. [Ref. 2]
Environmental Degradation - people living in areas that have suffered environmental degradation (e.g. soil erosion, pollution, salination, flooding) suffer from lack of clean water, lack of arable land and increased risk of disease in the case of flooding.
Natural Disaster - Disasters such as earthquakes, flooding, drought, typhoons etc. can cause massive initial casualties which focus world attention for a week or two. However, the survivors are left without shelter, access to clean water and with devastated farmland. When the initial disaster relief gets withdrawn these long term issues are often left unaddressed. In the area of northern Pakistan affected by the earthquake in October 2005, people are still living in tents on the hillsides in July 2007.
Over-population - studies have shown that poverty tends to result in over-population which of course exacerbates poverty in a vicious cycle. Over-population puts additional strain on food, water and social resources which contributes to poverty. It is well recognised that in affluent societies the birth-rate tends to decline to such an extent that the population will actually decrease unless inflated by immigration.
Lack of Education - the lack of adequate provision of education is a major factor in the poverty trap. Children born into this situation are deprived of any opportunity to better their situation.
Politically Closed Systems - people living in politically closed systems have little or no opportunity to trade internationally, can suffer repression for their political views or ethnicity. It’s no co-incidence that most of the people we met on our visits to projects sites were from ethnic/tribal minorities within their countries.
Other factors - include violent conflict and pervasive diseases e.g. malaria, HIV/AIDS.
Why Should We Care?
Purely Selfish Reasons:
1. Environmental Destruction.
Poverty is closely related to over-population and environmental degradation. The loss of bio-diversity, loss of carbon sinks in the form of woodland and peatbogs, erosion of soil and pollution of water resource has major effects on the global environment including weather patterns and directly affects us all. The increase in natural disasters such as flooding in the UK and USA in recent years is as a result of global warming caused by increased Co2 emissions combined with decreasing carbon sinks. Water and air quality are not restricted to one country as demonstrated by acid rain and the dust cloud over Asia. The large number of species facing extinction is due to the lack of funds available to poor governments for conservation and due to poaching as a means of income by poor people with few alternatives.
2. Economic Benefit.
Global capitalism works more efficiently when countries can trade on an equal footing and reduces waste in the form of inefficient protected markets and the unnecessary transport of goods. Helping developing countries out of poverty will also contribute to economic growth in affluent countries in the form of increased trade and market efficiency.
3. Armed Conflict.
Extreme poverty regularly results in violent conflict as increasing numbers of people compete for a decreasing resource base. Modern armed warfare results in huge numbers of casualties, can quickly spread to other countries not initially involved and causes mass forced emigration i.e. refugees/asylum seekers. May people in affluent countries are worried by the prospect of large numbers of refugees arriving at their borders and the possible effects on society and the economy. By reducing poverty, one of the major causes of armed conflict and therefore forced emigration is reduced.
4. Illegal Drug use in Affluent Countries.
Crops such as poppies and coca are grown in poor countries by farmers unable to make a living selling food crops. By giving these farmers a viable alternative to drug crops, the availability of illegal drugs and the associated crime and social problems can be vastly reduced. It is clear that police and court attempts to curtail drug use in affluent countries within the last 30 years have failed miserably. This failure is a glaring example of how ignoring poverty in other countries directly affects us.
Diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and Tuberculosis are more prevalent in poor countries lacking money for prevention measures e.g. education, mosquito nets, contraceptives, and treatment medicine. The increase in disease increases the chance of mutation resulting in more virulent disease which cannot be combated by the modern medicines we possess in affluent countries.
Why Should We Care?
1. The Ethical Argument.
Modern utilitarian ethical ideology has as its central premise that the outcome of any decision or action is justified ethically if it results in more conscious creatures being better off than if an alternative was chosen. In short, it’s better to make more people happy than fewer. All the major religions have similar premises. It should be fairly obvious that people living in poverty would be happier if they were better off and that affluent people would be happier knowing that they were better off.
2. Human Rights.
People living in poverty suffer human rights abuses such as lack of adequate food, shelter, access to education, lack of political and religious freedom.
3. Loss of Culture, Art, History and Diversity.
Lack of resource to maintain diversity in the form of art, historical monuments, unique music and language results in the degradation and loss of these priceless cultural traditions.
It should be obvious from looking at the factors contributing to poverty that one quick solution is never forthcoming when attempting to combat poverty. Donation of emergency relief aid packages in the the form of food or medicines can help mitigate sudden disasters that otherwise would cause alot more death and suffering but fail to address the root causes. International aid and development organisations recognise this and so work on a number of fronts in each area to eliminate the main causes of poverty to allow people to break the poverty trap and reach a point whereby they can continue to progress. For this reason ActionAid works in the following areas: Food security, HIV/AIDS, Education, Capacity Building, Gender, Micro-credit schemes, Governance, Water Resources, Trade Justice, Disaster Relief and Land Rights.
It should be equally obvious from looking at the reasons to combat poverty that it is in everyone’s best interest to work towards achieving the end of poverty regardless of ethnicity, political or religious persuasion.
What Can You Do As An Individual Living In A Society Of Comparable Affluence?
The ethical argument for action is clear and has been presented by moralists and ethicists for many years. [Ref 3]. There are several things you can do increasing in effort required but also effectiveness:
1. Individual Monetary Donation
As a bare minimum donate an affordable proportion of your wage to international aid and development organisations.
2. Active Fund-Raising
Actively fund raise by organising events e.g. concerts, fun runs etc.
3. Exercise your political clout
Help put political pressure on your government to fulfill their continual, self-congratulatory and rarely fulfilled promises to developing nations to increase aid and cancel historical debt. This can take the form of simple email petitions to government ministers which take less than 5 minutes or more active protest or political involvement.
The importance of this step cannot be underestimated. With single stroke of a pen, the UK government could cancel all historical debt from developing countries thereby immediately improving the lives of many millions of people. It would take a huge number of individuals doing activities 1 and 2 to achieve a similar result.
Undertake voluntary work. This can take many forms, from working in a high street shop e.g. Oxfam a few hours a week to performing volunteer work abroad as part of a vacation or sabbatical.
Ref 1. The End of Poverty - Jeff Sachs
Ref 2. Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond
Ref 3. Practical Ethics - Peter Singer