The most powerful force of change on the planet is a girl. (Thanks to the input from my friends Judith, Anne and Billy who challenged this statement. I would reword it replacing ‘force of change’ with ‘force for change’. What do you think? Does it make a difference?)
I was speaking with my friend last night, Armen, who lives in a part of Sydney known for its relative poverty. The area around Macquarie Park has changed radically over the last 11 years. Now there is a train line nearby, and with the university and shopping centre a short walk away you would hardly think it was once among the worst areas for crime and social neglect.
We spoke about poverty for some time, and about how complex this issue is to understand. Armen made a distinction between a physical poverty and spiritual poverty, and how this is sometimes overlooked. People can see the obvious signs of physical poverty so clearly.
Does this distinction matter when the physical needs of extreme poverty are so profound?
Hans Rosling, the intellectual heavyweight and Professor of Global Health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, wrote a really encouraging comment a few weeks ago on this blog. I thought I would share it here:
I wish you good luck Matt.
The seemingly impossible is indeed often possible, but be aware that the impossible is impossible. It takes a lot of wisdom to see the difference between the impossible and the seemingly impossible. We follow you with interest!
All too often, statements have been made then expectations failed about what was thought as possible. Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1987 famously stated that
“…by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”
This has not been achieved, especially on many remote Indigenous communities. This comment should not be used for cheap political point scoring or neither used to judge the performance of Mr Hawke. In 2007 he claimed it was among his biggest regrets in his political life.
We should take Hans’ caution seriously. Do we have the wisdom to discern what is in fact impossible? And how do we then navigate the path forward past failed expectations?
Already, many of the Millennium Development Goals appear to be closer to impossible than possible. “Hope dims for universal education by 2015”. Can we arrest child mortality as one target to achieve?
Should we prepare ourselves now for a more realistic outcome in 2015? Is there more we can all do to change the situation in some small way? The disappointment at the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 was significant. A different issue to extreme poverty. How will we respond when the Millennium Development Goals are accounted for in 2015?
What is impossible?
Yesterday I made a post about The Big Divide- Rich and Poor. My friend Suji responded with a great comment on facebook:
I was confronted today by the reality of what the big divide means at street level…sydney siders going hungry because they can’t earn enough to pay their bills or feed themselves. Unacceptable!
I gave it some thought and responded with this comment:
Hey Suji, where was that? The sad thing is if you start looking around you can see that it is more prevalent than expected. The tragic thing in that circumstance is when people slip from a position of not enough money or food into a behavioural pattern where they accept that as the norm.
In my blog I was addressing more the distinction between what you have described (an ethical question: who is responsible- community, government, ‘the super-rich’, the individual) and those who have no choice or not even a chance of good policy to make a difference- those whose only certainty is to have filthy water, disease and dysfunctional governance.
I think that is unacceptable!
So much need. Where should we start? What do you think Suji?
I am not sure of exactly what Suji saw, but I believe it is an important point that she made. I was a little reluctant to share the next piece of information, but in the interests of an open discussion about poverty I think it is important: In the past, I have been in both situations that Suji described. Confronted by the reality of what the big divide means at street level. And at another time going hungry because I didn’t earn enough to pay my bills or feed myself. Not great admissions. Both unacceptable.
But what is it that is unacceptable? That it happens or the situation itself? Who is responsible? Is anyone responsible? Can we draw a comparison to those in extreme poverty?
Again, I would return to reframing the situation. As much as the situation is unacceptable here in Sydney, what is considerably worse are those 4,000 children dying of diarrhoea every day. Unacceptable because of filthy water, disease and dysfunctional governance.
To share more about myself, I have also been confronted with the bitter tragedy of infant mortality with the death of my brother’s young son, Zander, who lived a life measured in hours not years. I felt the grief that he and his wife experienced, and the implications this had for our family and friends.
I cannot fully comprehend what this would be like to occur on a larger scale with a horrible frequency. Sierra Leone in 2007 was recorded as having the highest rate of child mortality of 262 deaths per 1000 children under the age of five. That is completely unacceptable.
I promise you I will be thinking of how wrong these figures of child mortality are for every step of the 24,000 metres I will run for each of the 10 runs over the coming 30 days. 24,000 is the number of children over the age of five who die daily using data from 2008. How I wish it was a lot less, and not because I would prefer to run a shorter distance.
I am asking you to participate in the 10 City Bridge Run. This is not a spectator sport. If you are able, please sponsor me for $24.
Eight days to go until the first run on 14 October commencing the 10 City Bridge Run!
I thought it might be timely to revisit the Millennium Development Goals and try to shed some light on where progress is occurring. More importantly, also examine where the shortfall might occur on 2015.
Millennium Develop Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
There are three targets under this goal:
- Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day
- Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people
- Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger
Conflict and the global financial crisis is cited as the reason for a disappointing backsliding in some of the progress last decade. Some comments from the United Nations of progress are:
- The global economic crisis has slowed progress, but the world is still on track to meet the poverty reduction target
- Prior to the crisis, the depth of poverty had diminished in almost every region
- Deterioration of the labour market, triggered by the economic crisis, has resulted in a decline in employment
- As jobs were lost, more workers have been forced into vulnerable employment
- Since the economic crisis, more workers find themselves and their families living in extreme poverty
- Hunger may have spiked in 2009, one of the many dire consequences of the global food and financial crises
- Progress to end hunger has been stymied in most regions
- Despite some progress, one in four children in the developing world are still underweight
- Children in rural areas are nearly twice as likely to be underweight as those in urban areas
- In some regions, the prevalence of underweight children is dramatically higher among the poor
- Over 42 million people have been uprooted by conflict or persecution
The Sydney Morning Herald reported a story titled The big divide: the super rich versus struggle street. I thought it was worth looking at this further from a perspective of extreme poverty. Is there any correlation? Is this part of the conversation?
A short answer would be ‘No’.
The conditions of those in extreme poverty is so atrocious, it beggars belief. Try and comprehend 4,000 children dying daily from diarrhoea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation.
Just as this is not the ‘fault’ of someone else having a lot of money (or little money), it is not ultimately solved by more money or more aid being directed at the problem. Neither is ‘more awareness’ on its own going to solve the problem. Same for ‘more education’.
These are all pieces of how the problem should be addressed. Aid given through foreign policy could be targeted as much as the ‘super-rich’. It also becomes a big ethical question of what is super-rich and how should ‘they’ respond? Should being able to have a manicure (the opening example in the article) necessarily entail obligation and responsibility and more for someone who is less able.
My friend Virginia challenged me on how is the 10 City Bridge Run going to make a difference. I believe it will do this through leverage. And it is at its core an intellectual challenge. This does not mean that we all sit around and think our way out of extreme poverty. That would be nonsense and action is required.
How might this change things, really? That is a good question. Imagine many people (many in the thousands) who each change how they think about this issue a little bit, not just one but on a regular or occasional basis over the course of a year, and with their thinking their actions also change.
This is what I believe needs to occur. Maybe meeting the Millennium Development Goals is impossible. Noises from New York would already indicate that the global financial crisis is the convenient reason to explain why these targets have not been met.
If the conversation about extreme poverty is only measured in money and aid, rather than actions and outcomes my fear is that the end of poverty will be a long, long way from us yet. To create a change, we first need to change our thinking, and very quickly after that have our actions reflect this change in mindset.
If anything, the conversation about the ‘super-rich’ and ‘struggle street’ is an unwelcome distraction from what constitutes extreme poverty. Good for selling newspapers.
A demographer at KPMG, Bernard Salt, said rising inequality was beside the point as most Australians were better off than they were 20 years ago.
”If there is a divergence emerging it is because the super wealthy are doing so much better. I don’t think it’s because the battlers are going backwards. Everyone did well, it’s just that the upper end did well better,” he said. (quoted from the SMH article)
My good mate Luke asked me a question this morning by email. “What is the 10 City Bridge Run actually about?” It is a good question. Here is an answer.
The central question that the 10 City Bridge Run seeks to address is: “How can you build a bridge to help close the gap on extreme poverty?” A response requires to you think and feel, as much as to act.
This is part of a bigger movement about social impact. In this movement, we are each playing a small part in a bigger change. The 10 City Bridge Run is a small part in a well-established ecosystem of other initiatives.
We all should know that extreme poverty is a problem. There is enough news and branding around the issue. But do we know the extent to the problem, or do we know how we might make a difference – a real difference- aside from donating money to charity?
The 10 City Bridge Run presents a global challenge. There is a physical challenge – the 10 sub-marathons across 10 countries, which is more of a symbolic act through a tough and demanding journey.
The bigger challenge, the real challenge, is asking people to engage intellectually; asking people to engage emotionally and take action. Small actions. Like taking a photograph of others building a bridge.
Is it possible? Does it matter? Can one person on their own make a difference? (I would suggest the answers are Yes. Yes. and No.) And these answers are reflective of the bigger questions facing humanity on the issue of extreme poverty.
It is a complex issue. I think it starts with building a bridge to help close the gap on extreme poverty. You might be doing this already, and if so please show us what that looks like by capturing that in a photograph.
There are larger global forces at work. Is the global financial system broken, at least in part? This is the importance of passing a petition to the G20 Summit leadership. Will the petition make a difference? Will President Lee Myung-bak acknowledge the receipt of the petition? There is only one way to find out, and that first requires the collation of 24,000 photographs online.
Please join us.
Put simply, the United States is changing the way we do business… For too long, we’ve measured our efforts by the dollars we spent and the food and medicines we delivered. But aid alone is not development… Instead of just managing poverty, we have to offer nations and peoples a path out of poverty.
Speaking from New York at the United Nations Summit on the Millennium Development Goals on 22 September, President Obama gave emphasis to a number of points in relation to the eradication of extreme poverty. Here is one opinion from an observer. For me three points stood out that should grab our attention:
- If we continue to keep on the same trajectory we won’t succeed and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (by 2015)
- To developing countries (read the G20 members): Resolve to put an end to hollow promises that are not kept. Focus not on money but on results.
- No one nation can do everything and do it everywhere. Just as this work cannot be done by one government, division of labor among a wide array of stakeholders is crucial.
What can we expect in 2015? Is this hope we can believe in?
Is the seemingly impossible possible?
Goodooga, located 200 km from Lightning Ridge in Northern NSW has a population of around 270 people, of which more than 80% are Indigenous. Look it up yourself on googlemaps…it is real.
The town has a strong community spirit and is trying to survive by building grocery and petrol services to be run by a local cooperative.
What has this to do with extreme poverty you might ask?
Much has been written about aid- curse or cure. A lot has been written about the adoption of enterprise and design initiatives to overcome the effects of poverty (for example, child mortality in so-called “Third World Countries”). Some of the health interventions are in the form of aid, and some are made sustainable through enterprise.
These situations are complex, and not just about the grandeur of a large institution or the macro-economics of how statistics might be improved.
What actually happens among real people matters. There is no silver bullet delivered by any rock star or politician to solve these problems.
Please support the 10 City Bridge Run to highlight small actions which will make a big difference in showing that the impossible can be possible. Please sponsor me with $24 here.