*Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
*The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (567 million people) is less than the wealth of the world’s 7 richest people combined.
*Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
*Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000. It didn’t happen.
*1 billion children live in poverty (1 in 2 children in the world). 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, and 270 million have no access to health services. 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (or roughly 29,000 children per day).
*Poverty is the state for the majority of the world’s people and nations.
I remember the first time I confronted grinding poverty and how I felt about it. In 1975, when I was 25 years old, I spent Christmas on my parent’s sailboat. They were cruising the Caribbean at the time and we agreed to meet in Haiti, at the northern tip of the island. My then-husband, our young son and I met my parents at the airport in Cap Haitian and boarded their boat.
It wasn’t until the following morning when we debarked for a tour the town and its environs that I ran face to face with poverty of the grimmest sort. Young children with bloated bellies, wearing torn and ratty clothing, accosted us at every step. We were obvious targets; they were begging.
“Hey Mister,” they said, trotting along beside my husband and me, “you give me one dollar.” When he refused they were undeterred. “Hey Mister. You give me two dollar.” It was funny and charming but the situation they lived under was not.
The chasm between our standard of living and theirs was so vast I felt as though I was on another or planet, certainly another hemisphere. We gave some money to the kids, knowing it wouldn’t help. After a few days I didn’t want to get off the boat anymore. I couldn’t face them.
From the comfort of my parent’s sailboat I watched as a huge cruise ship–The Carnival Kind–docked and disgorged tourists into the streets. In the afternoon I saw passengers high up on the decks. They spent their lazy afternoons sipping drinks and tossing coins over the rails. Kids dove in that filthy harbor for their casually discarded change. The callousness of that scene burned into my consciousness forever.
One afternoon my mother and I talked about it. How could I have so much and these people have nothing? We agreed it was difficult to come to grips with, and both agreed that it wasn’t our fault. It was simply kismet that put them where they were and us where we were. Even if I had a million dollars, I rationalized (and that was back when a million dollars was worth a lot more), and even if I gave every single Haitian I met a dollar, it would do no good at all. I remember I also remarked that the Haitians seemed happier than most North Americans I knew, yet had so much less. It was a convenient explanation and allowed me the luxury of accepting the idea that there was nothing I could do.
On that trip my then-husband and I bought arts and crafts from vendors and did not haggle over prices, although our tour book suggested otherwise. We did what we felt we could. Over the years and with more knowledge I came to realize that in reality it was our fault.
It is a collective fault. That poor countries continue to fall further behind and rich countries continue to prosper is no accident. When wealthy countries keep poorer ones indebted, they are forced to sell their goods and services at cheaper prices. When people are desperate for food they will capitulate.
I have never forgotten that trip to Haiti. It was those people who convinced me help in any way I could for the rest of my life. But what can we really do? The statistics are truly overwhelming and get graver every year. I think the answer lies in the gathering our energies and resources together to effect change. It also requires individual vigilance.
I now live in a place where the standard of living is not North American by any means, but people in Costa Rica –by in large– do fairly well. My now-husband and I make sure that our hired man, for instance, is paid a proper wage, his utilities are paid for by us, he has health insurance, retirement and a decent roof over his head. His salary goes to his family and his personal needs. We pay him more than the average police officer makes here (which might also explain why they are so corrupt). José lives on about $14 a day; about what I lived on when I was raising two kids by myself back in the 1980s. It’s not a lot, but I know he is well provided for. That is one thing I can do.
This blog alert day is just one way to draw attention to the issue. I’m not sure we can ever “end” poverty but we can do a lot to diminish it.
Here are some things we can all do as individuals:
*Make sure politicians know where you stand on the issue. Write a letter to your representatives. Only support those who have dedicated plan to combat poverty.
*Insist that Free Trade Agreements be Fair Trade Agreements
*Conserve energy. The less you use, the more there is to go around.
*Invest in education (especially for women) as study after study shows that poverty comes from lack of education; support education initiatives on the ballot.
*Support a raise in the minimum wage
*Volunteer in your community. Teach someone to read.
*Give to your local food bank
*Donate items you don’t use (or don’t need) to charities that distribute free of charge to the poor
*Read books about what you can do
*Think about it.
*Write about it
*Refuse to be silent
Imagine yourself in a similar situation as those less fortunate. The latest global economic downturn is a reminder that any of us could just as easily be in the situation of the Haitian or the Sudanese or a poor inner city kid in Detroit with no money and no hope.
Think of the less fortunate as your equals. By lifting them up we are helping the planet and ourselves.
Places to donate your money or your time:
And watch the American presidential debate tonight. Which candidate speaks about poverty most often? Which one has a clear plan to combat it?