“Raise your hopeful voice; you have a choice” - Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, in the song Falling Slowly
While it is easy to criticize wrongdoings in other countries — dictatorships, cruelty, corruption, torture, oppression of women, genocide — it is more difficult, and yet so much more important, to start with the wrongdoings in your own country.
It is rarely ever said that we, the United States and other industrialized nations of the world, are responsible for the deaths of millions of poor, of children, of oppressed, in the Third World nations of the world. And yet, we are, in a very direct way.
I don’t often talk about politics, mainly because I’ve worked in the politics industry for so long and I know that it’s mostly all for show — elections are a dog-and-pony show where the powerful get elected every time, and the public rarely talks about issues that matter.
But today I’ve decided that with an audience so large, not to mention an audience as generous and compassionate as all of you are, I have a responsibility to raise my hopeful voice in defense of the voiceless, the powerless, the hungry and the dying. It would be wrong of me to be silent when I know better.
Today I’d like to talk about Third World poverty, and why we in the First World are responsible. And how we can change it.
What’s at Stake
I am not going to bore you with statistics, and this post would be pages and pages long if I went into details. But let’s just briefly look at what is happening in the Third World, a group of countries that is immensely populous but immensely poor.
The effects of the extreme poverties of these countries is devastating. Just a few:
- There is famine in many countries, and people are dying of malnourishment, of starvation, and of related diseases. Many of them live in the streets, children included, with no shelter, no jobs, no hope of anything better. From one.org: “Around the world, over one billion people survive on less than a dollar a day and one person in seven goes to bed hungry each night.”
- Access to health care is almost non-existent, and millions die of diseases that are easily preventable or curable, simply because they can’t get medicine. Again, from one.org: “Every year, nearly 10 million children die before their fifth birthday – that’s one every three seconds – nearly all of them from preventable or treatable diseases like diarrhea, pneumonia and measles.”
- Access to education is also very limited, and therefore they have very little opportunity to improve themselves. Who can go to school when you’re starving, when you’re dying of diseases, when you have no shelter or clothing? About 72 million children have no access to education.
- Health of mothers: “Every year, over half a million mothers die from complications during child birth, and tens of millions more suffer from pregnancy related illnesses and injuries.”
- Combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria: Although HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria are entirely preventable and treatable, they are three of the world’s most devastating diseases: in 2007, HIV/AIDS killed more than 2 million people, tuberculosis killed 1.7 million and at least one million people died of malaria.
The Causes of Third World Poverty, Briefly
There are many, many causes of Third World poverty, and it would take several books to explore each of them. But I’ll mention a few briefly, so that we can see how we’re responsible:
- Agricultural conditions: Many poor nations don’t have a lot of arable land due to many factors: deforestation (usually to meet the paper, beef or other needs of First World countries), erosion, overgrazing, droughts, and other man-made or natural causes.
- Corruption: Many countries have gone through decades of devastating corruption at all levels of government — systematic corruption which robbed the taxpayers, left the nation with crippling debt, and left many other problems as well. Many of these countries (not all) have gone through major government reforms, so that the corrupt regimes are a thing of the past — but the debt and other problems they left behind are still very real.
- Debt: Because of corruption and mismanagement of funds, among other issues, Third World countries are often left with enormous debt that they will never be able to pay back — and in the meantime their debt payments cripple their economy so that they cannot improve conditions. This debt can easily be forgiven by First World countries with little impact to our economies.
- Overpopulation: Many poor nations are extremely crowded, especially in urban areas, without the infrastructure required to feed, clothe and house these rapidly growing populations. The issue of overpopulation is a complicated one, and it’s being addressed internationally. But actually most poor nations could theoretically feed their populations if things were restructured. For example, they grow enough crops to feed their population, but much of it is exported to richer nations — 80% of the world’s crops are consumed by the richest 20% of the population (First World countries). Much of their land is also used to produce crops that are excessive considering their population’s needs: tobacco, for example, and sugar, beef, biofuels, and other crops to meet the demands of First World countries.
- “Structural changes”: The organizations of the First World (WTO, World Bank, etc.) have forced Third World countries to accept “structural changes” and unequal trade agreements that leave these countries at an even further disadvantage to solve the problems they face. Because of the enormous power of rich First World countries and crippling debt of the Third World countries, the poor nations have no bargaining power. First World countries, for example, can offer some debt relief to the poor nations, but only if they accept “structural changes” that will allow the First World countries and global corporations to profit from the Third World countries. Often they are forced to privatize public assets, for example, selling major governmental entities to global corporations (giving them a monopoly over public assets) and leaving the government with less of an income stream. The list of changes these countries have been forced to make is long and catastrophic.
Again, this is just a very brief introduction to the causes of Third World poverty, but it serves as an illustration for what we in the First World can do to help.
What We Can Do to Help
While it might seem like an overwhelming and insurmountable problem, we in the First World have the power to make a major difference, if we can get enough of us to join in the effort. Some of the causes of global poverty in the section above are fixable, with actions from our government. And as we have democratic control over our government, we can pressure our elected officials to make important changes.
Some things we can do:
- Debt relief: First World nations can cancel debt owed to them by Third World countries without imposing devastating conditions on them, freeing up resources for human development. This single step would be huge for most poor countries, and make very little difference to developed nations.
- Release controls: We need to stop imposing controls on underdeveloped nations (through the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organization) that favor multinational corporations and hamper the growth of these nations.
- Send aid: While aid is already going to Third World countries, it is on a very small scale and can easily be increased. It should also be directed more effectively to improve human conditions, for education, sustainable development, improving the rights of workers, and address deplorable living conditions, for example.
- Empower people: We can help people in underdeveloped nations become more empowered by providing them access to free education (with no user fees), giving them free health care (again, with no user fees), assisting local businesses to grow their businesses and create jobs, and so forth.
- Fair trade: Developing countries should have the freedom to set their own trade and investment policies (instead of having them imposed by international institutions), putting the interests of their people first. Instead, “liberalization” has been forced upon these countries, allowing multinational corporations to harvest natural resources, exploit workers and farmers (who are powerless against these corporations), export much-needed capital, and in general end any chance at sustainable development.
What You Can Do Right Now
So if this problem is something we in the First World can help alleviate, what can you do as a person, right at this moment? Several things:
- Let your elected officials know: The policies outlined above (and more) can easily be enacted by our governments, with the proper political will. It’s just a matter of enough people letting elected officials know how important this is to the electorate, and voting accordingly.
- Join together: It’s only if we unite that we will make progress. Join an organization such as the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and One.org so that you can help make these policies a reality.
- Support organizations: Support Fair Trade companies by buying products marked with “Fair Trade” and donate to organizations that are helping developing nations (United Students for Fair Trade). Support Train For Humanity (an initiative I’m involved in) which allows endurance athletes to use their training to raise money for humanitarian causes.
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