Category Archives: Poverty

It’s Time to End Our Collective Insanity

By Adam Parsons & Sonja Scherndl

Photo from http://hellemanworld.blogspot.com/2017/09/the-insanity-of-war.html

It’s time to end the insanity of colossal military spending and reallocate funds to basic economic and social needs. Imagine what could be achieved if just a portion of the money spent on military expenditures were pooled into a global fund and redirected towards ending hunger and massively investing in public health systems.

If nations had a referendum, asking the public if they want their taxes to go to military weapons that are more efficient in killing than the ones we currently have, or if they would prefer the money to be invested in medical care, social services, education, and other critical public needs, what would the response be? 

Probably the majority of people would not have to think long and hard, since for many life has become an endless struggle. Even in wealthy countries, the most basic social rights can no longer be taken for granted. Social services are increasingly being turned into commodities, and instead of helping ordinary people they must serve shareholders by providing a healthy profit margin.

The United States is a prime example, where seeing a dentist or any medical doctor is only possible if one has health insurance. Around 46 million Americans cannot afford to pay for quality healthcare—and that is in the richest country of the world.

In less developed nations, a large proportion of people find it hard to access even the most basic resources to ensure a healthy and dignified life. One in nine of the world’s population go hungry. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this crisis of poverty amid plenty, with the number of people facing acute hunger more than doubling.

There are now 240 million people requiring emergency humanitarian assistance, while over 34 million people are already on the brink of starvation.

But the United Nations’ funding appeals are far from being met, condemning thousands to unnecessary deaths from hunger this year. With aid funding falling as humanitarian needs rise, aid agencies are being forced to cut back on life-saving services.

Does it make any sense for our governments to spend billions on defence while fragile health systems are being overwhelmed, and the world is facing its worst humanitarian crisis in generations?

Global military spending continued to reach record levels in 2020, rising almost 4 percent in real terms to US$1.83 trillion, even despite the severe economic contractions caused by the pandemic. The United States spends two-fifths of the world’s total, more than the next ten countries combined, and still cannot afford to prevent 50 million of its own citizens suffering from food insecurity. Most shamefully, the United Kingdom is massively boosting its arms budget—the largest rise in almost 70 years, including a vast increase to its nuclear weapons stockpile—while cutting aid to the world’s poorest by 30 percent.

Consider what a fraction of military budgets could achieve if that public money was diverted to real human needs, instead of sustaining the corrupt and profitable industry of war:

  • Meeting Goals 1 and 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals— ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’ and ‘Zero hunger’—would barely exceed 3 percent of global annual military spending, according to the UN’s Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.
  • With the U.S. military budget of $750 billion in 2020, it could feed the world’s hungry and still spend twice as much on its military than China, writes peace activist Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK.
  • The annual nuclear weapon budget worldwide is 1,000 percent—or 10 times—the combined budget of both the UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO), according to the Global Campaign on Military Spending.  
  • Just 0.04 percent of global military spending would have funded the WHO’s initial Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, according to Tipping Point North South in its Transform Defence report.
  • It would cost only 0.7 percent of global military spending (an estimated $141.2 billion) to vaccinate all the world’s 7.8 billion inhabitants against Covid-19, according to figures from Oxfam International.

These opportunity costs highlight our outrageously misplaced priorities during an unprecedented global health emergency. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed just how ill-prepared we are to deal with real threats to our societies, and how our ‘national security’ involves a lot more than armies, tanks and bombs. This crisis cannot be addressed by weapons of mass destruction or personnel prepared for war, but only through properly funded healthcare and other public services that protect our collective human security. 

It’s time to reallocate bloated defence budgets to basic economic and social needs, as long enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Article 25 points the way forward, underscoring the necessity of guaranteeing adequate food, shelter, healthcare and social security for all.

There is an imperative need for global cooperation to support all nations in recovering and rebuilding from the pandemic. The United Nations and its frontline agencies are critically placed to avert a growing ‘hunger pandemic’, and yet are struggling to receive even minimal funding from governments.

Imagine what could be achieved if just a portion of the money spent on military expenditures were pooled into a global fund, and redirected towards ending hunger and massively investing in public health systems, especially in the most impoverished and war-torn regions.

The common sense of funding ‘peace and development, not arms!’ has long been proclaimed by campaigners, church groups and engaged citizens the world over. But it will never happen unless countless people in every country unify around such an obvious cause, and together press our public representatives to prioritise human life over pointless wars.

In the words of arms trade campaigner Andrew Feinstein:

“Perhaps this is an opportunity. Let’s embrace our global humanity, which is how we’re going to get through this crisis. Let’s put aside our obsession with enemies, with conflict. This is an opportunity for peace. This is an opportunity to promote our common humanity.”

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Adam Parsons is the editor at Share The World’s Resources, (STWR), a London-based civil society organization campaigning for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations. He can be contacted at adam@sharing.org

Sonja Scherndl is the campaigns coordinator at Share The World’s Resources and can be contacted at sonja@sharing.org

Originally published on Thursday, April 01, 2021 by Share the World’s Resources

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Why Is There Hunger in the Midst of Plenty?

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

In an interview on Democracy Now!, Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, raises the question why, when the planet is producing more than enough food to feed everyone, millions still face chronic hunger and starvation. The answer he gives points to fundamental structural flaws in the global food system.

Preparing complementary foods for children in Diffa, Niger
(Photo courtesy of Helen Keller International)

On December 10, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme, the world’s premier humanitarian organization combating global hunger and food insecurity. In his acceptance speech, David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, said that he saw the Nobel Committee’s decision to grant the prize to the WFP as entailing “a call to action”—action to ensure that hunger is finally vanquished from the face of the earth. However, he warned, we are currently heading in the wrong direction. A combination of factors—multiple wars, climate change, the use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and the coronavirus pandemic—is pushing 270 million people ever closer to starvation. Thirty million of these, he said, are completely dependent on the WFP for their food.

He pointed out that the present may be “the most ironic moment in modern history,” a time when we find a grim chasm between the potential promise of the world’s wealth and the appalling fate that weighs upon a sizable portion of humanity. The world economy today has a value of $400 trillion, yet 270 million people hover on the brink of starvation, facing horrific illness and death. It would take only $5 billion to save the 30 million lives that utterly depend on the WFP, yet the agency struggles just to raise even this much, a tiny fraction of the world’s military spending.

While Beasley applauds the work of the WFP in saving lives, he does not find his job an easy one. He says: “I don’t go to bed at night thinking about the children we saved; I go to bed weeping over the children we could not save. And when we don’t have enough money nor the access we need, we have to decide which children eat and which children do not eat, which children live, which children die.”

In its report on the granting of the Nobel Peace Prize, the progressive news program Democracy Now! featured an interview with Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Early in the interview, Salvador raises the question why it is, when the planet is producing more than enough food to feed everyone, so many millions face chronic hunger and starvation. The answer, he states, lies in the rules governing the global food system. The global food system, as presently configured, allows those in positions of power and privilege to make major decisions that deprive others, less powerful, of the resources they need to eat and thrive. Thus if hundreds of millions of people go hungry year after year, this is not because we are short on food; rather, it is because too many lack the means either to purchase food or grow their own food.

Salvador points out that the modern food system is designed as a business model. This model is not intended to guarantee that everyone gets to eat, but to ensure that those who invest in the system receive the financial returns they expect on their investments. It is not only wealthy investors who benefit from the system but even middle-class folk in economically affluent countries. In the U.S. and other developed countries, almost any middle-class family can obtain from the shelves of their local supermarket virtually any food item grown anywhere on the planet. But in other enclaves far from our sight, hundreds of millions suffer the consequences of the pleasures we take for granted. When we consume even simple everyday items like coffee, tea, and chocolate, we seldom realize that we enjoy these things through the labor of people who have been deprived of the basic resources critical to a satisfactory standard of living. Those out of sight may be out of mind—for us—but we should remember the billions of ordinary folk around the world (and even in the U.S.) who face a harsh reality each day, all year round.

One of the most abhorrent features of the global food system, mentioned by Salvador, is land grabs. In a traditional agrarian economy, farmers own small plots of land on which they grow crops for their own use and to sell at the local market. This allows them to subsist, not in luxury, but with a sufficient degree of stability to weather the storms of daily life. However, in countries in Africa and Asia, desperate poverty and official government policy often compel subsistence farmers to sell their small plots of land to state enterprises or large multinational corporations. These then consolidate the plots into large estates devoted to specialized cash crops for sale to the global North. As a result, local populations lack the land to grow the essential crops they need for direct consumption and to earn an income. Rendered landless and penniless, they have no alternative but to toil as wage laborers barely able to get by from one day to the next, usually under degrading conditions. And those who don’t get to work lose their line to food.  

Salvador cites Africa as an example of sheer economic pillage conducted under the guise of legitimacy. Though often depicted as a global basket case, the continent, he says, produces more than enough food to feed its entire population. However, what is occurring in many African countries is that “governments are making land lease deals with foreign companies or other nations, namely China, so that the production of Africa is literally appropriated to meet the needs of other countries that have the capital to compete for that land and for the production of that land against the interests of native Africans.”

Another form of food deprivation mentioned in the interview is the deliberate withholding of food as a weapon of war, a weapon that can be as lethal as bombs and bullets. The prime example he cites is Yemen, where a civil war is being conducted as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The conflict in Yemen is widely considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, precisely because of its impact on the civilian population. To subdue their rivals into submission, both sides in the conflict have imposed food blockades that have pushed millions to the edge of starvation. At times, as many as 8.4 million people have been at risk of starvation, with acute malnutrition threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children under the age of five.

Salvador does not make specific suggestions about the kinds of policy shifts that are needed to tackle hunger on a global scale, but his remarks suggest that a far-reaching overhaul of the international food system is mandatory. Whatever official policy changes are implemented must be guided by a moral imperative. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 25, adopts this moral stance, asserting that food is a fundamental human right. What we must do now, on a global scale, is take up the task of feeding the entire world population as a shared moral challenge, a challenge that must be met if we are to truly measure up to our humanity. People must always take priority over profits.

We can’t complain that we lack the funding to meet this demand. If we had the moral will, funds would not be an obstacle. After all, nations around the world—especially the major powers—invest hundreds of billions in their military forces and weapons of war. The U.S. itself has a defense budget of almost a trillion dollars. It would take only a tiny fraction of this to guarantee that everyone eats, that no one starves, that no child has to be reduced to a heap of skin and bones.

However, acts of humanitarian aid are not enough to redeem our humanity. People should be able to obtain the food they need in a way that affirms their inherent dignity. This means that they obtain their food through their own resources, not through charity. They would either grow their own food on land that they themselves possess or earn enough to live on a nutritious diet. To achieve this goal, the current dominant model of industrial agriculture, often cruel and destructive and blindly driven by the profit motive, needs to be gradually replaced by an alternative model, the most promising being that of agroecology. This is a model that gives precedence to the needs of small-scale farmers. Its output is at least equal to that of industrial-scale farms, yet it preserves the natural environment, centers the diet around vegetables and fruits rather than meat, and reduces the enormous carbon footprint generated by industrial agriculture. Whether we make the changes needed will mean, for many millions, the difference between a death sentence and reprieve.

The Persistence of Poverty is a Political Choice

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Embed from Getty Images

In a report issued on behalf of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, explodes the comforting myth that humanity is finally on the verge of eradicating extreme poverty. The report, titled “The Parlous State of Poverty Eradication,” insists that the belief that we are making good progress in eliminating poverty “is unjustified by the facts, generates inappropriate policy conclusions, and fosters complacency” (p. 1). The author maintains that our good intentions to promote greater economic justice are constantly being undermined by false assumptions about the extent of poverty and stymied by flawed decisions about the most effective means to vanquish it.

The report points out that the optimism among policy professionals and thought leaders rests on the use of a deceptive standard to define extreme poverty. The official standard, the World Bank’s international poverty line (IPL), is arrived at by averaging the national poverty lines employed by the world’s poorest countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The line, currently set at U.S. $1.90 in purchasing power parity, is “a standard of miserable subsistence rather than an even minimally adequate standard of living” (p. 1).

On the basis of the IPL, the U.S. in 2016 had a poverty rate of 1.2 percent, though the rate was actually 12 percent. On the IPL South Africa would have a poverty rate of 19 percent vs. a real poverty rate of 55 percent, and Mexico a poverty rate of 1.7 percent vs. a real rate of 42 percent. Setting the line so low, the report maintains, is bound “to guarantee a positive result and to enable the United Nations, the World Bank, and many commentators to proclaim a Pyrrhic victory” (pp. 4–5).

The report points out that much of the progress in eliminating poverty under the Bank’s IPL is due not to any upward global trend but to developments in China, where between 1990 and 2015 the number of people below the IPL dropped from over 750 million to 10 million. If a more realistic poverty line of $5.50 were adopted, the number of poor people globally held almost steady between 1990 and 2015, declining merely from 3.5 to 3.4 billion. That is hardly a reason to proclaim an end to extreme poverty.

Even under the Bank’s line, between 1990 and 2015 the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East rose by 140 million (p. 9). Using this weak criterion, some 700 million people worldwide live under $1.90 a day, which is morally abhorrent in itself, but if we were to take a more realistic measure the extent of global poverty would turn out to be vastly higher and current trends discouraging.

According to the report, efforts to eliminate extreme poverty are bound to run up against two factors that will inevitably increase the numbers of the poor. One is accelerating climate change, which we are hardly addressing with the urgency required. Over the next decade an altered climate is projected to push 100 million more people below even the weak standard of the IPL.

The other major threat is COVID-19, which over the next three years will drive 176 million people into poverty at the $3.20 poverty line. The report calls COVID-19 “a pandemic of poverty” which lays bare the parlous state of social safety nets for low-income people around the world. Rates of illness and mortality expose racial and class divisions, and access to health care and financial assistance is also skewed along racial, gender, religious, and class lines. Those hit hardest by the pandemic are the “essential workers” who do not have the luxury of “sheltering in place” but are compelled to work under precarious conditions, becoming “sacrificial lambs” to keep the economy functioning (p. 9).

The primary guideposts the international community relies on for tackling poverty are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The first of the goals is an “end to poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. Taken in isolation the goal sounds ambitious enough, but the specific targets proposed to meet this goal are “patently inadequate to actually end poverty, and the prospects of achieving them are rapidly receding” (p. 10). The tenth goal calls for reducing inequality, but the plan of implementation relies on the premise that the key to reducing inequality is continued economic growth—a shaky assumption, since history shows that the benefits of unregulated economic growth disproportionately go to the affluent.

The only viable way to end poverty, according to the report, is wealth redistribution, which would require more aggressive governmental control over the economy. However, the reigning paradigm of neoliberal ideology dictates that the market must be allowed to operate on its own, without government interference. Current attempts to achieve the SDGs therefore marginalize government action in favor of private investments and “public-private partnerships,” which usually optimize the interests of the investors over the needs of the poor (p. 12).

The report does not reject the SDGs themselves, but calls for reflection on “ways in which the overall package, including targets and indicators, can be re-shaped and supplemented in order to achieve the key goals which otherwise look destined to fail” (p. 14). One flawed premise that underlies the formulation of the SDGs is the idea that the most effective way to achieve them is through economic growth. While this premise is considered sacrosanct in neoliberal economic circles, the fact remains that the benefits of growth disproportionately go to those in positions of wealth and power. While the poor may see some small improvements in living conditions, economic disparities widen to a still greater degree and thus the old bugbear of inequality remains.

The staggering levels of wealth and income inequality in today’s world should dispel any inflated notion that the world is moving toward greater economic equity. The bottom 50 percent of the world’s population now owns less than 1 percent of total global wealth, while the top 1 percent holds 45 percent of the total (pp. 15–16). Reduction in economic inequality requires a redistribution of wealth, but figures like these remind us how far we have to go to overcome global poverty.

The report recommends global debt forgiveness as a critical factor in establishing a just international economic order. Another measure the author proposes is fair and equitable taxation, which “must be front and center in any set of policies to eliminate poverty.” Fair taxation has a significance that transcends mere economic pragmatism, standing as “a symbol of solidarity and burden sharing” and “a reflection of deeper values” (p. 16). Just tax policies would call upon wealthy individuals and successful corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, and this would require an end to tax evasion through the use of tax havens, for which the U.S. has been “the global trendsetter.” At present there are hundreds of thousands of tax havens worldwide, depriving states of as much as $650 billion in tax revenue (p. 16).

On the positive side, the project of ending poverty calls for the implementation of programs that provide universal social protection, helping people deal with the adversities brought on by sickness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Shockingly, four billion people—over half the world’s population—completely lack any level of social protection, while for many others the support available to them is far from adequate. This, according to the report, is “an extraordinary indictment of the global fight against extreme poverty” (p. 17) Continue reading

Training Single Women in Cameroon

By BGR Staff

BGR has been supporting the Cameroon organization CCREAD (Centre for Community Regeneration and Development) since 2017 on projects that provide livelihood training to widows and single mothers. In 2018, through the grant given by BGR, CCREAD was able to establish a second tailoring and design training unit, which enabled the organization to conduct more training sessions and enroll 68 new women and girls into the program.

As of February 2019, 68 widows and single mothers are undergoing full-time training, spending three days per week on intensive practical sessions in smaller groups split from the main training hall. Thirty-eight of the current 68 women in this cycle of training had been displaced as a result of political crisis and are now being empowered at the training center. Each of those 38 displaced women came to the training with children below the age of 10. CCREAD is helping to feed these children at the training center while their mothers undergo training.
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School Lunch Program for Marma Girls in CHT

by BGR Staff

 In 2016, BGR provided a grant to the Jamyang Foundation to support the free school lunch program at the Visakha Girls’ School in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The grant covered the period from April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017. This article, based on the final report from the Jamyang Foundation, describes the challenges faced by the school and the benefits of the project.

 

Visakha Girls’ School is located at Dhosri, a remote village in the district of Khagrachari in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh. The school was founded in 2005 and began offering free education for girls with the generous support of the Jamyang Foundation, which is under the direction of the American bhikshuni, Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. Initially, the Visakha Girls’ School offered classes to students in the 1st grade only. Later, more classes were gradually added. Now the school offers classes up to 5th grade.

The school still faces significant challenges. For decades the indigenous people throughout the Hill Tracts have been the subjects of genocide perpetrated by the Bangladesh military. The situation is critical and has required the UN and others to intervene several times, but for the most part the situation has received little or no international attention. Land grabs and aggression against the indigenous population occur continuously and any resistance to these injustices is met with extreme retaliation, including rape and murder by the Bangladesh army. The indigenous peoples of the CHT are victims of forced displacement and discrimination in all aspects of life in Bangladesh. The theft of their lands continues to have enormous social, economic, and political consequences for the people. Educating Marma girls is one of the only ways to protect them from exploitation and strengthen them to face the difficulties that lie ahead. Continue reading