Erasing extremes of poverty
October 29, 2003
EVERSINCE the leading international financial institutions began emphasising the importance of eradicating from the lives of the teeming masses in the Third World, the worst manifestations of poverty and hunger, the recognition has deepened that the security of the 'haves' will forever be threatened by the 'have-nots', many of whom will not be content to exist in abject need and squalor. Studies initiated by the World Bank in the mid-1990s revealed that approximately on billion men, women and children each existed daily on just US$1 a day. Hordes of persons displaced by civil strife, wars, famines and ethnic clashes in the undeveloped countries routinely go to sleep half-hungry, filled only with hope that the morrow would bring something better into their wretched lives. These people suffer and die from diseases, which are preventable either by vaccines or by the adoption of basic sanitary practices. Their life-spans are shortened by mal-nutrition, prolonged and brutal overwork, contaminated water and by primitive health customs. Education is a luxury that they cannot afford, so there is little hope that they could ever break out of the cycle of poverty and hunger without tremendous assistance and encouragement from agencies in their communities.
Although poverty and hunger are common in most countries of the Third World, there is growing evidence that more and more persons in countries that were considered affluent just a decade and a half ago have joined the ranks of the unemployed. Argentina comes readily to mind. And even in the planet's only superpower -- the United States of America -- hundreds of persons rely on food aid to survive. A few months ago in this column, we mentioned a report that was aired on ABC television detailing the measures adopted by some parents to ensure that their growing children received nourishment on a daily basis. One mother spoke of diluting the milk with water and noting her relief that the baby did not know the difference!
Many social theorists attribute this rising level of poverty in some places to the inexorable spectre of globalisation, which although promising and ensuring prosperity to efficiently-run economic facilities, spells gloom, disaster and marginalisation for those less competent producers of goods and services. Pundits had predicted early in the 1990s that not only would globalisation engender sharp divisions between some countries, this economic gospel would also separate producers within nations condemning the lesser mortals to economic oblivion.
But what will be the fate of those persons, who, because of circumstances beyond their control, are ignored and unheeded with very little hope of improving their status? Here, we must recall the words of South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gardiner, who, in the mid-1990s, wove words eloquently to pull together the various strands of human needs and aspirations. She wanted to highlight the importance of nourishing the human mind after the basic creature comforts are met. Gordimer wrote in the UNDP publication CHOICES: "Food and water: they go together in eliminating the material aspects of poverty, along with shelter. For a long period, for many people in the more prosperous parts of the modern world, homelessness was something that existed elsewhere. It was truly a Third World phenomenon...but now the Third World of poverty rather than geographical definition is everywhere; every city in the world is a warren of people with nowhere to live."
Gordimer then spoke of another manifestation of poverty, which state she perceived as "a deprivation of the intellect, of the world of ideas from which millions suffer often without knowing it, condemned to plod through their lives at the lowest level of human consciousness...Let us understand poverty as the sum of all its hungers, the conscious and the unconscious ones of its victims. Our responsibility is all-encompassing, this and every year." Quoting Bertolt Brecht, who once admonished, "First fill the belly, then talk right and wrong", Gordimer mourned the waste of human intellect, which because of ignorance and illiteracy "will plod through lives at the lowest level of human consciousness". The author was convinced that if the mind is allowed to remain at this level it will never develop "the conceptual tools to explore the wonderment of existence, and to enjoy music, literature and the beauty of form".
Viewed through the prism of Ms Gordimer's philosophy, the challenge of erasing the worst manifestations of poverty will include improvements in standards of living as well as the necessary stimulus to release the creative instincts of the mind.