Sunday, February 14, 2010

The End of Poverty?

The End Of Poverty? from Philippe Diaz on Vimeo.

This Saturday I went to Radical Living for a New York Faith & Justice house gathering/film screening to watch The End of Poverty? This film doesn't just give us the sobering statistics about global poverty, but also tells us how economic disparities came about and many ideas for what needs to be done to fix the situation. I won't bore you with too many statistics, but just some overall things to think about. Poverty as the world knows it today comes from structural injustices that allow big, multinational corporations to exert an unfair influence on developing countries. As the film points out the Global South is actually financing the North "to the tune of about $200 billion every year." Crops and resources are grown and taken from developing countries (the growers being paid way under the cost of production for these goods), brought to developed countries like the US for processing, and then shipped back out to other countries. When the product gets back to developing countries that import goods from the US, it is still cheaper to buy than from growers who try to make a living off of selling crops directly to their countrymen. This is exactly what had led to developing countries becoming dependent on imports from places like the US, and is exactly what happened in Haiti with the rice crop (here's a video).

Why don't governments say no to these trade agreements? I've heard from several people who have worked and lived in Africa that there is no government accountability and regulations are not enforced. However, as I learned today representatives from large multinational corporations (of course, Monsanto comes to mind) insidiously make deals with politicians, promising them money and threatening them to not carry out their campaign platforms. This leads to poor accountability for everyone in the country and lets the big corporations privatize and monopolize the country and its resources.

Additionally, as pointed out in the film, many agricultural practices today are the same as slavery used to be – except today, the workers haven't rebelled, and their employers aren't responsible for them. "Back then, the boss was the slave's owner. He had to take care of the slave's health and food. He had to take care of shelter, even if it was the slave's quarters. Today the boss has no such concerns."

The End of Poverty? focused a lot on the history of colonialism and capitalism as a central cause of poverty, and explains how in order to have wealth in capitalist societies, we have to create poverty in the south. "There is no other way." And unfortunately in the past 25 years or so economic disparities have been getting wider. Not only that, but the countries with the biggest income disparities are also the ones with the highest rates of violence. We do not see this violence in the poorest of the poor countries.

The existence of the poor, underserved workers means that we can buy products for 10% of the cost of production – an issue which has far-reaching implications for the health of consumers and the environment. We are currently using 30% more than what the earth can regenerate; in order for everyone to live like we do in America, we would need six planets; while if everyone were living like people in Burkina Faso, we would only need 1/10 of the planet. As an example of what goes on with the food industry in America, watch The True Cost of Food.

Some other discussion which came about from watching the film included a discussion about the term "developing." Did the film glorify indigenous peoples? I thought this was similar to Avatar. How much should we really be encouraging "developing" countries to become more industrialized? What third world countries need is a means to have their needs met: clean water, public health measures, adaptation to climate change, and ownership of land so they can grow food for themselves. Yes, some countries need roads and education and sustainable technology, but we need to make sure we don't push the development of industrialization in the same way the "developed" countries of the Global North came about. Poor use of resources is exactly what has led to the social injustices and climate change issues we worry about today. Perhaps we need a new term to clarify meeting the needs of poor countries. And of course, these needs need to be identified by the community in question. Telling people what they need without understanding their situation doesn't help anyone and is disrespectful.

With that said, there are some changes to be made which can indeed help bring many people out of poverty. Some solutions for ending poverty pointed out in the film (listed out clearly in a space where you can sign a petition to mobilize support for change) include ending the monopoly over natural resources and at least 51% local communal ownership in corporations, redistribution of land to farmers, a cap on exports, a worldwide subsidy for organic agriculture, and cancellation of third world debt (such as that vowed by the G7 in cancelling Haiti's debt). Others include ending child labor under the age of 16 with a creation of a subsidy for scholarship, getting rid of the tax on basic consumption and labor and instead having a 2% worldwide tax on property ownership (except basic habitation for the poor), ensuring an equal voting system in international organizations such as IMF, World Bank, WTO, and of course a commitment by industrialized countries to decrease carbon emission by 50% over a ten-year period.

How can this all be funded? I vote for everyone chipping in to the first non-for-profit global lottery dedicated to sustainability – multinational corporations included.

I also vote for new accountability for multinational corporations – such as limiting the reach of Monsanto, the global fishing industry (which has overstepped its boundaries so much that many of the world's fish are in danger of extinction – no more fish by 2048), fast food and junk food companies (which have already contributed to the nutrition transition – obesity occurring in the hungry even in third world countries), and infant formula companies (the last thing third world countries need is to be told their breastmilk isn't good enough. Breastmilk has so many more benefits than infant formula it's unbelievable. In Ghana they have a saying that goes something like "bottle fed babies are stupid, breastfed babies are smart." Instead money could be given to mothers so they can grow and buy food for themselves – the only reason breastfed infants would be malnourished is because the mother is malnourished. And money could be given to mothers in the form of conditional cash transfers which would ensure children were educated and kept healthy, in exchange for money for food).