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January 14, 2007

Who can Make Poverty History?

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In an age in which the total income of the world’s 500 richest people exceeds that of the poorest 416 million, it is fair to say that the world is characterised by a huge level of inequality.

In the summer of 2005, the Live8 event reminded us all that we’ve got it pretty good, compared to the billions that live in conditions of poverty, war, famine and disease. The Make Poverty History campaign encouraged millions of people to take action, and to do their bit in the fight to end world poverty. But who can take the most effective action?

For many, the most obvious response to this question is to leave it to the government. Those in power have the know-how and the resources to make the important decisions that affect lives across the globe. Getting involved in politics, either through a political party, or by lobbying government, therefore seems like a good starting point if we are ever going to make poverty history.

In the search for solutions to global problems, the importance of government policies is undeniable. In Britain, at least, the Labour government has confronted development issues head on, and today the Department for International Development (DFID) is committed to halving world poverty by 2015.

Although many campaigners and academics would debate the level of success achieved by DFID and by the Labour government, its potential ability to make a real difference to the lives of those in developing countries is considerable.

On an international level, it is governments who fund, and therefore influence, bodies such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. The choices made by these institutions can make or break a community’s prospects for development.

However, it is easy to assume that governments are more often than not in the pockets of big business, and that ultimately the private sector gets its own way. It is certainly true that the governments of many developing countries struggle to compete with capitalist muscle. In 2000, the Institute of Policy Studies reported that of the 100 largest economic entities, 51 of these are corporations.

Sadly, it seems almost inevitable that industry will tend to take advantage of countries with the weakest labour laws and environmental standards. This can have devastating consequences for a population, such as the ‘Rainforest Chernobyl’ in Ecuador. CorpWatch reported that local communities “have suffered severe health effects, including cancer, skin lesions, birth defects, and spontaneous abortions,” all a direct result of Texaco’s disregard for the environment.

That is not to say that the private sector is incapable of working towards progressive causes. It has, after all, become good business sense for companies to engage in more responsible practices, and it is hard to deny that – generally speaking – consumers are starting to become more aware of the benefits of ethical spending. Sales of Fairtrade products, for instance, have been growing at an average of 20% every year since 2000.

It’s easy to forget how much power consumers do have in influencing the behaviour of big business, but there are plenty of cases of consumers demanding more than low prices.

In 2002, for example, Nestle was forced to retract its demand of $6million from the Ethiopian government. The Swiss food giant, concerned about the impact of a consumer boycott, responded to the 40,000 emails it had received (thanks to a campaign initiated by Oxfam) and even offered to reinvest a part of its profits (which totalled $6.51 billion in 2001) back into Ethiopia.

Nestle’s retreat in 2002 was a great example of why we shouldn’t underestimate the role played by civil society in tackling global problems.

On campus too there are plenty of opportunities to contribute. A range of societies, fundraisers, political parties and campaigning organisations frequently seek student support for their causes. Anyone who spends time in the library would have noticed the various societies and charities that set up stalls outside, campaigning on a range of subjects.

Students have more opportunities than most to enhance awareness and have their say on an issue. At the first Warwick International Development Summit, participants discussed the best ways to address and reduce global inequality. Can any one course of action be said to be more effective than the others?

The progress up until now has been a product of the actions of governments, companies and civil society. And ultimately, the impact that all these groups have is determined by the actions of individuals, and by the decisions that we take in our day-to-day lives.

It all boils down to the choices we make. Who to vote for, what to buy, and when to act. As tempting as it might be to entrust the future of the world’s poorest to men in suits, there’s plenty we can do.

Written for the Warwick Boar with Julie and Carole Biau, 27th November 2006 

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  • An excellent blog Simon. I am looking forward to seeing 'Outfoxed' quite a lot now. Hope you keep th… by on this entry

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