Presentation – 1.4 Billion Reasons

By Sam Ryan
1.4 Billion Reasons

Could you live on $2 a day?

Given a single morning coffee costs around twice that much, it is almost unimaginable for most of us. Yet 1.3 billion people – that’s almost 60 times the population of Australia – currently live in extreme poverty, on less than AUD$2 a day.

… as people rise above the poverty line we should be even more inspired to see the possibility of a world without extreme poverty.

On Tuesday 1 May, at the Monash University Law Chambers, Paul Mason delivered 1.4 Billion Reasons, presented by Global Poverty Project in conjunction with the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Although the World Bank recently lowered the total number of people living in extreme poverty from 1.4 billion to 1.3 billion, Mason insists the new data doesn’t lessen the need for engagement and action. Indeed, as people rise above the poverty line we should be even more inspired to see the possibility of a world without extreme poverty.

And while great progress has been made across Asia – helping to halve the rate of extreme poverty since 1981 – the number of people living below the line continues to grow in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mason is a young, but experienced and well-travelled, activist who exudes a fine balance of urgency, hope and empowerment. He traces his own interest in social justice back to his childhood in South Africa when, as a nine-year-old, he queued with his parents for hours while they waited to vote in the country’s first democratic election in 1994. The man elected President that day, Nelson Mandela, is an enduring inspiration for Mason, who summed up his view of this global challenge by quoting a speech Mandela made ahead of the 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

For those of us fortunate enough to have been born with access to these basic necessities – and more – it can be difficult to understand the complex problem of extreme poverty.

It is true that $2 goes a little further in the developing world. In Indonesia, Mason points out, it might buy enough rice, vegetables, water and cooking oil for two basic meals. But that would leave about ten cents per day for all other aspects of life – transport, education, health care, shelter and any other basic requirements.

For those of us fortunate enough to have been born with access to these basic necessities – and more – it can be difficult to understand the complex problem of extreme poverty. Former President of the World Bank, Robert McNamara described it as “a condition so limited by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency”.

When targeted effectively, aid can be successful and sustainable …

While international aid is a crucial starting point, the problem is about more than money. It is, Mason says, about “having enough food to eat, it’s about being able to drink clean water that doesn’t make you sick, it’s about being able to go see a doctor if you are feeling unwell, it’s about being able to ensure that children can go to school and it’s also about being able to earn a decent living … Without each of these dimensions, people can be stuck in a cycle of poverty that can threaten their very existence.”

When targeted effectively, aid can be successful and sustainable, getting the ball rolling in setting up trade and industry to flourish and lift communities out of poverty. Mason cites a range of examples to show that it can work. Fifty years ago South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, but foreign aid invested in schools, roads and hospitals has helped it become the first nation to move from an aid-receiving country to an aid-giving country. Ghana, through investment in infrastructure and the provision of clean water, has halved its rate of poverty. International trade has lifted 400 million people out of extreme poverty in China.

In recent years non-government organisations have been able to expose the misuse of funding … and place pressure on the banks that facilitated its transfer.

Sadly, in several developing nations corruption presents a significant barrier to investment. However Mason argues that corruption, which no country is entirely free of, is not an excuse to withhold aid but rather, a reason to strengthen transparency and accountability.

In recent years non-government organisations have been able to expose the misuse of funding in places like Equatorial Guinea, and place pressure on the banks that facilitated its transfer. Under new legislation in the United States, private companies that pay to extract natural resources in a developing nation are required to publicly declare how much money has been paid. The Publish What You Pay movement, supported by various local non-governmental organisations, is now pushing for similar legislation in Australia.

Ethical consumerism has helped to establish and grow a new, fair trade industry in recent years.

Trade too, is not without its problems. Subsidies, tariffs and exploitation often restrict farmers and producers from competing or earning a fair wage.

However, Mason points out that it is in this area that individual choices have the greatest power for change in the globalised, interconnected community if we ask the question: “Does the coffee we drink, the clothes we wear, the chocolate we eat, come at the expense of a child’s freedom or a farmer’s dignity?”

In Australia we throw away as much food as the United Nations World Food Program needs to ensure no one goes to bed hungry.

Ethical consumerism has helped to establish and grow a new, fair trade industry in recent years. While the movement hasn’t taken off in Australia as much as, say, the United Kingdom, it demonstrates the power we have as individuals to affect change half a world away.

Bringing the issue home, however – into the consciousness of people who can make a difference but perhaps don’t realise it – is one of the most important challenges of a problem with a foreseeable solution. In Australia we throw away as much food as the United Nations World Food Program needs to ensure no one goes to bed hungry.

Right now, the Gillard government is considering abandoning its commitment to increase international aid to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2015 for the political achievement of a budget surplus. Meanwhile British Prime Minister, David Cameron, managing a far more volatile economy, has promised to increase the government’s contribution to 0.7% of GNI, saying that “we won’t balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world.”

From Monday 7 May 2012, thousands of people in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US will take part in the Live Below the Line challenge to raise money and awareness, even opening their own eyes a little more as to what it’s like to live in extreme poverty. They will spend just $2 per day on food for five days. Of course, most will still enjoy a relatively comfortable standard of living, but the challenge offers an opportunity – even for those of us who struggle to contemplate taking part – to pause and think about the living conditions of one-fifth of the world’s population.

Check out the Castan Centre’s video interview with Paul Mason after the event:



On Tuesday 8 May 2012, the Australian Government’s Budget for 2012-13 was announced. In relation to aid, there was good and bad news. While the government has not followed through with its commitment to increase Australia’s aid budget to 0.5 per cent of GNI, there has been a slight increase of 6 per cent – from $4.8 billion to $5.2 billion to be given in aid in 2012-13. With this increase, 0.35 per cent of Australia’s GNI now constitutes aid. In the Foreword for Australia’s International Assistance Program 2012-13, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, also stated that the government remains ‘committed to increasing our aid effort to 0.5 per cent of GNI’, though he gave no indication of when this was likely to happen (if at all).

 

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