There is plenty of good news in the international development story. Living standards across the world have shot up in the past few decades, for the very wealthy, yes, but also for many of the world’s poorest people.
Things can reverse, of course, as they did in much of Africa in the 1980s. The onslaught of Aids in Botswana slashed life expectancy from 56 to 35. And living standards might decrease in rich countries as well as poor.
But, barring the most cataclysmic of the climate change scenarios, the likelihood of large-scale regression into absolute poverty has to be small. More likely is the continued gradual reduction of absolute poverty, as presently defined, until it only exists in a few pockets of the world.
Slogans like Make Poverty History and Christian Aid’s Poverty Over are not just clever word plays – they are based on sound evidence of progress. When Bono issues his inspiring war cry that we are the first generation with the ability to end absolute poverty, he is right.
It will take many more decades of hard work and struggle, but when we do, it will probably be humankind’s greatest achievement.
But there is more to poverty than absolute poverty. The hundreds of millions of people working in sweatshops are not living in absolute poverty. Nor are families moved off their land so that it can be "developed" for mining, industrial farming or mega dams. Women and minorities who suffer persecution are not poor in an absolute sense.
When I managed Christian Aid’s programme in Colombia, hardly any of our work had to do with absolute poverty. We were not working on basic health, education and water issues. We were working on human rights and power relations. We were supporting organisations and communities working for equality, dignity, respect and justice.
The costs of prosperity for some can be misery for others. John Vidal’s recent report from Ethiopia shows this graphically, as poor villagers are moved on from fertile land so that it can be put to use by foreign companies. Some people, maybe even poor people, will gain from this – but others have been further marginalised.
Or look at this report from Cambodia. The same old story – the wealthy want more and have the power to take it. The poor lose everything.
In Colombia I saw with my own eyes how armed gangs linked to wealthy landowners and politicians had simply murdered and terrorised people off their ancestral land in order to become even richer than they already were.
Farmers who had lived in poverty, but with dignity and hope, became people living on the margins, part of someone else’s plan, having lost their land, their self-reliance and culture.
Perhaps most tragically of all, many indigenous and tribal communities will contribute to the eradication of absolute poverty by quietly being wiped out over the next few years and decades.
One interesting question is whether increasing global affluence would lead to less violence, greed, hatred and racism. Along with economic and technological progress, the UN charters and millennium development goals, signed by almost all countries, imply that, morally, humankind has also taken steps forward.
With less absolute hunger, will there be less absolute desperation, and thus less conflict? That appears to be the case in modern Europe, for example.
I will allow myself to hope. But the 20th century, a time of unprecedented affluence, was the bloodiest century of recorded human history.
Conflict and injustice run through the affairs of humankind as constantly as progress and civilisation. The struggle for justice is as old as time.
Oppression is more intimately linked to wealth and power than poverty. Those who have will do their utmost to prevent any threat to their wellbeing. In a world of limited resources, the wealthy will fight to retain their own living standards and aspirations, even if that means misery for others. Family comes first.
Climate change, war, unknown unknowns, natural disasters, food prices. There is much that is unpredictable about the years ahead, as this week’s Overseas Development Institute 50th anniversary debate made clear.
But one thing is certain. In each generation there will be new battles against injustice that will require new allies to fight alongside people being oppressed or repressed.
Sometimes government agencies play a part in this struggle. After all, Christian Aid’s work in Colombia was part-funded by the UK and Irish governments and the EU. But governments’ interests are always complex, usually supporting stability rather than equality, and solidarity with the poor is not one of their strong suits.
Global civil society, including trade unions, with support from the UN, will increasingly be called upon to police the injustices that are a corollary to the human condition. Social movements will, if anything, become ever more vital as global power becomes consolidated in the hands of a few.
The post-colonial development paradigm of the past 50 years may be entering its final phase. The techno-fads and cross-country growth equations come and go. But the perennial struggle for human dignity goes on.
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