Prisoners of Poverty
IN THE year 33 C.E., Jesus Christ said to his disciples: “You always have the poor with you.” (Matthew 26:11) Just what did he mean? Was he saying that poverty would never be overcome?
James Speth, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, stated: “We cannot accept that [poverty] will always be with us. The modern world has the resources, the know-how and the expertise to relegate poverty to the pages of history.” But can the modern world eradicate poverty?
The United Nations General Assembly evidently hopes that human efforts can eliminate poverty, as it proclaimed the years 1997 through 2006 as the first “United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty.” The UN proposed to work alongside governments, peoples, and institutions to foster economic development, improve access to basic services, improve the status of women, and generate income and employment.
Lofty goals! But will the world community ever achieve them? Consider some of the obstacles that block the eradication of poverty by human efforts.
Hunger and Malnutrition
Ayembe, who lives in Zaire, has 15 family members who depend on her. Sometimes the family can afford to eat once a day—maize porridge flavored with cassava leaves, salt, and sugar. Sometimes they have nothing to eat for two or three days. “I wait till the children are crying for food before I cook,” says Ayembe.
Their case is not unusual. In the developing world, 1 person in 5 goes to bed hungry every night. Worldwide, about 800 million people—200 million of them children—are chronically malnourished. These children do not grow normally; they become sick often. Their performance at school is poor. As adults, they suffer the consequences of these things. Thus, poverty often leads to malnutrition, which in turn contributes to poverty.
Poverty, hunger, and malnutrition exist on such a huge scale that they defy political, economic, and social efforts to eliminate them. Indeed, the situation is not improving but worsening.
According to the World Health Organization, poverty is “the world’s deadliest disease” and “the biggest single underlying cause of death, disease and suffering.”
The book An Urbanizing World: Global Report on Human Settlements, 1996 noted that at least 600 million people in Latin America, Asia, and Africa were living in such poor housing—lacking adequate water, sanitation, and drainage—that their lives and health were under continual threat. Worldwide, over a billion people have no clean water. Hundreds of millions cannot afford a balanced diet. All these factors make it difficult for poor people to prevent disease.
Often poor people are also unable to treat disease. When the poor become sick, they may not be able to afford proper medicine or medical treatment. The poor die young; those who survive may live with chronic sicknesses.
Says Zahida, a market vendor in the Maldives: “Poverty means ill-health, which prevents you from working.” Lack of work, of course, generates deepening poverty. The result is a cruel and deadly cycle in which poverty and illness fuel each other.
Unemployment and Low Pay
Another face of poverty is unemployment. Globally, some 120 million people who can work are unable to find jobs. Meanwhile, about 700 million other people often work long hours for pay too meager to meet their basic needs.
Rudeen is a cyclo driver in Cambodia. He says: “Poverty to me means working for more than 18 hours per day, but still not earning enough to feed myself, my wife and two children.”
Destruction of the Environment
Intertwined with poverty is environmental degradation. Observed Elsa, a researcher in Guyana, South America: “Poverty is the destruction of nature: the forest, land, animals, rivers and lakes.” Here is another tragic cycle—poverty leads to environmental destruction, which perpetuates increasing poverty.
Cultivating cropland until it is exhausted or used for another purpose is an age-old practice. So is deforestation—cutting down forests for wood or fuel or for planting crops. Because of the growing numbers of people on earth, the situation has reached critical proportions.
According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, during the past 30 years, almost 20 percent of the world’s topsoil from croplands has been lost, mostly because of a lack of both the money and the technology needed to carry out conservation measures. During the same period, millions of acres have become wasteland as a result of poorly constructed and maintained irrigation systems. And millions of acres of forests are being cut down every year to clear land for crops or to obtain wood for lumber or fuel.
This destruction is linked to poverty in two ways. First, the poor are often forced to exploit the environment because of their need for food and fuel. How can one talk about sustainable development or the welfare of future generations to those who are hungry and poor and who are forced to degrade natural resources to survive right now? Second, the rich often exploit the environmental resources of the poor for profit. So the destruction of natural resources by rich and poor increases poverty.
Alicia, an urban social worker in the Philippines, stated: “Poverty is a woman sending her children out to beg in traffic rather than to school because otherwise there will be nothing to eat. The mother knows she is repeating a cycle that trapped her, but there is no way out that she can see.”
Some 500 million children have no school to attend. One billion adults are functionally illiterate. Without an education, it is difficult to get a good job. So poverty leads to a lack of education, which leads to more poverty.
A lack of housing exists in poor nations, and even in some wealthy ones. One report says that nearly a quarter of a million of the inhabitants of New York City have stayed in shelters for the homeless at some time during the past five years. Europe too has its poor people. In London about 400,000 are registered as homeless. In France a half million people have no home.
Throughout the developing world, the situation is worse. People stream to towns and cities, lured by dreams of food, jobs, and a better life. In some cities, more than 60 percent of the population live in shantytowns or slums. Rural poverty thus fuels urban poverty.
Intensifying all these problems is population growth. World population has more than doubled in the past 45 years. The United Nations estimates that the figure will soar to 6.2 billion by the year 2000 and to 9.8 billion by 2050. The poorest areas of the world have the highest population growth rates. Of the roughly 90 million babies born in 1995, 85 million were born in countries least able to provide for them.
Do you believe that humankind will suddenly cooperate to eradicate poverty forever by solving the problems of hunger, sickness, unemployment, destruction of the environment, lack of education, poor housing, and war? Probably you do not.
Does that mean that the situation is hopeless? No, because the solution is in sight and will come with certainty. But not by human efforts. How then? And what about the words of Jesus when he said: “You always have the poor with you”?
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The Poorest of the Poor
In 1971 the phrase “least developed countries” was coined by the United Nations to describe the “poorest and most economically weak of the developing countries.” Then, there were 21 such countries. Now, there are 48 of them, 33 in Africa.
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Millions work long hours with little pay
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Luxury and poverty exist side by side
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Millions live in substandard dwellings