Matti Navellou is the Global Poverty Project's Activation Coordinator in the UK. This article was published in Global Village, Imperial College's Journal of International Affairs in January 2011. You can get a pdf version of the article here.
Extreme poverty isn’t a sexy subject. But it is one that affects 1.4 billion people today.
The fact that 1.4 billion individuals, sharing our common humanity, with the same capacity as us to feel pain, hunger, love, with the same aspirations and potential for greatness, currently live on less than $1.25 a day and lack access to basic opportunities such as clean water, health-care, education and food…can seem overwhelmingly depressing.
Seeing starving kids on TV adverts is depressing. It’s enough to make us want to switch off. It seems like nothing has changed since the days of Live Aid back in the early 1980s.
But what if I told you that extreme poverty has halved since then, and that we could eradicate extreme poverty within a generation?
Five years ago, 16 million people signed on to MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY, getting behind the vision that seeing an end to extreme poverty was achievable.
Yet, since then, the momentum has stalled. When I talk to people today, they feel powerless. They keep asking, “What has really changed since then? How can I make a difference?”
They feel powerless because they don’t know what happened next. They don’t know what went on after their white arm-bands faded to yellow, and the Live8 concert tents had been packed up and everyone went home.
This is the story of what can happen next, what we can do to move our understanding beyond starving children and sell-out concerts.
The Global Poverty Project
I work for the Global Poverty Project, an educational campaigning organisation that raises awareness about extreme poverty to bridge the gap between public sympathy and effective public action.
It’s a growing gap – one that I first came to appreciate when I sat in a room with people from other NGOs and charities working on poverty in the UK. We were drawn together to talk about building public support for development – to ask the question of why, out of the 16 million who’d signed up to MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY, only a small percentage were still actively involved in trying to put an end to extreme poverty.
We were there to try to make sense of it all.
Research conducted by the Development Education Association (DEA) shows that real understanding of global poverty in the UK is very limited. Perceptions of aid and charity are dominated by the “Live Aid Legacy” which perpetuates a patronizing, almost colonial vision of magnanimous Western powers handing out aid to grateful developing countries. We desperately need to move beyond this, to an understanding of development that addresses and appreciates its complexity, and is based on a vision of a common humanity and interdependence.
Why should we care?
My friend Vicky managed to capture the public’s frustration with these issues when she said: “I’d love to help, but I’m confronted by the same images of starving children every year and am fed up of feeling guilty. I have no idea where my donations have gone or what progress has been made in this area. Why should I keep giving if it seems like nothing has changed? I just don’t feel like there is anything practical I can do to help.”
Vicky’s response exhibits anger towards three things: lack of access to information on progress that has been made in international development, charities that use images of victimization to elicit feelings of guilt for the purpose of increasing donations and finally, the frustration of not knowing what she can do to help beyond giving money.
Surely this points to a flagrant gap in the NGO sector in the UK? Why does the public not have access to this information? How can they turn existing sympathy into action when there is no increase in educational awareness on these issues?
Why the guilt?
DFID have run public attitude surveys for over a decade and a recent report, Public Attitudes Towards Development, shows that the percentage of individuals that are very concerned about extreme poverty is currently at 21%, the lowest since 1999, after which levels of engagement have either been static or falling.
Falling support has led to a fundraising paradox for charities. Donations in the recession have fallen in some charities by up to fifteen percent, leading to intense pressure on fundraising departments to meet targets. So, out come the guilt-inducing images of starving kids, as they are a great fundraiser. But, they undermine longer-term support and perpetuate a perverse and restrictive representation aid.
Human nature is such that in order to avoid feeling guilty and powerless, we normalize these shocking images of the developing world that some media and charities bombard us with and “Charity fatigue” inevitably creeps in. Without increased knowledge about how to change the situation of those living in extreme poverty, the real lives and issues behind the images are pushed to the periphery of the public’s understanding of aid.
The images become trapped in a frame of “aid” in the public mind, where aid becomes permanently linked with donations and guilt. Too often, charities’ messages are relentlessly negative. Guilt-inducing advertising will only spur action to a certain extent before people turn to denial and apathy.
According to a recent paper by Bond, the UK membership organization for NGOs working in international development, most people interpret “aid” as “donations to charities in response to disasters” severely undermining the complex and multi-faceted nature of aid work. This points to an urgent need to shift the public understanding of “aid” to something that includes an understanding of the progress that has been made in reaching aid targets.
Where are the success stories?
The irony of this situation is that great progress has been made in reducing extreme poverty and in reaching the Millennium Development Goal targets agreed upon in 2000. We know that things like aid invested in education, women and infrastructure, microloans, free trade and export oriented growth work are helping reach these targets.
We know that maternal deaths through childbirth have decreased by about 35% since 1980. We know that where in 1982, 52% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty, that figure is down to 25% today.
Yet, instead of being aware of this positive change, we hear about corruption, insurmountable natural disasters and the ongoing spread of HIV.
What we don’t hear are the success stories .We don’t hear the fact that something as simple as building toilets for girls in schools in Western Tanzania can increase female attendance by 30 %, that Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest countries has had national health insurance for 11 years now covering 92 percent of the nation with premiums at $2 a year enabling life expectancy to rise from 48 to 52 despite the ongoing spread of AIDS, that in terms of global health we’ve eradicated smallpox, contained polio to just four countries and cut measles deaths by 74% in the last 10 years, that over the last 50 years South Korea has transformed from being an aid recipient country to a bustling aid donor due to investing in education and infrastructure, that extreme poverty has dropped from 49% to 30% in Ghana due to policies implemented in 1992 that promoted economic growth and poverty alleviation.
Around the world, in the last 50 years, we have actually seen a clear pattern of falling infant mortality, rising literacy, rising incomes, rising life expectancy and a falling number of people living in extreme poverty.
These are the stories that should be at the forefront of public awareness.
What is the Global Poverty Project doing to challenge this?
For the last year, the Global Poverty Project, working in partnership with other UK NGOs, has been raising awareness on these issues, trying to shift British public attitudes towards development into something positive: into a belief that practical actions can be taken by each and every one of us in our daily lives to contribute to putting an end to extreme poverty.
We have been traveling the UK delivering an awareness-raising presentation called 1.4 Billion Reasons, named after the 1.4 billion people currently living on less than $1.25 a day.
1.4 Billion Reasons takes people through the issues surrounding extreme poverty, answering people’s questions on corruption, aid efficacy, trade barriers and the Millenium Development Goals. It gives people hope about what can be done, hope that is supported by facts on progress already made in the fight against extreme poverty.
It’s incredible to watch people’s reactions after hearing the stories of women lifting themselves out of poverty through micro-enterprise or how far we have come in terms of global health. “I went along to this presentation knowing the bare minimum and came away inspired and enlightened and feeling I had truly learnt something”, said Kiri Bowers, after seeing 1.4 Billion Reasons in London, “I spent the next two hours with my father and brother planning what we could do to make this objective a reality.”
Kiri’s words show how increased education on issues of poverty and positive communication around the progress that has been made in poverty-reduction can kick-start deeper reflection and action on these issues. There are evidently still important challenges and barriers to be overcome in this fight but we can change attitudes by informing people about what is achievable and the progress that is being made.
Earlier this year, we got a call from Nestle because two children, no older than 12, had independently decided to write to the company, after seeing 1.4 Billion Reasons at their school, to ask what the company were doing to ensure their supply chains were ethical.
This is progress.
No action towards ending extreme poverty is too small. Because small demonstrations of a change in attitudes will, without a doubt, develop into something big, something that rises to such potency and immeasurability, that politicians, governments and policy-makers will reach a stage where they too feel the weight and urgency of this movement, of this wave of change about to break.
As this wave spreads, transporting more people in its path, we inch closer to ending extreme poverty within a generation.
This wave of change in attitudes towards poverty has already started.
It is the same wave that made Bill and Melinda Gates call themselves “impatient optimists” in relation to progress in international development and global health at a function a few weeks ago in London, and the very same wave that recently made Cadbury turn Fairtrade.
We can do this together
I’ll always remember the words that Denise Robertson, long-standing TV presenter for ITVs This Morning, said to me at one of our launches.
"Technological advance has made it impossible to stay, eyes shut, in our own little world”, she said. “ We can see what is happening to our fellow human beings. Global poverty is no longer “their” problem. It is our problem."
Denise’s words bring us back to the notion of a shared humanity. Irrelevant of where we live, the clothes we have on our back, the amount of cash in our pockets or food in our bellies, we all share one thing: our humanity. We have the same ability to feel hope and pain, to love and to laugh.
Through small steps each and every one of us can make the vision of a world without extreme poverty within a generation a reality. In a time of lack of trust in governments, why not place trust in our selves to make the right ethical choices, and use our own voices to change policy. Let’s reach a stage where politicians can’t get elected without a clear, cohesive national plan on tackling extreme poverty. It may seem like we’re a long way off, but given the passion and dedication I’ve witnessed on these issues, we may just be on the right track.