Poverty kills


AccordinG to the United Nations Human Development Report, an estimated 1.3 billion people (23 per cent of the world's population) live in what the World Bank calls "absolute poverty". Modest estimates suggest that, by 2015, this number could rise to 1.7 billion. "Life expectancy", "maternal and infant mortality" and "malnutrition", somehow sanitise the reality that people are dying in huge numbers from being too poor. UNICEF tells us that the number of malnourished children - underweight, wasted or stunted - is growing. Even in years without notable droughts or famines, 12 million children die in families too poor to afford basic sanitation or adequate diets. Like their elders, 615 million of whom will die before they are 40, they generally die of the preventable diseases of poverty rather than of absolute inanition.

This sorry tale has been told so often that we no longer hear it, but it must be told yet again, particularly in this so-called "Year of Human Rights". Extreme poverty, not customarily seen as an abuse in itself but as a condition from which others follow, is, in fact, the most universal of abuses of human rights. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family".

People are not hungry, diseased and illiterate because they choose to be, they have these conditions thrust upon them.

Few, if any, of the world's poorest countries have any control over their own resources. Usually unable to change patterns of ownership inherited from colonialism, their resources, are dominated by international corporations, financial houses and commodity markets. Debt, sometimes incurred for minimal increases in social well-being but, even more commonly, for "defence" forces or even for lining the pockets of corrupt ruling elites installed for Western interests, is notoriously endemic.

Creditors sometimes offer token relief: Britain has just announced funds for the African Development Bank (a branch of the World Bank) to pay off some debt but, since the debt is to wealthy countries, particularly to Britain in the case of Africa, the money will come straight back. In any case, what is proposed for debt relief is a drop in the ocean. For example, debt servicing costs Mozambique 35 per cent of its earnings from exports, the Ivory Coast pays 23 per cent, Kenya 26 per cent while servicing costs Zambia a massive 174 per cent. For generations there has been a net flow of wealth from poor countries to rich.

Aid itself comes with numbers of strings: countries compelled, for instance, to turn to the lender of last resort, the International Monetary Fund, find that they must sign up to conditions which tie their economies even further into the financial control of the international corporations. They are also expected to control public expenditure, that means reducing the already hopelessly inadequate services, like health, education and clean water, for the very poor.

What is at stake here is institutionalised, structural poverty, casually created in the interests of the finance, trade and industry of the developed world. Ireland, particularly since it opened its economy to international corporate investment and became an enthusiastic member of the EU, is among the nations profiting from the travails of the poor. We must remember this because the desperate commonly do not sit and wait for calamity, they move to places where survival might be more probable. People who do this become either "refugees" or "displaced people" and they are to be found in many tens of millions. A tiny number of them come here. We should remember why they do so as the Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue, turns most of them away as "bogus".

Neil Middleton is co-author, with Phil O'Keefe, of Disaster and Development: the Politics of Humanitarian Aid Pluto Press 1998