Ordinary people are striking out to change the world


IS THERE a new conscience about? Is powerlessness going out of fashion? Have people begun to feel for the first time since the 1960s - that individual witness can count, even for huge events? Look at some facts.

Ten years ago, pictures from the Ethiopian famine drew a huge response in Ireland. Then there were the Romanian babies.

People stood up from their television sets and went to do something about them. Then the consequences of Chernobyl began to become horribly.

A gallant Irish band have practically devoted their lives to the wraith like victims of that catastrophe.

Then there was Bosnia. All along the streets people started collecting for Bosnia - whether for Muslim or Catholic or Orthodox Bosnia, whether for victim or aggressor, nobody seemed to care very much.

There was suffering: there were people energetic enough to set themselves up as entrepreneurs between suffering and relief, and there was an invariably generous response to those entrepreneurs.

The response often depended on a visual stimulus. The heroic Pakistani boy who stood up for the child labourers of whom he was one before he was murdered scarcely mobilised world opinion.

There wasn't a single striking television programme about slave children like him. It is difficult and dangerous to get a video camera into a stone quarry or a carpet factory.

Same for Ogoniland. There were, to their great credit, protesters outside the Nigerian embassy after Ken Saro Wiwa was executed. But not so many as there would have been had television got to that part of the world.

Still there's very little access to East Timor, yet any meeting about that distant place would fill the Oak Room of the Mansion House. And a meeting on Rwanda a week ago, publicised only in Labour Party circles, drew 130 people at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday.

There is, it seems, a global village when it comes to concern.

People are not to be blamed for needing pictures. Not many of us can or will imagine horror before our noses are rubbed in it. But the random nature of our knowledge does skew things.

A camera got in to a Chinese orphanage but not in to an Indian one, and so China takes the blame for all the children languishing slowly to death on the planet.

But there was a harrowing series of articles in this paper about other forms of child suffering in Asia.

AUDREY MAGEE wrote about the terrible exploitation of children in Pakistan and Bangladesh. She wrote of the thousands and thousands of little girl prostitutes in Dhaka, with their mascara-ed eyes and henna-ed hands, whom Muslim men use as sex receptacles so as to keep their wives "pure".

These are the same men, by the way, who have created cultures in which their own superiority is so enshrined that girl babies are murdered to make way for boys.

That series, had it been a television programme, would have had Irish people out on the streets.

The photos that accompanied pieces I wrote lately about the Philippines moved many people. Schools in Rathmines, Newbridge and Waterford were on immediately.

A family in Thurles sent £300 to be directed where help was most needed. A woman in Drumcondra turned out to be importing, through her sister in Japan - the two of them paying the expenses - little decorated cards made by former street children in Manila (phone 01 837 0326). This woman had persuaded a gift shop in Howth to take these cards. I call that practical goodness.

The people at a "charity" shop in Castlebar offered a hard earned £2,000 for Filipino street children. Over the years, it seems, since they set up as The Romania hop, they've raised money for local causes and for AIDS victims in Haiti, a project in Chile, a local priest working in Liberia and for goods that a haulier from Enniscorthy takes to places such as Albania.

It puts one to shame.

And yet the world's problems are so vast and evil so pervasive that Ireland's response makes little difference to the sum of things. There is an us and a suffering them: it is good for us that we care but it hardly affects them. Or at least that's what I've always thought.

But now I see some routes between ourselves and a larger influence. If you talk to Joan Burton, for instance - the highly experienced Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs - you get a picture of our presence on the world's stage that does us some credit.

Take direct aid, for instance. Our aid projects are very small and limited to a few places in the world. But they're good.

In Ethiopia, for instance, Ireland supplied the materials for 60 schoolhouses last year and the local parents built the schools. We supplied materials for constructing reservoirs.

An organisation such as Trocaire makes up in the intelligence of its commitments for what it lacks in wealth and power. I met a man in New York once whose job had involved an overview of all the aid projects in sub Saharan Africa. He was utterly disillusioned with the aid "racket".

YET HE had praise for the Irish. A project to do with breeding workhorses in Lesotho, if I remember the conversation correctly, seemed to him a model of productive First World intervention in the third world.

But diplomacy is probably more important than aid. On that level, we are saved from unimportance by being members of the EU and the UN.

We're involved, for instance, in Burundi, with "preventative diplomacy" - promoting small scale contacts that might help to avert some of the crisis that is accumulating there.

We've made ourselves heard on the plight of East Timor. President Robinson would spring to many minds as an appropriate United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That would be an achievement for so small a country.

But neither our personal compassion nor our actions as a country prevail against worldwide poverty. The movement towards, for example, free trade - facilitated, ironically, by an Irishman - is leaving the powerless of the world still more powerless.

The Asian "economic miracle" depends on making things as cheaply as possible, and that means using child labour and exploited labour and prison and slave labour and finally unpaid labour, such as I saw in Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Capitalism has no conscience. We are called, by the media, to feel for human suffering and to understand the world wide system of which that suffering is a part.

And we're further called to the bitter realisation that understanding it does nothing to change it.