It was 1984 when ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ moved poverty into pop culture. It took a long time but in the early part of this decade, there seemed to be a growing consensus among thinking people that global poverty was the moral issue of our time. Some high profile things were happening:
In September 2000, the world’s leaders signed on to the United Nations Millennium Declaration, committing to 8 major goals including halving extreme poverty by 2015.
Prior to that, the Jubilee 2000 campaign had significantly raised awareness of the economic injustice associated with development efforts.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started investing so much money in health & education in the developing world it redefined the space and provoked lots of debate about the nature of monopolies, not just in the IT world.
Economists were also part of the call to action. By the time Jeffrey Sachs wrote The End of Poverty, and CK Prahalad wrote Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, the public conversation had moved beyond charity. Yes, not-for-profits were increasing the rigour and professionalism of their operations. But business began to explore commercially sustainable ways to develop the opportunities among poorer communities via mass, low cost products such as alternative energy solutions. Mohammad Yunus won a Nobel Prize for his Grameen Bank work, the mother of mass micro-financing. And voices like Sachs’ were calling for tri-sector (Government, Business and NGO) approaches injecting hope that we could reach the targets set by the Millennium Develop Goals.
But then came the Climate Crisis. The attention shifted from the moral imperative associated with poverty, to the survival instinct related to Climate Change. Understandably. However, what needs to be reinforced is the relationship between climate change and poverty.
The implications for the North/West are all over our magazines and newspapers. But it is the poor who will have the most difficultly in adapting. Water shortages through Central Asia, extreme climate and geological events, rising sea levels, economic adjustments in developed countries to accommodate the low carbon imperative … and many other factors will all have a dramatic effect on the world’s poor.
It reminds me of a conversation I was part of in the nineties. Many of my friends were choosing lifestyles that enabled them to identify with people living in poor. It is true that one sees the world differently from ‘underneath’. However, part of this conversation was about understanding that poverty is not actually about material wealth, rather it is about the ability to participate in what is on offer. This might be about the capacity to get public transport to the CentreLink, or it might be about accessing medical assistance for mental illness etc. So, it is not really possible for those of us who are ‘powerful’ in the sense that we can access what our society offers, to choose voluntary poverty. At any point, if we chose to, we could step out.
I think the relationship between Climate Change and Poverty holds some parallels. Yes, it will be tough for those of us in developed countries to make the dramatic lifestyle changes required to lower our carbon footprint. But we do so from a position of power. We will survive.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for the poorest people. Poverty must not be allowed to slip off the agenda in light of the growing need to act on Climate Change.