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Global poverty and the UN:Natural disasters

The UN wants to halve global poverty by  2016 and lift 500 million out of misery.  It wouldn't even cost much. So will it happen?

In January the United Nations Millennium Project published a 3000 page report entitled ‘Investing in Development:  A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals.’ The report calls on industrialised countries to assist  in “halving world poverty” by 2015 by increasing aid from its present level of £12 billion to a sum approaching £80 billion per year.  The Independent (18 January) reporting on the publication of this report carried the headline: “UN  unveils 10 year plan to lift 500 million out of misery. Many proposals are cheap, and could transform lives now.”
The report concluded: “Only investment on that scale will help prevent 700 million slip further into preventable disease and extreme poverty.”

The strategy outlined in the UN report forms part of a wider set of initiatives agreed at the UN Millennium Summit  in September 2000, aimed at making the world a fairer place to live by apparently eradicating poverty. As a background  to world poverty, the Independent reported on the same day that 11 million children (mainly under 5) die each year, 6 million from preventable diseases, while “Every day, HIV/Aids kills another 6,000 people and another 8,200 become infected with the virus” and “Every 3.6 seconds, someone dies of starvation.”

The report’s author, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, candidly said in defence of his proposals:
 “The system is not working right now – let’s be clear.” He explained: “There’s a tremendous imbalance of focus on  the issues of war and peace, and less on dying and suffering of the poor who have no voice. The overwhelming reality on our planet is that impoverished people get sick and die for lack of access to basic practical means that could help keep them alive and do more than that – help them achieve livelihoods and escape from poverty.” Sachs pointed out:
“We have the world’s eyes focused on the tsunami of the Indian Ocean, but the world continues to overlook the silent tsunamis of deaths from malaria which take every month the number of people that died in the Asian tragedy. Every month, 150,000 children in Africa, if not more, are dying from the silent tsunami of malaria, a largely preventable and utterly treatable disease.” Elsewhere the article states that malaria can be prevented with a treated bed net costing less than £1.

Sachs’s concern that the Indian Ocean disaster has overshadowed permanent poverty and deprivation is echoed by pleas from charities working elsewhere in the world. The earthquake and resultant tsunami, killing perhaps up to 200,000 people in twelve countries, has siphoned donations away from these charities and threatens to end their money raising activities for good. But the tragic loss of life and devastation caused by the tsunami has been given so much prominence precisely because it was caused by a natural disaster, where no guilt can be apportioned.

Equally, as the Economist observed: “involvement in the disaster of so many resorts favoured by tourists from rich countries in the West and the richer parts of north-east Asia has given it more prominence in these countries than the sheer horror of the fatalities would have produced” (1-7 January) The class that lives by profit has no wish to be reminded of the loss of life and devastation attributed solely to the relentless pursuit of profit and is content to see attention deflected away such things.

Disasters – natural or otherwise – provide unexpected opportunities to those who live by making profits. As with the unnatural tragedy of the Iraq invasion where up to 100,000 people have been killed,  companies engaged in the provision of food, housing, construction, energy, transportation, communications, engineering and so on, can expect to reap bumper profits. Aid and money cannot be injected into class society in a neutral way and is either directed to the working class or the owning class, generally the latter. We learn that money is urgently needed to restore the tourist industry and the profits it generates for the shareholders that own the hotels and tourist attractions, especially in Thailand where tourism generates 12 percent of GDP. Tourists have been urged to return to these holiday destinations with the lure that the only way to help the poor is by making them employable once more, which means making the tourist industry profitable once again.

The only consideration is profit. But while investors in Asian tourism may have lost, others have been more fortunate. The same issue of the Economist reported: “Insurers at least will be relieved that most of those whose livelihoods have been destroyed were not covered. Some hoteliers will make claims, as will families of western tourists who were covered by life insurance. Their bill, however, is likely to be far lower than followed the hurricanes in Florida and its neighbouring states earlier in 2004.”


It goes without saying that major disasters causing loss of life are always tragic. But while some disasters cannot always be avoided, as in the Indian Ocean, others are completely avoidable and there can be no excuse. The UN Report aims to significantly reduce world poverty without attacking its root cause. According to Sachs, “Billions more could enjoy the fruits of the global economy. Tens of millions of lives could be saved” (Independent, 18 January).  Millions of people, it seems, are to be lifted from poverty by trade arising from the globalisation of capital, a process that hitherto has been remarkably unsuccessful in doing anything more than spreading poverty from country to country and making enormous profits for investors. Globalisation is a particularly pernicious form of capitalist development, which has decimated the lives of millions of people in undeveloped countries.  Yet the UN plan is proposing more of the same, calling for initiatives that “involve both civil society organisations and the private sector,” and urging that “rich countries must open markets to exports from developing countries.”
Predictably the plan urges that ‘rich countries’ must “invest more in the very poorest countries through
electricity supplies and roads.” (Independent, 18 January). In practice the report does no more than
advocate concerted action by corporations and companies under the umbrella of their national governments to transform people into wage slaves. There are no poor countries, only poor people.

It can be no coincidence that both Blair and Brown have suddenly become interested in the continent
of Africa – or rather the opportunities it can bring to the owning class they represent. Brown claims he will make sub-Saharan Africa his priority in 2005 while Blair says he will use Britain’s Presidency of the G8 to “focus on progress” in the eradication of African poverty as well as countering other potential but less desirable developments. Blair explains: “Famine in Africa will affect our countries because it will be a trigger for mass migration. Conflict, too, drives millions to flee their homes. Both create the conditions
for terrorism and fanaticism to take root and spread directly to Europe, to North America and to Asia”
(Economist, 1-7 January).

Like the UN Report Blair proposes ‘more of the same’. He writes: “We also need to tackle trade barriers
which push up prices to our consumers, prevent African countries exporting their products and see Europe spending more on subsidising its own farmers than on aid to Africa.” He concludes, as does the UN Report that aid will provide assistance in “building the infrastructure needed for private-sector growth.”

The forces are gathering and the strategy is in place. Capitalism is to make a concerted move into the African continent to provide opportunities for investment and profit from the glut of aid proposed by the UN and the resultant ‘opening-up’ of the continent. A market economy based on the domination of outside corporations or perhaps indigenous capitalists will obviate migration of cheap labour, forcing the indigenous people to become wage slaves, to join, in the words of the Independent, the “one billion people [who] live on less than $1 a day. Another 2.7 billion survive on less than $2 a day.” A further intention is to nullify the spread of religious fundamentalism that could interfere with profit taking. Like every other attempt to alleviate poverty it will fail. This is because the plan is less about poverty and more about profits. The plan’s success will be measured in dollars not lives saved.

If there was ever an indictment of capitalism it is world poverty. People die in Africa and elsewhere
because there is simply no profit in saving them. Conversely, action to limit this barbarism only occurs
when the companies and corporations owned by the capitalist class ‘sense a kill,’ an opportunity to
expand profits. £81 billion in aid – if it ever arrives – is a good starting point. Many African countries
 have already a foretaste of foreign investment that directs that food be grown for export alongside a
population on the brink of starvation. But this no inconsistency, simply market forces in action.
We live in a world of plenty where scarcity and rationing through the market and money system is u
nnecessary and anti-human. It must stop.

The Independent editorial column hit the nail on the head. It reads, “The world must seize the opportunity and work together to fight the scourge of poverty, disease and hopelessness.”  But what it does not say
is that this can never be achieved under capitalism. The world’s working people must, as the editorial urges, seize the opportunity to end poverty — not by trying to reform an economic system that cannot be reformed but by abolishing it. The UN proposal that reinforces the institutional requirement to make and increase profits regardless of its human consequences is monstrous – a licence to make profit from human misery.