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5/27/2008

Poverty Thrives Amid Unprecedented Prosperity

Filed under: corporate-greed,General,human rights,wealth — admin @ 2:25 am

Global poverty is thriving — rather ironically — amidst one of the most prosperous times in human history.
Kul Chandra Gautam, a former assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, points out that world economic output was never more prodigious: last year it hit the 60-trillion-dollar mark.

At this time of unprecedented global prosperity, in which someone becomes a new billionaire every second day, “We have the contrasting situation of nearly one billion people living on less than a dollar a day and 800 million going to bed hungry every night,” he added.

And according to the U.S.-based Forbes magazine, the number of billionaires worldwide reached 1,125 this year, a staggering increase from 179 in 2007.

They emerged not only from rich countries such as the United States, Germany and Japan but also from developing countries, such as Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Belize, China, India, Mexico and Venezuela.

Addressing the third forum of the Tokyo-based Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), Gautam said it is because of poverty that nearly 10 million children die every year from causes that are readily preventable.

“It is poverty that keeps 93 million children out of primary schools, the majority of them girls, and it is poverty that lands millions of children in child labour, often in hazardous circumstances, when they should be going to school.”

The recent dramatic rise in food and petroleum prices is also bound to further impoverish the already poor, “and as usual, children are likely to be its main victims”, Gautam said.

The Arigatou Foundation of Japan, the organisers of the Hiroshima Forum, is convinced the time has come for the world’s religious institutions, and all those who profess religious faith, to come forward and join hands in this global fight to alleviate the suffering of children and promote their well-being.

Since its founding in May 2000, GNRC has emerged as an important global alliance of religious organisations and people of faith committed to interfaith dialogue and action aimed at improving the lives of children.

One of the themes of the Hiroshima Forum, currently underway, is “the ethical imperative to ensure that no child lives in poverty”.

The United Nations estimates that over 600 million children live in absolute poverty worldwide. The reduction of extreme poverty by 50 percent is one of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with a target date of 2015.

But Dr A.T. Ariyaratne, founder and president of the Sarvodaya Movement, one of the most successful grassroots movements in Sri Lanka, is sceptical about reaching that goal.

“Poverty and powerlessness go hand in hand — both at the political and economic level,” he said. In most developing countries, Ariyaratne said, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen by the day.

He dismissed as a “bunch of lies” some of the statistics doled out by national governments to bolster the argument that poverty is on the decline in their respective countries.

“I have met a number of political leaders — even at the cabinet level — who don’t even know what the Millennium Development Goals are,” Ariyaratne said.

The Venerable Kojun Handa, supreme priest of the Tendai Buddhist denomination, singled out the “deep economic disparities” in which children are deprived of their basic necessities, including adequate food and education.

“At the same time, if we turn our eyes to those regions of the world that are considered ‘advanced nations,’ including Japan, we see a ubiquitous emphasis on excessive material wealth.”

He said these rich nations believe in the ultimate superiority of their economies and the many negative facets of an internet-based society in which children are corrupted through the damage inflicted upon them.

Still, Gautam quoted his former boss and mentor, the late Jim Grant of UNICEF, who said there had been more progress for children in the last 50 years — during the second half of the 20th century — than perhaps in the previous 500 years.

In Asia alone, over a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in the past half century, of whom 400 million were from China.

India is rapidly following a similar trend. The Republic of Korea has seen its per capita income increase from 100 dollars to 17,000 dollars.

Late last year, UNICEF reported that for the first time since it started keeping records, the annual number of child deaths decreased to below 10 million. This accounted for a 60-percent reduction in the under-five mortality rate since 1960.

“This is a remarkable testimony to the continuing progress in child survival and success of many health interventions,” said Gautam.

Smallpox, which used to kill five million people a year in the 1950s, was eradicated during our lifetime. Polio, which used to cripple millions, is on the brink of eradication. Deaths due to measles, one of the biggest killers of children, declined by 90 percent in Africa in the last seven years, he noted.

“There are more children in school today than ever before, and gender disparity is rapidly declining at the primary school level,” he added.

“And thanks to the heightened sensitivity created by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, issues such as child labour, trafficking and abuse of children, children in armed conflict and other violence against children are being systematically exposed, and action taken to address them.”

“And many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), faith-based and inter-faith groups like the GNRC, and civic leaders are championing the cause of children,” he said.

Overall, he said, children are much higher on the world’s political agenda. Increasingly, they figure prominently in election campaigns, parliamentary debates and national legislation.

The fantastic communications capacity in the world today makes it possible to bring the blessings of science and technology to the doorsteps of even the poorest people in the most remote corners of the world.

And child-oriented programmes are benefiting from this information and communications revolution.

But the bad news is that much of this progress has bypassed the bottom billion people in the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, Gautam said.

Civil wars and conflict, and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS have exacerbated the fight against poverty by weakening the economies and social fabric of many countries, specifically in Africa.

“We all thought there would be an era of peace, and a huge peace dividend, following the end of the cold war. But regrettably, ethnic conflicts and tensions spread following the collapse of the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia,” he added.

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