Today is Blog Action Day 2014! Since 2007, bloggers from around the world have been coming together every year on the 16th of October to write a blog post on a different theme or issue. The aim of this day is to raise awareness about these important issues, to connect communities, organisations and individuals who are passionate about tackling it, and to offer up ideas and solutions for ways in which the problem could be reduced.
This year the theme is INEQUALITY.
Inequality is a word that everyone is familiar with. Everyone knows that global wealth distribution is unequal. Everyone knows that we don’t all have equal rights. Everyone knows that millions of people around the world suffer from social exclusion and injustice. The trouble is, not everyone knows how stark this inequality actually is.
As I’m currently taking a Development and Inequality module at university, I’ve already been exposed to some of this information. However, it doesn’t take much work to find out what is happening to global wealth distribution and the direction that it is taking. The truth is, even though many statistics note that developing countries are fast becoming richer and global poverty seems to have been decreasing, the disparity of wealth distribution around the world is more extreme than it has ever been.
I find these statistics both shocking and overwhelming. How can we even begin to try and make a positive impact when the inequalities are just so unimaginably vast? Oxfam’s 2014 report, ‘Working For the Few’, states that today, the richest 85 people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire world. I might be wrong, but I highly doubt that any of those 85 people are reading this blog. Though we may have the money to feed and clothe ourselves, pay for our healthcare, our education and earn a disposable income big enough to pay for holidays and leisure activities, only a select few people have the means to make multi-million dollar investments in overseas aid and development. Yes, we can do our part: donating to charities, volunteering, raising awareness about these issues etc, but what impact can we really make when the system that so benefits the wealthy is the same one that exploits the poor? How can we persuade the world’s wealthiest people to share their wages more fairly? Is it even right that we should ask?
I certainly don’t have the answer. However, these questions did remind me of a TED talk that I watched a few months ago, where Bill and Melinda Gates spoke about their philanthropy.
Even towards the beginning of Microsoft’s success, Bill and Melinda had already been talking about giving the wealth that Microsoft generated back into society. Presently, the couple have donated over half of their assets to The Gates’ Foundation, and are actually persuading (with apparent success) other billionaires to do the same. If you don’t want to watch the whole video, watch from 20 minutes in where this is discussed.
The Gates’ Foundation has done amazing overseas development work operating principally in healthcare, to try and reduce infant mortality rates (the number of children dying under five) all over the world. By vaccinating children against easily preventable diseases, whose families would have otherwise lacked the knowledge or finance to afford treatment, families become more stable as parents can be more certain that their children will survive and can plan accordingly. When this happens, family sizes actually begin to reduce, as mothers concerned about the survival of their children actually tend to have more in the hope that they will be able to raise at least a few to adulthood. Though it may seem illogical when first observed, reducing infant mortality rates in developing countries where the population is growing exponentially does actually result in a slowing of population growth, as well as healthier, happier human beings with far better life prospects than those without vaccinations to life-threatening diseases.
Developing healthcare systems in these poorer enclaves within developing countries reduces regional inequality, as more and more people are gaining access to the healthcare facilities that they need and deserve. This is good news, and having such influential people behind the cause for reducing inequality is sure to raise awareness and help this project gain further momentum. I highly recommend that you read the Gates Foundation Annual Letter which debunks myths about foreign aid and highlights the positive outcomes of their work so far.
When discussing inequality, it seems natural for our minds to jump to this type of overseas aid, focusing on development at a national scale and comparing the ‘poor’, developing nations of the global south to our own prosperous, developed nations, where surely everyone lives a comfortable life and benefits from the wealth of the establishment that governs them. What people don’t often think about is the inequality within their own country, or city, or town. In the UK, a nation whose citizens benefit from free healthcare, the right to education, a national minimum wage, welfare benefits for struggling families and a whole host of others, how could people possibly be living in poverty? As someone who has never experienced life below the breadline, nor been surrounded by it, I find this question difficult to get my head around. I have always viewed my home country as one where people are given the best start in life, and where well-planned systems prevent everyone (bar a miniscule proportion of people) from falling into a real and seemingly inescapable poverty trap. Unfortunately, even in a country with the seventh largest economy in the world, one fifth of the population lives below its official poverty line.
To think that one out of every five people in the UK is struggling every single day just to get by, feed their families and raise their children as best they can is shocking and upsetting. Redundancy, or even something as small as a broken appliance or unexpectedly large bill may be enough to render people completely helpless. A few months ago I read a story about a teenage girl whose family were made homeless because of something like this, and was enough to prevent them from being able to pay for their home any longer. Now, though she continues to attend school and see friends, she is living permanently in a homeless shelter.
This is not a one off.
Perhaps one of the most hard-hitting truths about poverty in the UK is that more and more people are going hungry. In a 2013 report entitled ‘Walking the Breadline’, a collaborative project between Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, it was estimated that 500,000 people are now reliant on food aid. They labelled this a ‘national disgrace’, considering the UK’s commitment to ensuring every citizen has access to the food that they need. The explosive rise in the number of people relying on food banks has been connected to rising unemployment and food/fuel prices, where minimum wages and welfare benefits have not increased in correlation with inflation, leaving many people in destitution.
Food prices have risen by 30.5% in the last five years, which is double the rate of inflation and two and a half times the increase rate of the National Minimum Wage. This imbalance means that people are eating less food today than five years ago (7% less) but are paying 20% more for it. Further austerity cuts that have the biggest impact on the poorer population only serve to exacerbate what is already a critical issue. Benefit caps, cuts and sanctions seem only to target the nation’s most vulnerable and push them further into the poverty trap. Food banks report that the majority of those accessing the service are low income, working households in crisis. 62% of children in poverty are living in families where at least one parent has a job, indicating that the current Minimum Wage legislation is simply not enough to lift people out of poverty.
Imagine yourself walking into a supermarket and surveying aisle after aisle of food around you. Piles of freshly baked bread. Bundles of fresh fruit and vegetables. Stacks and stacks of tinned produce. Ready meals and on-the-go sandwiches prepared by hand. Gallons and gallons of milk. Fizzy drinks. Water. Imagine seeing all this food around you, knowing that 300,000 tonnes of food is wasted by supermarkets every year, and still going home hungry.
There is no excuse for freezing welfare benefits in a cruel economic climate where prices for essential goods are rising faster than ever. People living in this situation have been stripped of their freedom and their dignity. It is a social injustice that should have been eradicated from developed countries long ago. We have the food and we should have the means to feed every single person who lives here.
So what can we do?
Firstly, we need to exert pressure on the government to close tax loopholes and enforce stricter tax avoidance penalties, as every pound that wealthy individuals and corporations dodge is another pound that is stripped from the essential services provided for the people that need them. We also need to pressurize the government to stop targeting the nation’s most vulnerable people, and instead to reduce austerity cuts and focuse more on taxing the rich companies and people who are currently in a position to feed themselves a million times over, every single day.
We need to campaign for the Minimum Wage legislation to be replaced by a fairer Living Wage– one that is more appropriate and reflective of the current economic climate and inflation.
We should support local food charities which aim to feed those who require emergency food aid, as well as more long term projects where people are growing sustainable, organic produce without excessive waste, and can therefore provide cheap, healthy and nutritious food for people who need it.
Help out your friends and neighbours; you never know who might be suffering in silence. We cannot end food poverty alone, but we can be part of the solution.
Let’s fix this together,