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15 July 1999 Edition

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People, not just profits

BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN

     
The 26 Counties has the highest level of poverty in the industrialised world outside of the USA
Twenty percent of the 26-County population bought shares in Telecom Éireann last week. Twenty-three percent of the 26-County population are functionally illiterate, which means they would not have been able to fill out their share application forms. This is a startling example of the realities of economic inequality in the Irish economy today. It is just one of the United Nations' damning findings about economic and social inequality in not only Ireland but around the world.

The United Nations Human Development Report released this week shows that the 26 Counties has the highest level of poverty in the industrialised world outside of the USA. The UN report found that over 15% of the Irish people are living in ``human poverty''.

The UN measures states using a Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI takes account of income, education and life expectancy. The 26 Counties has fallen to 20th out of 174 states measured on the HDI. Last year the state was ranked 17th.

Internet inequality


``People, not just profits'' is the title of this year's Human Development Report. As well as producing the usual HDI rankings and measures, the report focuses this year on the effects of globalisation on equality across the world.

``Reducing the gap between the knows and the know-nots'' is the emphasis of the report, which argues that this gap is widening. The report says that the Internet is the ``fasting growing tool of communication ever''. It predicts that the number of Internet users will grow from 150 million today to more than 700 million by 2001. However, the report argues that an invisible barrier has emerged ``like a Worldwide Web, embracing the connected and silently, almost imperceptibly, excluding the rest''.

For example, the U.S. has more computers than the rest of the world combined. Bulgaria has more Internet hosts than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa. South Asia has 23% of the world's population and less than 1% of the world's Internet users.

Access to the Internet is dictated in most cases by the quality of your education. In China, 60% of the users have a university degree. In Brazil, 75% of users are men.

According to the report, ``the typical Internet user worldwide is male, under 35 years old, with a university education, and high income, urban based and English speaking''. Eighty percent of Web sites are in English, yet less than 10% of the world's population speaks the language.

Money talks louder


Transnational business is also studied in the UN report. These huge businesses are controlling ever larger slices of the global market. For example, the top ten telecommunications companies held over 86% of the market in 1998. The ten largest pesticide companies control 85% of their global market. The ten largest computers companies have 70% of their global market.

Most significant was the finding that industrialised states hold 97% of the all worldwide patents. The UN report calls for a shift in research objectives: ``In defining research agenda, money talks louder than need - cosmetic drugs and slow-ripening tomatoes come higher on the list than a vaccine against malaria or drought-resistant crops for marginal lands.''

Rich and poor


The growing gap between the rich and poor has been another feature of successive UN Human Development Reports. This year's report found that the top three billionaires in the world have assets greater than the combined GNP of all the least developed states and their 600 million citizens.

Buying a computer in the USA costs on average one month's wages. In Bangladesh it would cost eight year's income. Over 80 states have lower per capita incomes in 1998 than they did in 1988.

The top 20% of the world's population living in high income states control 86% of the worlds wealth, 80% of world exports and 74% of telephone lines.

The gains from crime are also measured. Organised crime syndicates are estimated to gross $1.5 trillion yearly, while trafficking in women for sexual exploitation is a $7 billion-a-year business.

Solutions


The UN report concludes with a call for changes in the process of globalisation. Markets have been allowed dominate the globalisation process, it says. The result is that ``the benefits and opportunities have not been shared equitably''. Working conditions and incomes have suffered. Financial volatility has increased.

The report also calls for formulation of regional labour and environmental standards as well as an international public programme to fund the development of biotechnology, and information and communications technologies to meet the main technological needs of poor people. This could be financed in part by a ``bit tax'' on electronically delivered messages.

Finally there is a call for a global forum to include multinational corporations, trade unions and non-government organisations that would ``give rich and poor people a louder voice in global decision making''.

This might be a workable proposal but it does not cover up the failure of the UN to deal with global inequality. The UN commissioned this report and it is through the General Assembly that these global inequalities should be addressed.

 

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By Michael Pierse

    
Possibly the most worrying statistic unearthed by the survey was that 17% of Irish adults aged between 16-25 are functionally illiterate, compared to 3% in Sweden and 5% in Germany
The abilities to communicate one's thoughts through writing and to read the thoughts of others are assets at the essence of human progression and are fundamental to the functioning of our everyday lives. But modern Ireland and many other industrialised countries continue to maintain surprisingly high levels of adult illiteracy.

In 1995, a market research-driven survey revealed the true extent of what remains, due both to sociological and deeply personal reasons, a clandestine constraint suffered by many Irish people. The International Adult Literacy Survey, assisted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, recognised that all respondants would be to some degree literate and sought to improve upon previous surveys, to make an analysis of the practical applications of the respondant's ability. Thus, the simplicity of the question ``Can you read?'' was replaced by ``How well can you read?'', provoking a more considered and revealing response. 25% of the Irish adult population were categorised as having ``very low literacy skills''. In other words, they ``may, for example, have difficulty identifying the correct amount of medicine to give a child from the information found on the package'', an ensuing report states. Although it seems that estimating the corporate merit of each nation's populace was the motivation behind this survey, it nonetheless reveals a hidden difficulty that hampers and moulds the lives of many Irish people.

Tommy Caulfield, from Dublin's Inner City, told An Phoblacht how illiteracy can affect the self-esteem and confidence of an individual, especially how technological and communicative advances can bewilder those lacking basic literacy skills. Reared in Seán Mac Dermott Street, Tommy left school at the age of 13 years and ``rolled from one job to another''. The menial nature of these jobs meant that literacy was not a requirement and that both financial and educational subsistence was the norm. ``The older you get the harder it gets'', he explained. ``When you see people around you being promoted while you're still stuck in the same rut, it affects you''.

    
Not everyone who wants to take home the form is being lazy, not everyone who, for example, claims they forgot their glasses has actually done so
Illiteracy tends to impede heavily on the social relations of those who suffer from it. Awkwardness and a feeling of inadequacy when socialising are commonplace. ``I couldn't take part in political debate and had to wait until the conversation moved on,'' Tommy said. The alienation from various aspects of social interaction, in which others may feel relatively comfortable, manifests itself in domestic, public and working life. Parents often have difficulty when administering medicine and feel incompetent when children ask for help with their homework. Irish people in the lowest category of literacy advancement are three times as likely to be unemployed.

Since seeking tuition, Tommy has completed his Junior Certificate and is now studying for his Leaving. The help he received from the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) has been reciprocated by his work for them as a member of their Board of Management and through a video and advertisement in which he featured. Another demonstrable benefit for Tommy was that he was promoted to supervisor in work. He has also started writing poetry and to enjoy the release with which this newfound skill has provided him.

Although literacy tuition has provided many people with a new lease of life, the social factors from which the problem emerges continue almost unabated. ``The whole school system doesn't suit everyone'', NALA spokesperson Jennifer Lynch says. ``Adult education now aims to replace the exclusive ethos of `you're either intelligent or you're not' with a more compassionate and inclusive concept termed `multiple intelligence'. It's not a question of asking `are you intelligent?' but `what are you intelligent at?'''.

The recent introduction of an applied Leaving Certificate course directed towards more practical than academic achievement may convey the increasing credibility of this concept in educational circles. In many cases, however, students fall behind very early, leaving them with the mistaken belief that they are hampered by some intrinsic incompetence. ``Accepting the fact that they actually can learn can be difficult,'' Lynch explained. ``If you had a bad experience in school you might actually doubt your ability to learn anything.'' For this reason, some adult education schemes have integrated personal development into their agenda.

Though NALA is not suggesting that one in four Irish adults need to attend a literacy scheme, they project that many people who manage to get by with illiteracy in their daily lives will experience problems in the future. An expected population drop after the year 2005, combined with a diminishing demand for unskilled jobs and an influx of investment in high-tech firms will mean that literacy will be of increasing relevance for employment purposes. This may be the reason behind mootings of interest from IBEC, the Small Firms Association and various employers in facilitating literacy provision in the workplace.

Possibly the most worrying statistic unearthed by the survey was that 17% of Irish adults aged between 16-25 are functionally illiterate, compared to 3% in Sweden and 5% in Germany. ``What's needed to be functionally literate today is very different to what was needed 20 years ago,'' Jennifer points out.

The disadvantage faced by today's youth is not offset by the advent of supposedly free education. Last week, a young man studying in one of NALA's inner-city courses died from a heroin overdose, highlighting, yet again, the ongoing threat posed by drugs to young Irish people. Furthermore, a report published this week citing Ireland as having the second-highest rate of poverty among industrialised countries, exposes the polarisation of rich and poor that leaves young people without prospects, hope and apathetic to their own ignorance. But ignorance is not bliss.

NALA hopes to emulate some of the tactics employed in other countries. In England, a `Year of Reading' has been launched with the cooperation and support of Trade Unions, Business, Libraries and even soap operas. Both Brookside and Eastenders have highlighted the issue. The ever-riveting Glenroe, without consultation with NALA, has highlighted the issue here, although dissappointing Jennifer's expectations. In the Wicklow soap, a member of the Travelling community was used, stereotypically, to exemplify the problem. ``What was a bit daft as well was that two episodes later he was getting on fine - a bit unrealistic,'' she said. Television and radio advertisement is also an important option, though the organisation's funding is somewhat limited.

So, what can we do? There is an onus, especially on those who work with the public, to be more sensitive to the issue. ``Not everyone who wants to take home the form is being lazy, not everyone who, for example, claims they forgot their glasses has actually done so,'' Jennifer Lynch reminds. Those wishing to become actively involved in their local literacy training organisation can do so by contacting any VEC. Special training is provided for volunteers, lasting approximately two hours per week and spanning a duration of 10-15 weeks. Most schemes will ask tutors to make a 12-15 month commitment to ensure the relationships students develop with their tutors are not continuously broken. The tutor will be expected to spend two hours of their week thereafter working one-to-one with their assigned student. Recruitment of both students and tutors will take place this September in many places throughout the country.

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