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6 November 1997 Edition

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No poverty next week

By Dara MacNeil

By Saturday 8 November poverty and world hunger will be a thing of the past. They will have ceased to exist. That, at least, appears to be the plan of the United Nations, given that they have designated 7 November as International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

Gestures such as this look good on paper. In PR terms they help convince a sceptical public that august bodies such as the UN are not only concerned about these serious, fundamental problems, but are also intent on taking meaningful action.

In reality, however, the gesture is meaningless. Above all it is an attempt to camouflage the lack of will at an international level to redress such serious problems. The scandal of poverty in a world of plenty continues, not because it cannot be solved, but because the will to solve it simply does not exist. Thus, this time next year, the United Nations and other concerned bodies will no doubt be expressing ``renewed concern'', while trotting out the same, scandalous statistics.

Indeed, of statistics there are plenty. Collecting and compiling information has ever been a strong point of bodies like the UN. Acting on that information has always proved slightly more troublesome. Thus, they inform us that this year more than 100 million people are without proper shelter and live their lives on the street. Fully one third of the world's population exists in a state of serious financial insecurity. The same number of people are also denied access to sufficient food, clean water and medical care. Indeed, an estimated one billion people go hungry every year.

In the world's poorest countries the life expectancy of the average person does not extend beyond the age of 40, while every year more than 17 million people - three and a half times the population of this island - die from diseases which are both preventable and easily-curable. Ending this scandal once and for all would actually be relatively simple. Thus, those reliable statisticians have calculated, it would require no more than devoting 1% of the world's total income for the next ten years to the cause of poverty eradication. That, however, is not going to happen. Certainly not while the wealth of the world's richest continues to grow.

Today, the combined net wealth of the world's ten richest individuals is estimated to be in excess of $130 billion, one and a half times the combined income of the world's poorest nations. The UN itself estimates that the 358 richest people in the world enjoy more wealth than the combined income of countries which contain 45% of the world's population. And 89 developing countries are poorer today than they were 10 years ago.

Last year, the international community staged another PR exercise, similar to that which occurs on 7 November. On that occasion they gathered in Rome to participate in the World Food Summit. After days of debate they finally unveiled a masterplan. Over the next twenty years, they declared, they would attempt to reduce by half the number of people who go hungry every year. Thus, by 2016 no less than 500 million people will be starving. That is supposed to some sort of achievement. The supposed masterplan was rightly derided by the heads of many of the world's poorer countries. Cuban president Fidel Castro expressed that sense of anger when he declared that: ``Capitalism, neo-liberalism, the laws of a wild marketplace.....kill people. Hunger, the inseparable companion of the poor, is the offspring of the unequal distribution of wealth and the injustices in this world. The rich do not know hunger.'' It's as simple as that.

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