Most North Americans, Europeans and Australians, among others, are among those who don't live in poverty. They may see homeless persons from time to time in the cities where they live, and think, "These are the poor."
But 'the poor' in North America, Europe and Australia are rich when compared to the 'poor' in other parts of the world. The Have countries have social programs, charities and other resources to help those who need help. Here in Canada, everyone has health care, access to social assistance funding and more. Lose your job? We have several programs to help you out. And the list goes on. To be sure, Canada isn't perfect, but it's pretty darn good.
Travel is a great eye opener to how the world really is. Do you holiday in Mexico? Take a look outside the resort, like I did in Acapulco. From my 4th floor window overlooking a hillside, I could see several family groups living rough with only loose tarps for shelter, gathering bits of wood to make a cooking fire. Then I went down to my dinner and show.
Traveling to Manila or Rio de Janiero, or India? The slums in these cities are infamous. In Sri Lanka some years ago, I traveled by road from Colombo to Galle, on the southwest coast. We drove past miles and miles of ramshackle hovels that filled the hundred or so yards of scrub land between the railway tracks and the ocean. When the tsunami hit the following year, my first thought was,"OMG! Those slums and and everybody in them must all be washed away."
Haiti is often referred to as 'the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere', a phrase almost meaningless in conveying the conditions under which most Haitians try to survive.
The list of the poorest countries goes on and on. Apparently, 'the poor will always be with us' but the gulf between Haves and Have Nots grows wider, to our shame.
Our world has the resources to feed and care for all its citizens, yet we choose not to. From time to time, usually following a natural disaster or at holiday time when alms-giving is popular, we may donate a few dollars to charities and urge our governments to fight poverty.
But other than writing a cheque once or twice a year, most of us continue with our lives, raise our families, send the kids to camp or music lessons, take our holidays, and worry about our portfolios.
"How can we do more," you well may ask. "There are so many of them. Where do I start? What can one person do?"
There's no easy answer, but here are a few ideas to explore. These are my ideas, and I offer them here. They do not apply for natural disaster emergencies, when immediate aid for water, food and shelter are needed.
- Don't support your country's agriculture industry by buying domestic grain oversupply then donating it to 'third world ' countries. It's costly to ship, and often ruined by the time it gets there. Even worse, this 'free' grain undercuts the local economy, and exacerbating the problem.
- Don't throw money at poor countries. After the tsunami in Asia, relief agencies were receiving huge amounts of donations with no idea of how to disburse them in a timely fashion. Think before you donate.
- Don't send old clothing, etc. Most countries have textile industries, and charity clothing ends up at local markets, again undercutting the local economies.
- Don't donate outdated pharmaceuticals; if they are useless in your country, why would they do any good in another? And again, the shipping costs, customs and duties are only supporting the transportation companies.
- When you travel, don't take candies to give to kids. Sugar is the last thing malnourished people need.
- Do support companies and agencies that are working to supply clean water treatment equipment, and items like foot pumps to move water from ponds to irrigate fields.
- Do support agencies that are making micro loans to small businesses.
- Do research charities and NGOs (non-government organizations) to see how they work, and what percentage of donations are used for administration.
- Do support agencies that provide mosquito netting and other products to help combat malaria.
- Do support agencies like Doctors Without Borders who provide medical and dental care.
- When you travel, do keep a discerning eye out for 'beggars'. As one friend said, "The few dollars I gave [the woman on the street] may be the only money she gets all day."
- When you travel, do buy things you need from street vendors, like in Ethiopian cities; many street kids sell small packets of tissue or AA batteries. It's something you can use, and supports their fledgling business.
- Get involved with anti poverty groups, or maybe do some reading on social justice issues.Think before you act. Who's getting the donation, how will they use it, and is it likely to do any real good?
When you read about or see media coverage of boatloads of Haitians trying to get the the U.S., or Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean, try to imagine how desperate you'd have to be to attempt such a foolhardy venture.
While newspaper headlines and television news reports cite enormous number about famines, national disasters and global poverty, these numbers are so large as to be meaningless.
Humanize 'The Poor'. Large numbers tend to diminish the people comprising them. Instead, try to see them as individuals, with parents, spouses, children, brothers, sisters and friends.
Imagine how you would help your own friends and family should they need a helping hand, and do it globally, for total strangers, one at a time if necessary and anonymously if possible.
We will all be the richer for it.