Monday, March 19, 2007

Dinners, starving babies and fat cats

There are many challenges that face parents, but there is one that only faces certain parents. It is a complaint that I wish every one in the world would have, and it is called guilt.

Let me explain: children’s charities, certainly in the UK, now target dinner times to run adverts featuring starving children followed by a call for a donation. The result is that, when- ever we sit down for a meal with the television on, and especially if my young son is present, I am wracked with guilt about the nutritionally good life we are giving him. Despite feeling angry at the audacity of charities to bombard people so unashamedly during dinner, and that we now prefer to have dinner with the television off, the charities, of course, have a point. According to Unicef, 26% of children under five are moderately or severely underweight across the globe, and 31% of children under five suffer from moderate or severe stunting of their physical and psychological development because of undernourishment. Over 5,5-million children under five die every year from causes related to malnutrition. This disproportionably affects the developing world, which also happens to be made up of countries with greater numbers of children. Perversely, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, there is enough food to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,72 kilocalories a day. The problem is the lack of access to land and inadequate income to buy food. Poverty is the principal cause of hunger. Hunger causes poor health, which also reduces the ability of people to work.

There are many reasons for poverty, such as the unfair distribution of global wealth and a history of colonisation that devastated the developing world. Unicef notes that reducing poverty in the least-developed countries will require greater efforts in five major areas: national development strategies, official development assistance, full debt cancellation, fair trade and enhanced technical assistance from donors. Wealthy countries have a vital role in this.

But developing countries are also not blameless. Corruption and mismanagement of resources contribute to poverty. Although poverty is the main cause of hunger, endemic and unnecessary conflicts also have a part to play. According to Unicef, of the 12 countries where 20% or more of children die before the age of five, nine have suffered a major armed conflict in the past five years. So, what ever happened to the Nepad dream of Africa policing itself, holding warmongers to account and fostering peace on the African continent? Whatever happened to promises of the G8 Summit to make the world a fairer place? Where are the much-vaunted corporate social-responsibility programmes, not to mention those politicians that allegedly care about the starving? I imagine progress is being made somewhere and an objective article would balance the criticisms I raise, with some statistics showing how Nepad, the G8, some companies and concerned politicians are chipping away at eradicating poverty. But, perhaps, because of exposure to too many traumatic television advertisements, I am not in the mood. For once, I want those in the world with resources that can make a difference beyond small donations from people like me, to stand up and be counted in the fight against child poverty.

Governments, whether in the West or in the developing world, should be measured by their ability to address the needs of children. If children are the future, then why do they keep dying while the weapons industry, fat-cat multi-nationals and government officials continue to live it up? Nothing, I suspect, will ease my guilt as I have my dinner this evening, not even the meagre donation I just made to a child anti- poverty charity. But, if you people with power and wealth out there are willing to tell me what you are doing to fill a child’s stomach tonight, I am all ears.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, January 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 January 2007.