It was 1997, and on my first evening in Calcutta (later renamed Kolkata), I walked with an Indian friend through the streets. It was an eye-opening experience.
Families were settling down for the night under flimsy shelters. Parents wrapped babies and little children in sack-like material to insulate them from the cold as they laid them down to sleep on the concrete sidewalks.
I was shocked and disturbed. I asked my Indian friend, ‘How long until these people have a proper home?’
He smiled. It was my first time in India, and my ignorance was obvious. He answered gently but clearly. ‘Alistair, in the sense you mean they will never have a proper home. The parents – like their parents – were born here on the sidewalk, grew up here, as will their children. They will never have any other home.’
Deeply troubled I went back to the villa where I was staying. In the middle of the night I woke suddenly. A storm had broken over the city, and my shutters were banging and I could hear rain pouring down. I was safe, dry, and comfortable, but I knew those parents and their babies were lying out there in the street with nowhere else to go, and no way to get dry until morning when the rain would stop and the sun come out.
Deep in my heart I sensed God saying, ‘This is not how I meant my world to be, and this is not how it has to be’.
A few years later I was in an African country where two liberation movements had fought a brutal civil war. After visiting rural villages, four of us drove for hours on dusty roads back to the capital. Half way there we stopped to stretch our legs. I needed relief of a different kind, and walked back up the road for a little privacy. One of my friends shouted after me, ‘Use the ditch, but don’t go across it into the bushes’. Why not? Because this was Angola, and that land could still be covered in mines.
No wonder, then, that in the early 2000s almost a third of Angolan children died before they were five, and overall life expectancy was less than 40. Not how the world was meant to be.
To the north of Angola is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another of the world’s poorest nations with many lives lost due to disease, malnutrition and armed combat. I flew into villages in clearings deep in the Congo jungle and along the Congo River. (See also blog ‘We do what we can’, February 27, 2021)
I visited a school in a village, hundreds of miles from any large settlement. At most there were two or three classrooms. Teachers were doing their best for the children. But they had no books and no teaching aids. Just a board and chalk. The pupils sat on planks of wood set on wooden stakes. The desks were the same construction, just with a wider plank. What you wouldn’t realise from my photo is that several seats and desks were broken and the children were holding the planks in place while I took the picture. No school my children attended was like that.
In a settlement by the Congo River I was shown around a hospital. The operating theatre was very basic. The state of the operating table wouldn’t matter to an unconscious patient. But what mattered for the surgeon was that the operating light hadn’t worked for two years and couldn’t be repaired. I asked how they operated with no light. ‘We pull the table near a window and do our best by daylight.’ No operating theatre where I was treated was like that.
I saw an incubator where a tiny, premature baby lay. The incubator looked old, but had to be useful. It wasn’t really. The incubator didn’t work, and couldn’t be repaired. It was only a convenient small place to lay a premature baby. One of my children had jaundice when born. The incubator in which she was put wasn’t like that.
In another Congo hospital, I met a young boy who was seriously malnourished. His grandmother had walked with him through the jungle for three days to get help. No-one knew where his parents were; most likely they’d died. ‘Can you help him?’ I asked a doctor. He shook his head slowly. It was too late to save the boy. All they could do was make him comfortable. None of my children looked like that little boy or was beyond help like him.
I felt distressed taking these photos, and disturbed now just looking at them again. I also feel angry. This is not the world as it was meant to be, and not the world as it has to be.
So, who am I angry at?
At all of us who are complacent while others suffer I include myself. Every year I give a percentage of my income to alleviate world poverty and for other causes, but I know my lifestyle is one that billions in this world will never have. That troubles me. I know that personal giving by any of us can’t solve world poverty. We could never give enough, and aid alone won’t resolve the complex reasons behind the poverty of many countries. But is it not true that our focus is on ever more comfortable lives for ourselves? How can that be right? I will keep urging myself and others to give careful thought about how we live and how much we spend on ourselves, compared to how much we give so others can at least eat. The measure of caring isn’t pity but what we do for those in need. Mahatma Gandhi said: “Live simply so that others may simply live.” Wise words.
At my own government Let me explain my point with a little imagination. In your town, six families have lost their main income earner. One parent in each family now holds them together, but they need help. You’re generous, and you promise to support them until the children are older. But a storm blows your roof away. You have money to pay for the roof repair, but the cost has eaten into your capital. You want to replenish your reserves fast, and you do that by cutting the amount of support you give to the already impoverished families. Now they don’t have enough to eat and they can’t pay their bills, but you can rebuild your funds quickly. Their needs were sacrificed for your benefit.
The analogy isn’t perfect (no analogy is) but it’s uncomfortably similar to how the UK government has responded to the financial cost of the Covid-19 virus by cutting the overseas aid budget. The nation was giving 0.7% of national income in aid, but that has now been reduced to 0.5% – a drop of about four million pounds. The government says that because the pandemic damaged the economy, the aid reduction will help restore public finances. So, let’s be clear what that means. We spent more than usual on health care and support for those out of work – which was right to do – and now we’ll restore our national wealth by taking money away from the poorest people in the world. Yes, we’re really doing that. Of course the UK should put its finances in order, but: a) if you look at the big picture, the UK is still among the very wealthy nations of the world; b) it’s hard to see any morality in restoring a strong financial position by making the poor poorer.
At other governments Poverty has many causes. Historically, much wealth was taken from nations by colonial masters whose goal was to enrich the mother land. Even now, unfair contracts continue to blight some nations as other countries and large corporations want control of their minerals.
But poverty has plenty other causes too: discrimination against ethnic groups; incompetent and unstable governments; wars that kill civilians, devastate crops, and create millions of refugees; poor infrastructure and systems for trade; inadequate education, especially of girls; low provision of healthcare, clean water, safe working environments.
But, unquestionably, corruption is a major cause. In 2020 India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said ‘dynastic corruption’ was now a major challenge for the country. Where corruption persisted from one generation to the next, the country was hollowed out like the damage of a termite. It’s not just India where corruption is rife. In many places paying a bribe is just a cost of business, or how you get a favourable judgment in court. I’ve seen that most blatantly in Asia and Africa, but I’m not foolish enough to think corruption doesn’t happen in western countries too. Who is it that never benefits when there’s corruption? The poor. Their land is taken, and the affluent thief can pay off the police or judge while the poor farmer has no resources to regain the land. Corruption is a deep-rooted evil across much of the world.
I probably sound angry throughout this blog. I am. This is not how the world was meant to be or needs to be. Nothing described here has to be this way.
If my photographs or anything I’ve written is disturbing, I hope the evidence of desperate poverty moves all of us to make this world better. You may have seen the slogan ‘Keep calm and carry on’. Often that’s good advice. But if our reaction to desperate need in the world is that we do nothing and just ‘carry on’, then literally billions of our fellow human beings will suffer. That cannot be right. That’s not how the world was meant to be.