Why Americans need to care about world poverty

    As 2005 begins with a host of solemn headlines from just about everywhere, you, the American citizen and member of the so-called “ownership society,” need not worry. Your future is safe.

    (Not those of you in the military. My advice: Be worried.)

    But as for the rest of us, if the world’s current problems are any indication, we’ll most likely be fine — at least for a while.

    You see, there’s one gigantic problem in the world today. It’s causing (or exacerbating) the issues behind virtually all the sour headlines you pass on your way to the Entertainment page every morning. Relatively few people in this country suffer from it, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably not one of them.

    It’s called poverty.

    This is something a little bit different from what you may think. It’s not what we call the state of not being able to afford an iPod. It’s more like not being able to afford food. At all. Approximately 24,000 people worldwide die every day of starvation. Three-fourths of them are children under the age of five.

    Hunger often takes lives by weakening people so they can’t fight off diseases that you and I would sneeze at. That’s also how poverty works. It doesn’t kill people outright. It just weakens them, so that when something — like a war, disease or tsunami — comes along, they’re defenseless. Or desperate.

    That’s pretty much the story behind every major conflict today, from the horrors of the Boxing Day tsunami and the myriad crises in Africa to our own tragic war in the Middle East. If you want to know why things are so bad, look at how poor everyone is.

    The worst victims of the tsunami disaster are the most destitute inhabitants of coastal and island areas, who live in the least protected areas. Since they have little contact with the outside world, many had to wait days for relief efforts to reach them.

    Now, those who survived the waves are dying because of wounds that were minor a week ago. Their communities, already impoverished, are now hotbeds for disease, fueled by rampant sewage, garbage and debris.

    So while earthquakes aren’t exactly preventable, the apocalyptic scope of the tsunami’s damage was due largely to the extremely poor living conditions of those whom it struck. There’s one tragedy fueled by poverty. Unfortunately, we’ve still got a world of them.

    Africa, the only continent to get poorer over the last 25 years, now has over 28 million people infected with AIDS or HIV. Though the region holds less than 10 percent of the world’s population, it has more than 60 percent of all those living with HIV.

    Not at all by coincidence, the world’s most AIDS-affected region, sub-Saharan Africa, is also the world’s poorest. It’s also one of the world’s most war-torn. While the tsunami and our tragic misadventure in Iraq hog headlines these days, the world forgets about an unforgivable tragedy in Sudan.

    Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled the murder of Darfur residents by a government-led Arab force “genocide,” the first use of that word by a government official to describe a situation still occurring.

    That hasn’t inspired anyone to do anything about it, even as a film released this week, “Hotel Rwanda,” reminds us of what horrors occurred the last time the world ignored genocide in Africa.

    What’s behind the genocide in Darfur and the civil wars that have erupted on and off throughout Africa for as long as can be remembered? It’s local tribes fighting corrupt governments (and other tribes) for land to grow crops on. Food.

    I was wrong when I said earlier that we, Americans, need not worry. We need to be very worried. Because what, really, is the motivation behind al-Qaida and the terrorists who slaughter our troops every day in Iraq? What drives suicide bombers to spend their lives killing a few American kids?

    Whatever their ideological reasons are, the real reason is hopelessness. They feel they’ll never get the lives those American kids had, that they’ll never get out of poverty. People don’t march happily to their death when they could be at the mall. Or, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman brilliantly pointed out, no country with a McDonald’s has ever gone to war with another country that has a McDonald’s.

    So as we quietly rack up casualties in Iraq, and as the number of people in Africa affected by AIDS continues to rise, we Americans would do well to remember the staggering number of people who live in poverty around the world, those to whom our fates are inescapably tied.

    While it may first crash upon distant shores, the tidal wave of world poverty will eventually drown us all.

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