Poverty: it’s not about victims, it’s about justice

I work for an NGO. Today I was asked what I had learned while working there. I said, “I’ve learned that fighting poverty is fraught with ethical dilemmas.”

What does that mean exactly? Where is the ethical dilemma in taking on poverty?

Well here is the problem. Many people view poverty solely as a problem of victims, without really looking to find perpetrators. The average punter sees poverty as something that invokes pity, sympathy, empathy, frustration, or helplessness.

But I think poverty is about power – who has it and who doesn’t. And if there is power involved, the next thing you need to think about is justice – or the lack of it.

Corruption, conflict, greed and apathy are the perpetrators of poverty, and the obstacles to poverty’s end. And they all stem from one thing: self interest. I think that more people need to stop feeling sorry and start getting angry. We need to start pointing the finger, because without justice and the protection of people’s human rights, dishing out rice at a food distribution isn’t going to fix anything.

So why the delay?

Have you noticed how not one NGO has come out and lashed Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe? The reason is that they are all petrified of being ejected from the country. Once upon a time I used to say, “Fine, let’s get kicked out! We can’t stay silent on what this guy is doing.” Then I found out that NGOs are feeding well over 10% of the population. It’s difficult to take a principled stand when you have to walk away from starving people.

What about Burma after the cyclone? Even after an uneasy truce was brokered between multilaterals (UN), NGOs and the military junta, they still had to work together. When is it okay to collaborate with military who have a long history of horrendous human rights abuses? How do you draw the line, especially when faced with people who are suffering immensely?

How about something a bit more personal, a bit closer to home. Indigenous Australians are dying more than 17 years earlier than white Australians. Despite all the interventions and publicity, many remote communities remain vastly under-resourced. Would you be willing to stand up and write to your local politician and say, “Forget the baby bonus or the first home owners grant – invest in Indigenous health programs.” It’s a bit more difficult when self-interest becomes a factor.

I’m not having a go at people who don’t – people the world over are the same, they just want to get ahead and look after their families. Altruism doesn’t come naturally, it’s something that has to be worked at. And it is a prerequisite to seeking justice.

NGOs tread a fine line between short-term relief and long-term advocacy. There is no formula. But I think this is why individual Australians are so important – they have the chance to ‘speak the truth to power’ in uncompromising fashion. Seek out and get involved with Amnesty International or especially Human Rights Watch. The world’s poor don’t just need your money. They need you to seek justice. Consume media and tell others about it. And if you want to, practice altruism – a prerequisite to justice – and give your local MP permission to return power to someone who needs it more than you.

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2 thoughts on “Poverty: it’s not about victims, it’s about justice

  1. monkeybizness says:

    The post wasn’t supposed to inspire guilt Ronald, it was supposed to inspire action. There’s enough guilt swirling around the topic of poverty already. You don’t have to stop living life, just fire up and help out with a few small actions.

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