"If we can just wake up to the challenge of poverty, if there's the political will, we can beat it by 2050! Just look at places like South Korea: in 1953, at the end of the Korean War, it was the poorest country on earth. Today, it's one of the most advanced countries in the world."
DEVASTATING EARTHQUAKE IN HAITI … SOMALIA GASPS FOR WATER AS RAINS FAIL … CHILDREN SUFFERING AFTER SRI LANKAN WAR … DARFUR’S CRISIS RISKS SPIRALLING VIOLENCE … ONE MILLION IN AFRICA’S LARGEST SLUM …
If we’re honest, watching a news item about some tragic event on the other side of the world can make us a little uncomfortable – if we don’t change the channel first!
As we sit in our warm, multi-roomed houses, with the remote in our hand, a car or two in the driveway and pizza just a phonecall away, such events can easily seem like just-another-movie, surreal and hard to take in. Yet the examples of extreme poverty and staggering cruelty that grab the headlines are a sad daily reality for millions of our ‘brothers and sisters’ throughout the world.
What are we supposed to do? How should we relate to these images and statistics? Turn off the TV? Ignore the plight of those on the other side of the planet? Give our kids a thankful cuddle? Donate a dollar a day …?
Steve Tollustrup is Executive Director of TEAR FUND NZ. He’s been places and seen things that most of us would rather not think about. And Grapevine figured he’d be a good guy to talk to about the impoverished people who feature in all this bad news – especially the kids, “all the children of the world” …
GRAPEVINE: Steve, what exactly’s going on, globally? How is the state of the world’s poor and needy – especially the kids?
STEVE: Well, when I first came to TEAR Fund it was estimated that 35,000 children a day were dying from preventable illnesses. Now, 15 years later, that figure is down to 21,000. So progress is definitely being made.
However, back in 1965 the gap between the poorest and the richest was around 1:25 – which means for every $1 made in a poor country, $25 would be made in a wealthy country. To date, that has moved out to 1:75 – so, unfortunately, the gap between the rich and poor is widening.
The economic downturn has certainly impacted the poorest. We’ve seen big donors like governments and the UN World Food Program actually cutting back their contributions. And the financial crisis has raised the cost of food, plus the cost of transporting that food to market.
Its funny isn’t it? We complain about the pinch the recession may have caused in our pockets, but for the poor, particularly in those vulnerable communities, it’s a matter of life and death.
But, hey, I’m a prisoner of hope! I think we are winning the battle. And there’s no reason why we can’t knock the worst of poverty on its head in the next 10 years.
GRAPEVINE: Is technology helping? Almost every week we’re offered some new gadget or new technology that’s supposed to make our lives ‘better’! Is this having a positive impact on the poor?
STEVE: Technology is helping. One of the things I often laugh about is the fact that, even in the most destitute areas I go to, I’ll find someone with a computer, working on Microsoft Windows, with access to the Internet! In the poorest slums, there’s always someone who’s entrepreneurial enough to get an internet connection happening so people can gather around and download information.
I think it’s important to remember that the poor are not stupid – they simply lack the resources. I once saw this family in the slums of the Philippines who were collecting film cans in the streets. They were taking the last bit of leftover film, and then braiding it into strapping material and selling it.
I mean they’re very entrepreneurial, the poor – sometimes more so than we are here!
GRAPEVINE: And I guess that’s often the difference between living and dying – which sounds a little scary! Do you see many examples of people thinking outside the square?
STEVE: All the time! I met a refugee who was dumped in a part of Indonesia where there was nothing for him. So he got a small micro-enterprise loan (about $100, as I recall). With it, he dug ponds, lined them with plastic, and filled them with water. Then he bought some small carp fingerlings and released them into his pond. But it gets better! He gets this small business going, and is making some money selling the fish – and now he’s got some collateral. So he builds a couple more fishponds, and starts thinking: “Why am I feeding these things?” After a little more thought, he begins to build chicken coops over the top of the ponds. So get this: he’s now got chickens that are laying eggs … and when they poo, it’s going into the water … and the fish are eating it!
So now he’s got poultry, he’s got eggs, and he’s got fish!
Actually in the end, he managed to put one of his sons through university. So that’s kind of cool isn’t it? It shows initiative. And I know many similar stories of poor who, either individually or together with neighbours, have created really great income-generating little businesses!
GRAPEVINE: How come we so easily we equate being poor with being stupid – even if it is at a subconscious level?
STEVE: I think part of the problem has actually been created by the aid industry. It’s had an interest in portraying the poor and needy – particularly in Africa – as destitute, in conflict, incapable, and desperate for our paternalistic assistance. And unfortunately, that picture has really undercut investment. This overwhelming image of Africa being hopeless has undermined the confidence of industries in doing business there.
But when you sit down with Africans, their intelligence, their philosophical outlook, their entrepreneurial spirit – it’s fantastic! And that’s something TEAR Fund is very committed to. You’ll find we try very hard to present positive, capable images of people in poverty. The temptation is always there to show pictures that stereotype them as hopeless cases – because you can elicit better funds! But we resist that. And, surprisingly, we find that many donors prefer a more empowered image.
I’ve received complaints before about our child sponsorship program, saying “These kids don’t look poor! They look great – they look clean!” In other words, they don’t have snot in their noses and flies in their eyes. But we believe that every person is made in the image of God – and that’s what we want to show the public.
GRAPEVINE: What you look at the causes of poverty, how much of the problem is man-made?
STEVE: It’s hard to break it down into percentages, but my sense is that it’s mostly man-made. It has to do with unfair trade practices … it has to do with greed … it has to do with racism … with colonialism … with tribalism … And one of the major drivers is conflict, because conflict destroys economies and divides people – making commerce and trade difficult.
But I’m not trying to say “Bad West!” and “Poor Developing World!” Just because you’re poor and you live in the developing world – that doesn’t make you a saint! Look at the whole issue of child-trafficking. There’s a huge problem of western sex tourism and paedophiles preying on the developing world, but the reality is: the majority of child sexual exploitation is actually in-country!
Slums often exist because of poor civic and town planning. There’s the money that nations put into weapons and arms rather than education. There are cultural issues that are prejudiced against the girl-child – all that kind of stuff.
Of course there are issues of nature: cyclones, flooding, earthquakes. But those tend to be short, punctuated calamities. What really kills is chronic ongoing poverty – and I can almost guarantee that 99% of this has man-made causes. Selfishness and greed.
GRAPEVINE: $10 will get someone immunised against killer-diseases in Africa – yet we spend that on coffee and cake, almost without thinking! How do we Kiwis get this into perspective?
STEVE: I don’t think the idea is that, in fighting poverty, we should become impoverished ourselves. What we are trying to do is help people grow and develop and be more fulfilled as human beings – which, sadly, is something poverty compromises. But I regularly sit around with friends and have a flat-white! It’s part of our social life – which is good! However, I do think it’s important to be a little bit restricted … to remember that we’re blessed in this country … and that it’s good to bless others. So I like the idea of living a little bit more simply so others can simply live
GRAPEVINE: Living simply sounds a great idea. But it’s easier said than done, right?
STEVE: Well, let me put it this way: We need to ask ourselves, “How much is enough?” There’s an epidemic of what I call ‘affluenza’. We’re on this treadmill of consumerism – always needing more, always trying to keep up with others, always wanting the latest and greatest. But it’s not leading to happiness … and it’s not leading to fulfilled life.
But out of what we do have, we need to remember others who are poor – here in this country and around the world.
It’s easy to objectify people and place them at distance. But what I’ve found, working with the poor and the oppressed, is how close I become to them – they become like brothers and sisters. These are people with the same concerns for their kids, for their schooling, for their opportunities, for their hopes and dreams … as you and I have for our kids. And it’s important that we stand in solidarity with them.
GRAPEVINE: You’re very passionate about this subject – and not surprising, given your experiences! But how can the rest of us consumer-driven Kiwis get our focus off ourselves and onto those who are less fortunate?
STEVE: One way is just to slow down and listen. We get so caught up in our own lives that we just don’t notice – we just don’t think about the poor and the oppressed. But there are plenty of media reports pointing to the hot spots. And no one can really say that they don’t know what’s going on.
And here’s a thought: part of being human is being able to empathise with the suffering of others. René Descartes made that famous statement in the 16th century, “I think, therefore I am.” And I would go as far as to say: I empathise, I sympathise, I feel … therefore I am. So there’s this dimension of ‘being human’ that’s potentially closed off by ignoring the plight of the poor.
GRAPEVINE: You’ve spent a fair amount of your life in parts of the world most of us wouldn’t want to set foot in. Have you had any heart-warming moments that make you think “Yeah, this is so worth it!”
STEVE: I remember being in Ethiopia with a crowd of kids. It was towards the end of the day. It was hot (as you’d expect in Ethiopia!) and the sun was setting with a stunning rose-colour on these rocky mountains. And I suddenly felt this little hand slide into mine. I didn’t take much notice at first – I was so busy talking. But then this little hand really gripped me, and I looked down. There was this child – this little girl. She must’ve been about six or seven and she looked up at me with such a sense of appreciation.
We were there helping with her school, and I was someone she could reach out and connect with … someone she could touch. Yet as I looked down on her, she gave me hope … that this was the new generation … that this child could grow up and become a parent, a community leader, a national leader, whatever! We gave each other hope … and that was a really special moment for me.
GRAPEVINE: How about sad moments, angry moments? Is there anything that stands out?
STEVE: Violence and war makes me angry. I was in a Sri Lankan refugee camp in June, just a few days after the ceasefire had ended between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army. The camp was completely restricted. It was dangerous, and no Westerners had been there before. But, thanks to some pretty amazing circumstances, I was able to get in.
The camp was in an old factory beside an airplane hangar – and it was full of wounded. I’d never seen anything like it. There must’ve been 300 people, and they were all quiet, like they were in shock. There were kids without arms, kids with wounds to their faces, kids with legs blown off … and there were people just whimpering in the corners.
A woman started to walk towards me, holding this book – and I knew exactly what she was going to show me. I sensed it. She came up and grabbed my arms and started to cry and weep. Then she opened up this book in front of me. Here was this picture of a beautiful young 16-year-old girl – a Tamil girl – dancing. Here was a picture of this woman and her husband on their wedding day. Here was a picture of two young boys, 18 and 19, proudly sitting astride their motorbikes. And she was in tears, crying, “All dead… all dead … all dead!”
All I could do was just hug her and weep with her. But I was so angry inside. Angry about the cruelty that human beings are capable of.
GRAPEVINE: So tell us the truth, Steve: with all the aid work that goes on, are we really making a difference?
STEVE: Yes, we are! Definitely! We are making a difference. Development is taking place in areas that, 25 years ago, it wasn’t taking place. One measure of this – and an issue that we’re working on – is the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. In 1999, all the governments of the world (except I think Somalia and the USA) agreed that they would reduce poverty by 50% through enacting eight Millennium Development Goals. These related to maternal health care, primary education, fighting HIV and AIDS, etc. So by 2015, poverty was to be halved – and this is a target we’re still trying to hold governments to.
I believe if we can just wake up to the challenge of poverty, we can beat it. If there’s the political will, we’ll have it nailed by 2050 – I have no doubt about it!
Just look at places like South Korea: in 1953, at the end of the Korean War, it was relegated to the poorest country on the face of the earth. They used to have night clerks going around picking up the dead on the streets of Seoul – and that’s less than 60 years ago! Today, it’s one of the most advanced countries in the world. When you get off the plane at Incheon Airport and drive in to Seoul, you think you’re in the Jetsons! The place is so modern! And they’re living proof that this can really happen. It’ll just take the will of the world to collectively address it.
GRAPEVINE: How does New Zealand rate, compared to other countries, with our generosity to the poor?
STEVE: In terms of official government money being given overseas, we are amongst the lowest. We give just over 0.3% of our GDP towards fighting poverty in the developing world. Compare this to Scandinavian countries who’re giving around 0.8%. On the other hand, the United States – although it’s got a huge scale, is only giving about 0.19%.
However, in terms of the general public, New Zealand has one of the highest giving publics in the world. We have very good support – in fact, TEAR Fund has actually been growing through the recession! We haven’t noticed a cut-back in giving. I think that’s the Kiwi spirit.
GRAPEVINE: You’ve heard the saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Are we? And, what does that actually mean?
STEVE: What it means is, no one person is disconnected from anyone else. I mean, we might be disconnected in terms of distance or communication (although the media and internet have changed that), but we are connected in the fact that we share the same blood, the same feelings, the same heart, the same hopes and desires …
I do a fair bit of travel in my job and I’m increasingly amazed at how small the world is – the idea of distance is really a perception. However, when confronted with issues like the poverty in Darfur or Sudan, we sometimes act like it’s a distant, far-off issue: like “This has nothing to do with me – they’re on the other side of the world!”
But we’re not the only ones. I’ve noticed, amongst the very wealthy in India, that the poor can be only a few kilometres from where they’re living – and they’ll put a distance in! Take Bangalore, for instance, which is a city of great wealth. It’s the IT capital of India, and there are people with heaps of money, driving European cars … yet, 20 km outside, there are communities of ‘untouchables’ who live in poverty, have no access to any justice, and are completely ignored.
GRAPEVINE: What would you say to someone who asks, “Why should we bother? We’ve got enough problems in our own back yard to worry about what’s happening over the fence …”?
STEVE: On a personal level, every time I get off the plane at Mangere, I want to kiss the ground – because the problems out there in the developing world, are far more stressed, far more stretched, and far more gritty.
In the first instance, we definitely need to look at problems here in New Zealand – absolutely. But while tackling those, we also need to get over the issue of borders and recover our sense of common humanity. At a purely self-centred level, by fighting poverty we’re able to create stronger economies. We’re able to help defeat terrorism – because terrorism is fuelled by people feeling helpless and hopeless. We make our world safer. And we create jobs here in New Zealand, as those economies and poor communities get stronger.
The truth is, we can’t live in isolation anymore. And, to be honest with you, I don’t find it very Kiwi to ignore others. Kiwis have always been travellers … Kiwis have always been big on the OE … Kiwis live with a more global mindset than many other countries.
I was born in the United States, and have been in New Zealand for 35 years. People in the US tend not to look outside their own country – they don’t get that there’s another world out there! But, Kiwis aren’t like that. Kiwis have a very global outlook. So I think that one doesn’t portray the Kiwi spirit by thinking, “Why bother about the world out there?”
GRAPEVINE: What do you think happens when we do bother – when we do start showing a genuine concern for those less fortunate?
STEVE: Well, I think we enlarge ourselves – we bring out sentiments and concerns which enrich us as human beings.
Yes, it can sometimes be uncomfortable. But we should allow ourselves to be touched by things that we read in the news – we should be able to put ourselves in the shoes of another person that is suffering. And if that brings us to tears, if that brings us to an uncomfortable place of empathy, then I think that’s all well and good.
GRAPEVINE: You’ve spent time in the poorest parts of the world, and you’ve probably seen both the best and the worst of humanity. Do you have a last word for your fellow New Zealanders as we begin this next decade?
STEVE: Two things, actually. First of all, the fight for justice and the struggle for human prosperity is a challenge that can be easily met … if we all have the resolve. This is not impossible. We can eventually lick it – and we will.
The other thing I would say is, let’s really take stock of our lives – about what’s really important. From the way we live to the way we consume, let’s ask the question, “How much is enough?”
Maybe, as a result, we can find our lives a little more enriched – because of who we are, rather than what we have.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT TEAR FUND AND THE WORK THEY DO, PHONE 0800 800 777 OR VISIT WWW.TEARFUND.ORG.NZ.
Issue 2 2010 Feature (1207 KB)
Issue 2 2010 Feature (1207 KB)