Battling Poverty

9 Jun, 2005 | World AffairsTdp

On the day that Bob Geldof announced there would be a new batch of Live Aid concerts, partly to celebrate what had gone before, partly to help pressure the G8 into action, I was having a conversation by email with a friend about fighting world poverty. (That sounds awfully heavy, does everyone discuss topics like that or is just me?) I had a combination of things roaming about inside my head to do with the Swedes changing their views on nuclear power after realising they may not be able to cope without it and will have to revert to ‘dirty’ energy sources like fossil fuels (incidentally, I take issue with people calling nuclear power a ‘clean’ energy source, am I the only one who realises that spent nuclear fuel needs to be extremely carefully handled and stored and is dangerous for 100,000 years?), the fighting in Sudan, an article on the BBC about volunteering, world poverty and then Live 8 (as the new initiative will be called).

Another friend of mine pointed out a while back, as I might have mentioned in another article, that money won’t solve the world’s problems. The previous Live Aid concerts raised $180 million to help fight hunger in Africa (primarily Ethiopia), which sounds like a lot, until you realise that the UN recently voted to give $250 million to help expand and outfit the African Union force currently trying to keep order in Darfur. One of the things the G8 summit will be looking at is raising the amount of money we donate to Africa to 0.7% of each country’s GDP. That sounds like a very small amount, but when you consider that Europe alone donates $40 bn and wants to double that to $80 bn by 2010, it’s not so inconsiderable. So what has changed since the first Live Aid in 1985? Nothing. There has been a war or conflict of some sort raging continuously, tyrannical rulers continue to reign, in fact, more of them have come to power. AIDs, malaria, TB and, above all, hunger, still plague the continent and have seen no real improvement. Isn’t it about time we woke up to the fact that money isn’t what Africa needs?

What Africa needs first and foremost is stability. You can’t build a nation, or a continent, if your population is running scared. Two million people have been displaced by the conflict in Sudan. There are countries with a population smaller than that. This is not an easy task. Replacing governments has been done before, generally it’s been unsuccessful (fingers crossed for Iraq and Afghanistan). Armed conflicts and ‘police actions’ are unpopular and again, don’t work, so you’re left with two choices as far as I can see: UN peacekeepers or sanctions. Peacekeeping missions still mean putting people’s lives on the line, which is unpopular, not to mention being unpopular in the country where they are, so sanctions it is. By sanctions I mean the full nine yards, cut the suckers off. No links, no ties, no votes, no trading, no aid, no debt relief, nothing. It’s the only way. How do you think governments get the guns to oppress their citizens? Aid donations and loans from the international banks. Stop them and you take away the ease of getting weapons, without them it’s very difficult to wage wars. Add intense international pressure and you’re onto a winning combination. Just look at what using those two tools has achieved recently: Iran agreed to suspend nuclear development programme and Libyan payout for Lockerby bombers.

Another idea would be to team up countries. In the same way people are more likely to donate to a cause if they see and hear real benefits from those receiving the aid, I think countries would too. What I mean is that we assign a developing country to a developed country and charge them with helping improve it. This would not necessarily mean extra monetary donations, but possibly exchanging experts, giving advice, arranging trade agreements, investment incentives and generally building a relationship with that country. Governments could use it as a source of positive news, good PR for their administration, and if it gets sufficient media coverage the two populations will begin to take an interest in one another at more than just a governmental level. Organise a few events (sports are always good for this) in both countries and you’d be well away.

Of course, one thing no one seems to have pointed out is that Africa needs to want to change. I have been told that when they returned to a well that was funded by a Blue Peter appeal a year on they found that instead of the people getting healthier and being grateful, they had dumped rubbish and human waste in it, completely ruining the point of putting it in.

We all remember those adverts that went something like “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll be able to feed himself and his family for life.” Well that’s true only if that man a) wants to learn and b) goes on to use those skills. In general, people do want to learn, expand their skills and work their way out of poverty. This brings me back to why I was thinking about nuclear power in Sweden and volunteering (I take my time but I get there in the end). Knowledge is what will get people out of poverty. Obviously stability needs to come first, but there are many problems that are faced by developing nations that can and have been solved by developed countries, it’s just we’ve never thought of applying them to the problems developing nations have. So, with that in mind, we need to get internet access and low-cost computing out to the masses. This has already been started. Computers like the Ndiyo and Simputer are designed to run on minimal power and cost as little as possible to build, maintain and operate. Global communications are on the march with global satellite and wireless access making progress (more needs to be done in third world countries on this though). With access to the accumulated knowledge stored online people will be able to find new uses for existing products and technologies and use the more generic information to develop technologies to solve specific solutions. And don’t underestimate the learning potential inherent in the human race.

Another article caught my eye recently (do you see the potential of unlimited access to the internet? I’ve grouped four or five articles covering different topics which were all seemingly unrelated, now imagine someone reading about a new drilling technique and a cheaper way to purify water and combines the two to deliver clean water to an area where it was not possible to do so before) about bringing computers to remote Indian communities. The part that I noted was how the people in these places had never seen a computer before and were given no training yet they all picked it up very quickly. If they can learn how to operate a computer, they can use it to learn languages, skills, get an education, solve problems, ask advice, anything. Governments could use it to deliver a specially designed curriculum to help teach basic levels of education, or offer simple courses to help people develop to more advanced levels.

So where does nuclear power and volunteering fit in? Well, in two ways. First, computers rely on two things: communications and power. Computers alone could help a population, not just when they’re connected to something else (though there are many benefits to being connected). They cannot function without power though. Part of the u-turn in Sweden, which voted to remove all nuclear power plants 25 years ago, is caused by the realisation that they don’t have enough clean alternatives sources to fill the gaping whole in power decommissioning will leave. The other options are mostly based around building, or buying power from, fossil fuel power plants. This seems less acceptable than nuclear power. This is a situation that many countries now face: a power crisis. The UK, for example, buys much of its power from France. Many of our power stations have been ‘moth-balled’ (i.e. turned off but are capable of being restarted) as they’re uneconomical. California found itself on the receiving end of rolling blackouts not so long ago due to the short-sighted decommissioning of some of its power plants. So, as demand for power goes up and more countries are fighting for dwindling fossil fuel reserves, prices are going up. There are plenty of alternatives but none are capable (yet) of the sort of scale needed to replace fossil fuel burning.

I didn’t realise but apparently, 1.5 million people volunteered for charity work in 2003. Generally I think of volunteering, both in the UK and overseas, as people manning charity shops, cake stands at fetes, helping to paint or build houses/schools/whatever, caring for the sick or elderly and giving their time to teach others new skills. There are a million other things as well of course. I did mention that some people give of their skills, either directly (doctors caring for the sick) or by training other people. What you don’t hear of is people doing voluntary research. Imagine the amount of scientists, researchers and downright clever people we have filling up all the companies, labs, research institutes, schools, colleges and universities, not just in the UK, but around the world. It’s one of the developed nations greatest assets. Did you know that most of Google’s latest offerings (maps, gmail, local, etc) are the result of one of their policies: everyone gets to spend 20% of their time pursuing their own project.

There are a number of problems that could be solved but aren’t because there is no money to be made in them, so companies don’t bother, or because the problems are too big, too taxing, so widely spread you could never get all the people with all the skills you need. Well what if you could get people to volunteer their time for projects such as developing clean energy, cheap communications, cures for diseases that are financially unviable? Obviously you’d need somewhere to allow people to experiment, so government funding for a series of labs and possibly some sort of overseeing organisation would be needed, but instead of volunteering to paint a house, you volunteer to join a project team or research a topic or solve a problem. You may not finish it, but you make that information available for anyone else to build on. You could set a team with an overall goal (hence some sort of permanent staff) with team members dropping in for a day a week, one out of every four weekends, a fortnight a year, evenings or just whenever they’re free. Deadlines are immaterial, people are immaterial, all that’s needed are the right skills available at the right time, and that you make sure the project is well documented with that documentation available to all, free of charge.

Things like equipment and computing power should be easy enough. Either corporate donations, government funding or using old equipment should be able to make up most (what company wouldn’t like to advertise that they are helping solve the world’s problems?). You could string old PCs together as Google has done to give performance. Physical locations would be harder. Maybe you could offer some tax incentives for commercial labs to allow people to use their equipment out of hours, or you could convert an old military base to the task. You may even be able to get companies to put up some money to allow researchers to come full-time for up to 12 months or let them take a paid sabbatical (what’s a £1 million to someone like IBM? But it could employ 50 people on £20,000 a year).

These are just thoughts and ideas at the moment, but they could be so much more. As long as we first realise that money is not the answer to poverty. You could take some of the billions we distribute as aid every year and use it to create long term solutions. Let’s follow the old maxim: work smarter, not harder. It’s not perfect, but if we don’t change the way we’re tackling it now, we’ll be left looking back in another 20 years wondering why we still haven’t managed to eliminate world poverty.