Monday, October 31, 2011


( - By Ibrahim J. Gassama

At the time of the January 2010 earthquake, Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere with more than 70 percent of its people living in officially designated abject poverty. The earthquake killed hundreds of thousands and displaced almost two million people. It also created an ocean of ruble and debris. The Haitian government reacted characteristically, pleading for international help. International assistance poured in. Actually, most of it went to people who claimed they were going to help. Haiti already had the largest contingent of foreign human rights and humanitarian workers per capita in the world. Charity has helped it maintain its place at the bottom.

Somalia is a somewhat different place, but shares certain common attributes. In most of the country, there is no pretence at governance. Actually much of the country is not a country at all even though we insist on thinking about it as a country. The people are desperately poor. Much poorer than even Haiti. You should be able to imagine that.

Now imagine widespread drought and famine managed by an assortment of religious fanatics, warlords, profiteers, and just plain gangsters. That should qualify the place as the worst of the worst, but you really couldn't say that without unfairly discounting the horrors of the Eastern Congo region and various parts of Sudan. The rapacity of the Syrian regime, the settling of accounts in Libya, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and the hell that is developing just to the south in Mexico should count too, but perhaps not as much.

In truth, nothing outlined above captures the true breadth of misery and violence that is the foundation of our world. We live in a miserable world, really. Putting aside for a moment what we are doing to our global habitat, the evidence of how horribly we treat each other as humans is breathtakingly revealing of human nature; the chasm between what we are and what we promise.

Most of us function because we have this remarkable gift that allows us the capacity to go on with life everyday and even find joy in the midst of all the mess that is all around us. That is understandable. What is not is that too many go one step further and embrace the catechism of happy talk. And perhaps in gratitude or out of sheer confusion and exhaustion, we select the best of these happy talkers to lead us. Like lemmings.

How long have we known and confirmed that inequality within and across nations is escalating? How long have we tolerated, indeed facilitated the increasing concentration of wealth in the midst of considerable misery? It has been decades since experts identified that about 20 percent of humanity -- about 1.2 billion people-live in abject poverty. This is poverty so wretched it simply cannot be appreciated in the abstract. Another 20 percent or so live in what we have come accept as ordinary benign poverty. You would think with all the happy talk about globalization and technological advancement that we would have made a significant dent in the lives behind these statistics. You would be wrong.

For sure wealth is no longer concentrated in the older developed countries. There are now these rapidly growing advanced developing countries and emerging economies that financial touts on beauty networks palpitate over. Except when they are not advancing or emerging. Yes, China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia and their like have attracted manufacturing away from the West. But at what cost? Has the needle of human well-being moved? The army of happy-talkers who consult, study, conference, and advise would have you believe that we have made progress. After all, they have not done so badly in the business of doing good. Witness those who came together in the year 2000 at the UN Summit to propose the Millennium Development Goals. What a spectacle it was. The speeches, the celebrities, the hope. The grand scheme once again was to tackle entrenched poverty. The principal aim was to reduce global poverty by half by the year 2015. The plan was perfect, the assumptions unimpeachable. The reality unchanged.

The thing is poverty does not persist in isolation. Its constant companion, often its principal guardian, is violence. The diamonds that promote the happiness of lovely couples, the rare earths integral to the devices communicating our happiness, and of course the factories, farms, labor camps, mines, and home industries that enable our access to low price goods are too often the sites and reasons behind the violence that preserves misery.

However, the role of deceitful or insufficiently reflective happy-talk of progress or solutions should not be minimized, especially when it greatly profits those who engage in it. Acceptance of the complexity of the problem, the resilience of misery and violence, and our seeming incapacity as humans to abandon the incentives of inequality is the minimally decent first step we should take. And I am not just talking about the responsibility of the 1 percent.

Ibrahim J. Gassama teaches law at the University of Oregon School of Law.

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