My dear friend Lijiun of Smile Always recently wrote a piece (Helping Hand) about a visit to an impoverished orphanage which really moved me. It brought back to my mind moments in which I have been witness to children suffering in the most extreme poverty. Sadly, there are too many to log, but here are a few:
- A group of boys–still children– bathing themselves in the filthy water reservoirs in the center of a set of railroad tracks in Delhi’s railroad station in the dark of night. (I didn’t capture a photo, but this one of migrant workers bathing themselves in the same train station, by Kaylee Everly, may give you some idea):
- Our tour-guide at Sarnath, one of the holiest of Buddhist sites, becoming violently angry at a very small child of “Untouchable” caste who approached us. Again, I don’t have a photo, but Seija, who reports a similar experience, posted a very moving photo of the kind of living environs that are sadly fairly typical of the poorest who live among two of the holiest sites in India– Varanasi and Sarnath:
- Children wandering barefoot through one of the poverty-stricken Favelas of San Paulo (photo and article about Brazil’s housing problems by Jonathan Inge Bianchi)
- Children in the urban neighborhoods of the U.S.–my own neighbors–not having enough to eat and struggling to survive in under-performing, desperately under-resourced schools. For these children, dilapidation, urban decay, poor nutrition and health, and violence are virtually every day experiences. A few years ago in one such neighborhood, I had three beautiful girls as neighbors; they became my dear friends. I watched their mother struggle with addiction, poverty, and prostitution and her children suffer things children should never have to:
My own very limited experiences are merely a taste of the global epidemic. Hundreds of millions of children live today in urban slums.
According to the 2012 Executive Summary of UNICEF on the World’s Urban Children (p. 8):
The causes of violence are many and complex, but prominent among them are poverty and inequality. High rates of violence and crime often arise where provision of public services, schools, and recreational areas is inadequate. A study of 24 of the world’s 50 wealthiest countries confirmed that more unequal societies are more likely to experience high rates of crime, violence and imprisonment.
Even the United Nations recognized global poverty as one of the most critical security challenges of the 21st century, by way of a resolution that came out of its 8th plenary meeting, convened Sept. 8, 2000:
19. We resolve further:
• To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and, by the same date, to halve the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water.
• To ensure that, by the same date, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling and that girls and boys will have equal access to all levels of education.
• By the same date, to have reduced maternal mortality by three quarters, and under-five child mortality by two thirds, of their current rates.
• To have, by then, halted, and begun to reverse, the spread of HIV/AIDS, the scourge of malaria and other major diseases that afflict humanity.
• To provide special assistance to children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
• By 2020, to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers as proposed in the “Cities Without Slums” initiative.
Abject poverty seems to be a unique condition of the human race, but it affects all living things on the planet. Animals suffer as a result of human poverty: organizations like “Poverty’s Pets” demonstrate the need for organizations to rescue abused, neglected, and abandoned animals in low-income, under-served communities; and, just one case study by the World Society for the Protection of Animals on poaching in Kenya makes quite clear the connection between human poverty and the suffering of animals.
The desertification of vast stretches of the globe as a result of human activity is making matters much worse, both in terms of ecological diversity and the increase of instances of human poverty and famine (see Henry Noel Le Houerou, “Man-Made Deserts: Desertization Processes and Threats”).
The world’s oceans and fresh-water systems are also affected. According to the United Nations Development Program:
Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at $3 trillion per year or about 5% of global GDP, and an estimated 63% of global ‘ecosystems services’ are provided by marine and coastal systems. As much as 40% of the world oceans are considered as ‘heavily affected’ by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, loss of coastal habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses, and by aquatic invasive species. As for freshwater, the root causes of much of the overutilization and degradation of marine ecosystems stem primarily from failures in governance of the relevant sectors (fisheries, tourism, shipping, agriculture, etc.) – inadequate policies and legislation, poor enforcement, weak institutions, and insufficient participation of civil society….While there are regional/local and long-term concerns with the absolute availability of water resources, the water and sanitation crisis is primarily a crisis of poverty, political will, inequality and power – in short, of profound failures in water governance.
Taking better care of the world’s ecosystems is one way to fight poverty, but powerful, multi-national, corporate interests are often at odds with ecosystem management. The animal-based agricultural industry offers but one example (see Carl Boggs’ article about this very issue in the academic journal, Fast Capitalism 2.2). Agricultural, biotechnology is another industry that contributes to ecosystem deterioration. Companies like Monsanto, for example, produce some of the most toxic chemicals that pollute the environment (from PCB’s to Agent Orange). Mansanto specifically has a well-documented history of suing local farmers whose non-Mansanto-seed-crops are naturally cross-fertilized. And, Mansanto’s “Terminator Technology” has been harnessed to produce seeds that have been bio-engineered to produce fruit which contains non-reproductive seeds. It has been estimated widely that this technology by Mansanto, which uses its influence among developing nations’ governments to force farmers to use its seeds, will bring about famine and starvation on a world-wide basis. Recently, however, the National Biodiversity Authority of India retaliated by suing Monsanto over its genetically modified eggplant seeds.
International pharmaceutical companies are some of the worst corporate offenders in the international arena of health of the world’s impoverished: from using the poor in the world’s developing nations as human subjects for drug-testing to paying off generic drug-makers who would sell generic drugs to under-resourced nations experiencing epidemics, the cases are numerous and well-documented. See, for example, Johnson, Toni. (2011). ” The Debate over Generic Drug-Trade,” Council on Foreign Relations. http://www.cfr.org/drugs/debate-over-generic-drug-trade/p18055.; Holms, Soren (2006). “Pharmacogenetics, Race, and Global Injustice,” Developing World Bioethics 8.2: 82-88; and Wollensack, Amy F. (2007). Closing the Constant Garden: The Regulation and Responsibility of U.S. Pharmaceutical Companies Doing Research on Human Subjects in Developing Nations. 6 Wash. U. Global Stud. L. Rev. 747.
Think-tanks like Share the World’s Resources, a non-governmental advisory organization to the U.N., warn of an unprecedented crisis of poverty looming as a result of the economic crisis and advocate “for natural resources such as oil and water to be sustainably managed in the interests of the global public, and for essential goods and services (including staple food, adequate shelter and primary healthcare) to be made universally accessible.”
The causes of and potential solutions to global poverty are anything but simple. Indeed, I personally often feel overwhelmed by it all. What can one person do to alleviate so much suffering?
While I don’t have an answer to that question, it seems to me that Mindfulness is a good starting place.
One may be mindful of the blessings that surround one and the small contributions that one can make toward a healthier, happier community.
A healthier, happier community begins with a healthier, happier self. A healthier, happier self begins with a healthier, happier mind.
The Buddha counseled, “Do Good, Do No Harm.” Being mindful can bring about more actions of doing good. Being mindful of the suffering involved in food that one eats, for example, can bring about small, but important changes of habit–Buying local and organic, for example, and not buying stuff with a laundry list of chemicals in the ingredients. Reducing the amount and kind of chemicals that one uses in the household. Trying homeopathic remedies where appropriate. When one does these things, one opts out of at least some of the harmful practices of globalization that contribute directly to the suffering of others.
Being Mindful offers profound changes within that manifest in the world around one. Today, I offer Metta in dedication to the peace and prosperity of children everywhere.
Perhaps you will consider joining me?
Afghani child–photo by Lawrence McGuire