How Can We Fight Poverty?

Slowly I started to think about the existential question—should and can one do good? And if so, how?


Midsummer 1974 I set out to hitchhike from Sweden to the Great Lakes of Central Africa. It was a mad undertaking, only possible for someone still a teenager. I was wildly interested in African aquarium fish with a focus on fish from Lake Tanganyika. I wanted to see how they lived in nature.

After months of dusty roads and tons of culture shock, I reached Kenya, and had the luck of being offered a job as a rural secondary school teacher. Being employed by subsistence farmers and living on a local Kenyan salary in a mud hut gave me a crash course on what the basic necessities of life looks like for a substantial part of the Earth's population.

Most of the people I worked with or met tried to better their lives. The students were working hard—much harder than I had done in my rich Swedish middle class environment. Their parents struggled hard to meet school fees. And all around us, the whole community tried to improve on wells, business opportunities, roads and so on.

Slowly I started to think about the existential question: Should, and can, one do good? And if so, how?

For me, it was to become a journey of learning. Having the opportunity to conceive and direct "Give Us the Money," as part of the Why Poverty? documentary series, gave me the opportunity to investigate the learning journeys of people, such as Bono, Bob Geldof, and Bill and Melinda Gates. Spending 18 months also in the company of politicians, gatekeepers, lobbyists, aid workers, government ministers, experts, and activists confirmed my suspicion that a great deal of development aid money had been squandered in the past. But more astonishingly, it also demonstrated that there most certainly are important efforts that deliver proven results. Today, about 8 million HIV-positive people in Africa receive medication thanks to international and local efforts. Perhaps 50 million more kids receive primary education on the continent than ever before.

On a smaller scale, there are numerous NGO efforts that rely on the dedication and hard work of volunteers. Two such examples are the charities EYES (Ethiopian Youth Educational Support) and A-CET (the African Children's Educational Trust) that help to build and donate classrooms to local schools, enabling tens of thousands of children to access a place of learning. But the fight is far from over.

One of my early lessons while living in Kenya was that one should also avoid being part of the problem oneself. Corruption is of course not an African phenomenon, but plentiful in the Western world. We could change this by enacting legislation for increased transparency in economic transactions between the extractive industries and governments in the rich world, as well as the poorer countries that supply a large portion of the minerals, forest products, etc., that are extracted and exported. Through the Dodd-Frank Act, the United States has started to pave the way by forcing companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange to be more transparent in their dealings with supplying nations. But similar and enhanced legislation needs to be enacted all over the world. If a larger part of the revenues created by mineral extraction, forestry or agriculture in Africa would remain on the continent, the resulting net gains would dwarf money arriving through foreign aid.

The fight against extreme poverty is stubborn and slow, but step-by-step we can all make a difference!

Why Poverty? is a groundbreaking film series featuring a simultaneous global broadcast of documentaries, online shorts, and interactive discussions. Why Poverty? focuses on the question: Why do a billion people in the world still live in poverty?

via Barry Schapiro / Twitter

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