The Good Life?

Here I sit, on my comfortable couch, slightly full after wine and pistachios with Marnie and her daughter Jen, then a few pieces of leftover pizza and a dish of sutlac pudding at home. My lojman is toasty warm, my exams are all corrected, my paycheck has been deposited, and life is good.
In the minute it took me to write that, 21 children died of hunger, most of them in Africa, not far from my warm, cozy Istanbul home.
A third of the exams I read were essays by my seniors, who just completed a global issues unit with a focus on poverty. I told them when we began the unit that they would become experts on world poverty, and they have. After reading their exams, I can think of little else.
Most of us know that there are 6.5 million people in the world, but did you realize that one-fifth of them (over a billion) live on less than a dollar a day? Or that half of them live on less than $2 a day.? That’s scary.
According to UNICEF, nearly 11 million children die each year as a result of hunger. That’s 900,000 a month, 225,000 a week, 30,000 a day, 1250 an hour, and 21 a minute—one every three seconds. That’s scary.
One in five children in the U.S. lives in poverty, and one of every two children in the world lives in poverty. That’s scary, too.
Which will destroy us first, global warming or the inequities in our world? Think about why 9/11 happened—really.
The gap between the haves and the have-nots grows wider every year.
I took a quick survey on the Earth Day web site (, and I realized how much more of our world’s resources I use than my share. It would take 3.3 planets to support everyone in the world at my Istanbul lifestyle (no car, small home), and 9.1 planets to support them at my U.S. lifestyle (a bigger home and a car). That’s also scary.
Do you know about the United Nations’ Millennium Goals? The richest countries in the world pledged in 2000 to donate .7% of their annual budgets (yes, less than one percent) to aid developing countries. Of the 22 wealthiest countries, only five have met that goal: Norway (.9%), Denmark (.87%), Luxembourg (.82%), the Netherlands (.8%), and Sweden (.79%). The U. S. came out at the bottom (.16%), which is pretty embarrassing. It helps to know that we are so rich that even .16% of our GNP puts us at the top in the amount we donated.
To put the inequality of our world into perspective, imagine yourself in a room of 100 people. Now distribute 100 pounds of potatoes. Give 25 pounds of potatoes to each of two “privileged” people, then give 1/2 pound (two small potatoes) each to 18 more people. Now distribute the other 14 pounds of potatoes (about 28 small potatoes) unequally among the remaining 80, making sure that the last 20 share one potato among them.
How would you feel if you were the “lucky one”? How would you feel if you were one of the 20 who received only a taste? We haven’t even looked at things like water, shelter, and medical care, but they all follow the same pattern. The reality is that the richest two percent of the world’s population hold over half of the world’s wealth. The richest 20 percent (that would be us) consume 86 percent of the world’s goods. What’s wrong with this picture?
For some reason I thought the war on poverty was being won, but I was wrong.
So why is poverty getting worse rather than better? One of the culprits is globalization. Multinational firms have found cheap labor markets overseas, where they don’t have the expense of benefit packages. One example is Nike, which pays Indonesian workers about $2 a day to produce sporting equipment and shoes. Most of those workers are women and children who work long hours under unsafe conditions. If they complain, there are others who would happily take their places. Because of the low wages, parents don’t earn enough to feed their families, so their children work as well. The children can’t attend school because they work, so they’re not getting the education they need to break this cycle of poverty. If these firms would pay a decent wage, more adults could work, their children could attend school, and their incomes would help to support their communities. Of course, Nike doesn’t want to eat into their profit margin, so it “ain’t gonna happen.” These people were better off before the factory moved in.
Of course, Nike isn’t the only culprit, and there are many other factors involved in this cycle of poverty. Developing countries are often the victims of corrupt governments that misuse aid, leaving the people no better off but deeper in debt. Trade tariffs favor some countries over others, and less developed countries are unable to compete on the global market. Wealthy countries buy up huge amounts of produce from poorer countries, leaving little to feed their residents. Undeveloped countries are drowning in loan payments when they need to put all their resources into their own infrastructures. A lack of education and medical care contribute to unconscionable loss of life to illnesses that could be prevented (like AIDS). There are many reasons for world poverty, but we need to look to its cure.
I remember as a child saying, “Well, you can send my lima beans to those starving children in China. I don’t want them.” I feel differently now. I need to find ways to get lima beans to those starving children.
The two most impressive programs I’ve come across are quite similar in their focus. The first, The Heifer Project, is an organization that provides livestock to families in developing countries so that they can support themselves. A $500 donation will purchase a heifer for someone, for $120 you can purchase a goat, and $20 provides someone with a starter set of chicks. When my boys were young, our Sunday School offerings went to purchase a cow for a family in Africa. We had a great time coloring in sections of a huge cow poster as we accumulated money toward our goal. (
The other project is even more impressive. You may have heard of Professor Muhammad Yunus, of Bangladesh, who just received the Nobel Peace Prize for his Microfinance program. He started his project in 1974 with a $27 loan to local women who bought materials to make bamboo furniture. Since then, he was the major founder of the Grameen Bank, which has made micro-loans totaling over $5 billion to over 5.3 million borrowers to get small businesses going. Over 96% of the loans have been given to women, because “women suffer disproportionately from poverty and are more likely than men to devote their earnings to their families.” (ABC Online) If each loan impacts five people, over 25 million people’s lives have been improved through Yunus’s Grameen Bank. (
My seniors, through their research, presentations, writing, and exams, have opened my eyes. After break we’ve scheduled a planning session to take collective action. Coming to Istanbul has opened my eyes to a lot of things. I see how fortunate I am, yet I also see the desperate need most of the world lives in. I have a totally different view of myself, my country, and our role in the world. It’s not a pretty picture, but I have hope. One must have hope.

One thought on “The Good Life?

  1. So, now, more than a year later….. what? Have you had any contact with those seniors who became knowledgeable about world poverty?

    With another year of experience there, are there current musings? I wold like to hear them, if so.

    Bruce Cox

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