‘Good news’ claiming ‘falling global poverty’ isn’t news at all

September 27, 2016


Media reporting that heralds the success of global poverty reduction strategies making claims such as “the number of people living in extreme poverty ($1.90 per person per day) has tumbled by half in two decades” is still very much routine. However, articles like Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece in the New York Times, entitled The Best News You Don’t Know that suggests that “historians may conclude that the most important thing going on in the world in the early 21st century was a stunning decline in human suffering’ accepts doctored UN numbers at face value, misguidedly casting them as if they were news.

Much as we all naturally want to believe Mr Kristoff’s rendering of reality, it masks some far deeper, more depressing truths.

We can and should recognise that there has, indeed, been some remarkable progress on some fronts, but the idea that this warrants an overall “the world is getting better” diagnosis is, we’re sorry to say, untruthful, as it is based on a very partial reading of some fundamentally unsound data. In truth, the number of people living in poverty (as measured by the $5 a day mark, which UNCTAD defines as the absolute minimum for living a healthy life) has increased by 10% since the 1980s, and hunger by 9%. This, during a period in which global GDP increased an astonishing 271%.

Right now, according to the World Bank’s database, 4.1 billion people – more than half of humanity – are living in a state of poverty. So whose pockets are really being lined with all this aggregate economic growth?

This narrative also masks the fact that this growth has been dependent on economic activity that is destroying the environment wholesale, laying bear-traps for people living in poverty long into the future. The worst aspect of this narrative is not, ultimately, it’s empirical dishonesty, but what it hides. It gets people believing that everything is getting better, therefore we just need more of the same to end poverty. More of the same being the neoliberal ‘capital growth at all costs’ system that got us here, into the anthropocene, with its unfolding 6th mass extinction event, it’s massively centralising patterns of wealth and power distribution, and it’s deep, structural poverty and inequality.

No thanks.

Far better to fess up to the whole truth, as that is far more likely to focus attention where it’s needed to actually overcome poverty: the fundamental operating principles of the economic system, starting with, ‘material growth everywhere, all the time, at all costs’.

Unfortunately, generating a political and social imperative to do that is just the sort of thing Mr Kristof’s faux ‘everything’s great and getting greater’ narrative works against.

Find out more about how poverty is created on our website.

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Trump: Join us in connecting the dots

The election of Donald Trump has left millions, maybe even billions of us in shock. Although we may be looking with bewilderment at the US today, we should remember that he is not an isolated phenomenon. He is a symptom of a sickness that is raging all around the world. People are hurting, disillusioned with mainstream politics and increasingly angry at a neoliberal economic system that is destroying lives and the planet with increasing ferocity. And in their desperation they are willing to consider extreme measures to make themselves heard.

Demagogues thrive amid fear and insecurity, which is why they paint the world in such dark terms. It’s a strategy that has put right-wing populist leaders in power in an Axis of Egos: from Brazil to Turkey, the Philippines to Russia, authoritarian strongmen like Trump are on the rise. Meanwhile, many centrist liberals, like the Democratic Party in the US, have been so intent on rejecting left-wing populist solutions, and so sure of their ability to beat anyone running on a white supremacy platform with its misogyny and homophobia, that they opened the door for Mr. Trump to walk straight through. Their preference is always to maintain the status quo that has served them so well.

As dangerous as the election of Trump is for the world, we can also see in this moment the truth that we simply cannot rely on the electoral political system to save us, because it is designed to prevent the fundamental change we need. Its own survival is at stake and it will marshal all its champions and resources to defend itself and stop the emergence of a new system. But when we work, or continue working for change from the ground up; when we build or keep on building new ways of living and being with each other where we live; when we construct or keep constructing the future we know is possible with our own hands, rather than hoping distant leaders will build it for us, we find our true power. Finally, when we combine that with the unbending hope that has powered change through the ages, we know our power has meaning.

A 400-year-old economic system is dying and another is struggling to be born. Change on this scale is not going to be smooth or easy. We should not be surprised, then, that moments like this — where the establishment is dealt a body blow — become more and more common. We can despair when that blow comes in the form of right-wing extremists, or we can step-up. We are the ones we are looking for, who can and must grasp the opportunities in these crises that are undoubtedly there.

So it’s time to come together, taking time to remember the earth. Remember all the successful struggles for justice that came before us, and imagine all those to come. Remember that social movements are growing all over the world and realising the common struggle. Remember life. Then, organise. Find each other and help midwife the inevitable transition that brings forth from the ashes of neoliberal capitalism a system that works for the good of all life on Mother Earth. This is not just activism; this is our responsibility as human beings alive as this all unfolds.

This is why we are here.