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It is a gross insult to humanity to waste money, food and water when others are desperately screaming for them, says Abe Mokoena.
Polokwane - I am certain that the world will never forget what happened on the morning of December 26, 2004, when a disastrous natural event caused huge tectonic shifts in the Earth’s crust, releasing vast amounts of natural energy into the ocean.
It was a tsunami. In Africa, its effects were felt in Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia, the latter country being the one in which several hundred people lost their lives.
As cries for donations in money, clothes, food and shelter grew louder, Thailand, which was probably worst hit by the tsunami, surprised everyone when it quickly announced that: “We do not require any material assistance as we are capable of looking after our own needs. But please send us tourists.”
Very few countries in the world can respond the way Thailand did in the aftermath of such a disaster. That is why there are still so many hungry and poor in the world. Many years ago, the late Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe asserted: “Charity is the opium of the privileged.”
Today reality tells a different story.
Few of us are sympathetic and charitable towards those who are needy. Perhaps the corrosive forces of time have landed fatal blows on this important human virtue.
Instead of considering the poor and the hungry, most governments and wealthy people don’t think twice about spending money to satisfy their sense of vanity, and only a few of them really care about those who spend their day scouring rubbish dumps for scraps to keep body and soul together.
There will never be justice, honour and dignity for everyone in this world as long as millions of people continue to suffer from hunger and poverty.
Daily, we witness vast wealth being squandered on vanity.
I think it is vital to consider this situation: In 2005, the average cow in the EU received $2.20 a day in government subsidies – more than what over a billion poor people in the world manage to live on.
This is really unfair to the downtrodden of the world. It tells us that the life of a cow is more valuable than that of a human being. This should not be the case.
I also recall that when Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of former British prime minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher, was faced with the prospect of going to prison for 15 years for his involvement in the failed coup attempt to topple President Obiang Nguema of the oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, he paid $500 000 and was given a five-year suspended sentence.
In court, Mark admitted to having paid $275 000 dollars into the account of a company that was owned by the operational leader of the mercenaries, former British SAS officer Simon Mann.
After the case, his lawyer, George van Niekerk, said: “He nevertheless fulfilled his obligations in terms of the agreement to finance the charter of the helicopter… he should have exercised more caution.”
In saying those words, the lawyer conceded that indeed Thatcher had taken part in the coup in question. The lawyer was not even ashamed about that. He seemed to be proud that Thatcher was guilty but through wealth he was being freed.
I remember that on the final day of the trial, a man stood outside the court in dirty and torn clothes with a banner in his hand reading: “The spiderweb of justice cannot catch wealthy individuals.”
He was right. In this world, if one is poor, it is difficult to escape the chains of the law. One also wonders how many poor people in the world Thatcher could have assisted with the money that he paid for the coup to be staged, and for his release in court.
The 67 mercenaries who worked on the coup with Thatcher were not so lucky. They were arrested and subsequently tried and convicted in a Zimbabwean court before being thrown into the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.
If they had had money like Mark Thatcher, and Zimbabwean law was as permissive as that of South Africa, which allows the guilty to enter into a plea bargain, they could have secured their release, too.
And while millions of people globally are reduced to scavenging for a daily living, it is reported that the biggest health problem in the West is obesity, resulting from excessive and unhealthy eating.
And yet, instead of investing in research to find a cure for HIV/Aids, TB and malaria, the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world are still pouring billions into trying to find ways for Westerners to slim without having to give up eating vast quantities of food. It really is an obscene contrast.
We should remember that in 2000, the nations of the world agreed to the following eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG): to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and form a global partnership for development – all by 2015.
It is shocking to realise that in Africa today, a child dies every 30 seconds of malaria – a curable and preventable disease. This means that over a million children die of malaria in Africa every year.
And every year, 6 million children die of malnutrition before their fifth birthday. It is also saddening to know that about every 3.6 seconds, someone somewhere in the world dies of starvation. This scenario mirrors the reality of our planet: that poor people get sick and die because of a lack of access to basic means and services that could keep them alive, help them achieve livelihoods and escape from poverty.
With this type of situation, one is left uncertain whether the MDG will be achieved by its target date, two years from now. Professor Jeffrey Sachs,who laid the groundwork for the UN anti-poverty effort, said: “If the Millennium Development Goals are indeed achieved by the allotted date of 2015, then globally some 500 million people would be lifted out of extreme poverty; more than 300 million would no longer suffer from hunger and hundreds of millions more women and girls would go to school. If the goals are not met, millions would die who would otherwise live. Countries that would be stable will descend into conflict, and the environment will continue to be degraded.”
We should also be touched by the fact that billions of gallons of water are poured into countless swimming pools around the world so that wealthy people can bask in self-satisfaction while extremely poor villagers plead for just enough to quench their thirst.
We should be sensitive when week after week, banqueting tables groan under piles of food which aren’t even finished while the poor of the world stuff their empty bellies with air.
It is a gross insult to humanity to waste money, food and water when others are desperately screaming for them.
Adults can also learn much from children. In December 2004, children at the orphanage run by the Salvation Army in Mombasa were given new toys, then asked what they wanted to become. Answers included doctor, teacher and nurse. But one nine-year-old girl said: “I want to be a businesswoman, and make more money so that I can help others.”
I learnt from the girl that it is really important to give whatever we can, even if we have very little. And it is a fact that many successful people managed to escape the clutches of poverty because there were others who extended a helping hand to them during their time of need.
It is clear that the war against hunger and poverty can only be defeated if it is fought by all of us in the world, both the rich and the poor. That is one of the best ways for the world to finally achieve a real sense of justice, honour and dignity.
* Abe Mokoena is an independent commentator based in Polokwane.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.