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Will we act on global poverty, climate change and the rest?

Professor Stephen Leeder, director of The Australian Health Policy Institute, responds to a recent Crikey article by Fran Baum and colleagues calling for international action on global poverty:

“It was said of the Australian cricket team during several of the ill-fated Ashes series in the 1980s that repeatedly it ‘seized defeat from the jaws of victory’. In the lead up to the 1986/7 Ashes series, which Australia approached as clear favourites, Martin Johnson of The Independent wrote that the English team “had only three things wrong with them – can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field”. Yet England went on to win the series and retain the Ashes. If cricket is a strong metaphor of life as many devotees insist, then this wimpy Australian quality is far from novel.

Think of the Treaty of Versailles following World War I, where in the long shadows of the tragedy of trench warfare and the annihilation of the young men of Europe, to say nothing of the flu, heavy punitive terms were inflicted upon Germany. Of the many provisions in the Treaty, some of the most controversial required Germany and its allies to accept responsibility for causing the war, to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions and pay reparations (Germany will finish paying off her World War I reparations in 2020). It is generally agreed that it was this Treaty which helped the rise of the Nazi Party. As Barbara Tuchman explained in The March of Folly, history is replete with self-perpetuating repetitive and self destructive behaviour, ranging from the destruction of Troy (“How lovely a horse the Greeks have given us in their defeat!”) to Vietnam.

My grave concern is that, having seen the problems of global poverty, inequity and climate change, we will continue to put our foot on the accelerator, believing it to be the brake, time after time until we hit the wall. The omens are that we will not, in fact, change the world economic structure in the light of the current malfunctions, but feed it with handouts and marginal legislative changes and tickle it back into moderate functionality.

But, more broadly, the image of wall into which we may soon crash is taking shape –in the countless faces of people who survive on less than a dollar a day, in the disintegrating polar ice caps, in the wars for fossil fuel, and now in the illness of global financial structures. Baum and colleagues urge us to change direction – and the voice of the prophets has ever so called us to do. The question is this: do we have the strength of mind and political will to respond?

Baum and colleagues rightly, in my opinion, point to the critical importance of political leadership underpinned by support from civil society (aka the voting public). Mercifully and miraculously, we are now only weeks away from the disappearance of the ghastly Bush administration. We may not know what we don’t know, Mr Rumsfeld, but we know we don’t like you and your friends.

But I find myself wondering whether the US has changed permanently under Bush the Lesser (perhaps the Least), and how many degrees of freedom Obama has left at his disposal. But the potential power of political leadership cannot be underestimated. Take for example the amazing grace of our Prime Minister’s (and, credit where it is due, the Leader of the Opposition’s) apology to our Stolen Generations when the new Parliament opened on 13 February 2008. Political leaders can recalibrate debate, a necessary primary move in democracies for substantial change. Mr Gordon Brown’s current endorsement of poverty reduction programs is welcome and consistent with previous statements and commitments from him, although his own faltering future and lacklustre leadership do not empower his words as once they might.

What can we do about global health inequity? We need a plan. We need political sign-on and to work hard, lobbying and advocating to convince our political leaders to change direction. While money alone will not help, its absence makes action harder and so pressing Australia to contribute 0.7% of its GDP to aid (the Prime Minister is committed to an increase in aid to 0.5% of GDP) is a reasonable symbolic step. The average citizen believes we contribute much more than this already. They should be disabused. Our aid programs often manifest weirdness and incoherence and strong political leadership must make them far more strategic. We have made a mess of our assistance to Papua New Guinea and we cynically export crap food to the sinking Pacific nations and contribute to their high diabetes rates. We should stop. A few symbolic gestures – upping our aid, making it strategic, and stopping treating our near neighbours like trash cans for offal – would be an excellent beginning.

Is it simply too hard to do anything? Is individual action in the face of these problems nonsensical, or incoherent? Large amounts of foreign aid are lost to corruption and pathetic management practices. Wheat sits rotting in warehouses in desperate countries while people starve. Others argue that unless these poor people first become organized, then we will waste our aid on them. Hard though as my colleague and friend Jeff Sachs puts it in his crusade against poverty, to pull yourself up by your bootlaces if you have no boots.

Australian ethicist Peter Singer discusses this topic in One World. He hears all these arguments and then points out that each of us can still save a life by giving $200 to international aid agencies, such as UNICEF and Oxfam Australia. This allows for the cut for corruption, administration, and inefficiency. That much money will not hurt us to give. We can do this today: we can deal with the larger systemic causes of poverty tomorrow. Forego two restaurant dinners and presto, you have the cash to save a life.

Warm inner glows and moral discomfort about global health inequity are good ignition. But we need an engine for change, fuel and a spark plug or two. We must hammer away at the media, the public and our school children, use the web, show pictures, tell stories, push for a program of invigorated attention to global poverty, hook in with the environmental and sustainability movements, speak to big industry, and give more generously to effective foreign aid agencies from our pay packets. These are all things we might DO. Enough talk.”

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Australian Palliative Care Conference
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