(International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, October 17, 2020)
“Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality…Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into a feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. If only we might keep in mind all those elderly persons who died for lack of respirators, partly as a result of the dismantling, year after year, of health care systems…If we can accept the great principle that there are rights born of inalienable human dignity, we can rise to the challenge of envisaging a new humanity.” – Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti, 4th October 2020.
There’s an old African adage, “I am, because you are”. In the last few months, the world has lost over 1 million people to the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). The public health response to this virus has left millions of people in economic ruin, with lost jobs, businesses and other sources of livelihood. According to the UN, about 176 million more people will sink into extreme poverty as a result. Hundreds of millions of children and young people have lost valuable time in their education, and many thousands, especially girls and women, may not make it back to school. Invariably, unstated by these numbers, is that child poverty, extreme hardship and uncertain futures for hundreds of millions of children, is on the rise again.
Even, before the public health emergency and the economic ruin of COVID-19, the world was already on the cusp of a potentially more devastating emergency – global warming and exponential loss of ecological diversity. Much of life and our own civilization is in peril as a result of an unheralded man made long time rise in global atmospheric temperature. Without resolute and concerted global action to carbon zero societies, the harm caused by negative global changes in climate will cause unimaginable tragedy for hundreds of millions of people across the world.
While the COVID-19 epidemic has reminded us just how fragile human life is, and how interconnected and interdependent we all are, the threat of global warming is a sling shot warning about how dependent humans are on nature and the ecosystems it supports. It may also be a good time, to take a few steps back and learn from old wisdom regarding our own humanity and dependence on nature.
Out of Harm’s Way and Better – We Know What Needs to be Done, or Do We?Ironically, as dire as the triple crises may seem, humanity for a while now, has known what it needs to do. The COVID-19 pandemic and it’s economic aftermath has demonstrated how vulnerable our economic and social systems are. It has also reminded us about the value of the core economy of care and family, and the importance of key services. COVID-19 has also revealed much that we already suspected about the economic arrangements. We knew, for example that low income earners and those living in poverty, those with little or no sa
vings are the first casualties of a humanitarian emergency. We knew that private capital and the formal banking system even with their sophistication become closed systems in the event of a humanitarian emergency and that only great prodding and subsidization by the public pulse works to alter their behavior to save jobs and businesses in an emergency. We suspected that public and community-led services and their assets are vital to the ability of the poor and their communities to respond to and emerge out of external shocks.
In a similar vein, we know much about the key drivers of vulnerability to external shocks such as COVID-19 and an increasingly hostile climate. We know, for example that income and asset poverty, family breakdown, breakdown of trust and social cohesion, retreat or decline in quality public services, economic inequality and imperfect markets, corruption in the public and private spheres, state decline or decay, civil conflict and strife… All these and much more lead us down the road to calamity when disaster strikes.
The real question is, do we know enough about how precisely to avoid such disasters and the harm that they cause. What have we learned about not causing disasters, getting out of harm’s way, and building back stronger and more resilient?
Deepening Social Protection: We know, for instance, that robust, well-resourced and ably targeted social protection helps the most vulnerable. Deepening and strengthening social protection to respond to the scale of an emergency like COVID-19 has proven to be a daunting task even for well-endowed economies. But it is clear that there is no alternative.
Socially Investing States and Communities: The COVID-19 has demonstrated that societies that invest heavily in social infrastructures and social sectors respond more nimbly to crisis. Great health systems, great childcare systems, great school districts, great police districts, great community development finance institutions… All these are central to the ability of individuals and communities to rise to the challenge thrown at them by an emergency such as COVID-19.
Investing in Children Matters: Childhood, at all stages, is vital to human development and humanity. The early years, are especially vital. An injustice or deprivation in childhood is not only a gross affront to the rights and wellbeing of the child, but costs us all dearly in arrested potential, future opportunities and lifelong correctional expenses.
Women’s Rights and Gender Equity, achieved primarily through gender mainstreaming and the empowerment of women and girls, are not only just causes, but also commonsense. Together, they have the highest return for human development, especially when combined with investing right in childhood.
Extreme inequality in income, assets and human capability only makes us all miserable. Structural inequality makes for unstable societies and states prone to decay as evidenced by family breakdowns, extreme poverty, child poverty, crime, corruption, market failure etc.
Growth, even where it’s inclusive, is not enough: While inclusive pro-poor growth was fashionable and seemed adequate a few years ago, in the circumstances, it is hopelessly inadequate. To do the job of restoring planetary ecosystems while securing quality of life and opportunity, we must aim for a more genuine root and branch transformation of entire economic and social sectors. In other words, we must stop and change course-decarbonize entire sectors, retrofit buildings and industry, consume less, eliminate toxic pollutants such as plastics etc. We must aim to do this in the breakneck speed needed to avoid calamitous climate change by 2030.
Poverty is Stubborn: Even with all this knowledge, and absence of not one but all the crises at play, we would still fall short eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. In 2015, the world committed to an ambitious global development idea for sustainable development by 2030. At the time, nearly 750 million people lived in extreme poverty. It is estimated that this number dipped to 690 million by 2018. It is now estimated that COVID-19 and it’s economic impact will add over 176 million to this number. Additionally, an additional 150 million children have sunk into multidimensional poverty on account of COVID-19. In other words, globally, the speed at which poverty is declining is not adequate to dent the number entering poverty. With COVID-19 and unless the world can purposively change course in favour of a robust decarbonizing economic model, it is extremely unlikely that we can hold extreme poverty stable at one billion people in the decades to come.
Need to Chart New Paths – Embracing Moral Encounters as a Path to Transformation
Out with the old: Regardless of what we have known and done in the past to achieve sustainable development, the scale and impacts of COVID-19 and negative climate change must alert us that old ways, old models and old projects will not suffice. The old will not work with the new and rapidly unfolding realities, we can revisit it to evaluate and learn but, in the words of Pope Francis, we must re-imagine and fathom a new kind of humanity, and rise to the challenge of bringing it about. To do so we must remind ourselves what is truly important and valuable- life, human wellbeing, the planet and its life sustaining ecosystems. We must also step back and take full notice of the fragility and limits of life and these life sustaining ecosystems and imagine for ourselves a different, more nurturing relationship with them.
Moral Encounters – Truth Seeking: Inevitably, the world must come to associate global warming and the COVID-19 public health crisis and their economic impacts with the prevailing social, economic and political orthodoxies. Could we have avoided the crises if we had a different choice of economic, cultural and political institutions? How much of the crises is a reflection of prior failure and weaknesses?
How much of our vulnerability and exposure to calamity is caused by our preference for unbridled and unethical production and consumption? To what extent can public health and other crisis be avoided if the human race elected to be more ethical with respect to its appropriation (expropriation?) of nature?
Does it matter that while we have long emphasized unbridled private consumption and production of goods and services, it’s the quality and strength of our public resources and services, our collective global and communal commons that count in staving off contagion?
Moral Encounters – I am because you are, finding our humanity through embracing the other: To be truly human or in order to find our humanity, we must rediscover the essence of that African adage that we are human through the humanity of others, or rather that only through the humanity of others are we human. To embrace this old adage is to accept an invitation to a personal and interpersonal encounter with other people who are not like us, precisely for the reason that they are not like us. They may be poor, economic or environmental refugees, widows or widowers, children without parental care, children, youth, old people, opposing genders, etc. What does the humanity of these other people tell us about our own humanity? How is our own personal dignity affected or perfected by the dignity or lack of it in others? What is it, in our commonwealth that makes us all better human beings?
Moral Encounters – an invitation to a deep and engaging dialogue: To rise truly to the challenge posed by climate change and the economic ruin of COVID-19, we must allow ourselves to be drawn into a deep and engaging conversation about what can be, alternative states of reality, of economic systems driven by new and not so new carbon free fuels and transport systems, of new feeding, dressing, housing and other habits that have minimal negative impacts on ecosystems, and of new forms of agriculture and other production to enable these habits. We must see in these alternatives, the possibilities of new types of societies and politics.
Moral Encounters – confronting indifference and being truly noble: One great risk that we face is fatigue and complacency…doing just enough, if at all and leaving unfinished business to someone else after us. In truth, it is us who have to find the strength and courage to do the job. We cannot merely wish the world around us away, rather, we have to take view of the finish line, and creatively disrupt our lives in order to get there.
While it is clear that we cannot be complacent, the more clear danger is indifference. A call to do more of the same, or tinker at the edges, to avoid the pain that transformative change forces on us, is to invite us to dangerous indifference. With COVID-19 and global warming, we can already discern the real risk of doing too little or doing nothing at all. But no matter how convicted we are about the justice of our cause, we must seek to engage the other, those who would stand in the way of a genuine transformation, with persuasion, dignity, and a stubborn hope. In the words of Pope Francis, “It is truly noble to place our hope in the hidden power of the seeds of goodness we sow, and thus to initiate processes whose fruits will be reaped by others,” Fratelli Tutti, No. 196.