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What Gives?

In perfect sync, as we head towards the Christmas season, post boxes and emails are full of cards from NGOs and shops are overflowing with advertising aimed at poverty “alleviation” (how I hate that word). The interesting thing about both is they seem to have the same copywriter or advertising and marketing agency. The result is a begging bowl designed as what can only be a guilt box

Written By Chitra Subramaniam | Mumbai | Updated On:

In the little village that I live near Geneva, there’s a bi-annual collect of essential items outside grocery stores for poor people. Switzerland (population 8.3 million) has over half a million people below poverty line (BPL). The items are stored in a place where people pick them anonymously. As I was given the list a man told me not to buy rice and pasta as they had too much. I said I’d buy what’s never been on the list for over two decades. He said he was very fond of curry.

I returned with large packets of nappies for babies and sanitary napkins for women and some biscuits for the festive season. The man was stunned as was the lady helping him arrange the collection – in fact they had no box to store things that are women and children need. This happened last Saturday, a day after Black Friday. For me this little story illustrates a global mindset that will not go away till it is actively dismantled in everything we do everyday.

The mindset is market-driven, it knows no colour or borders if the volume of money is big and it is remarkably ruthless. Everyone has stocked up on consumer durables, clothes, food and the rest following Black Friday in Western Europe and North America, its time to talk a little about poverty. After all, you cannot boast about “alleviating” poverty on an empty stomach, old clothes and an iPhone 6.

In perfect sync, as we head towards the Christmas season, post boxes and emails are full of cards from NGOs and shops are overflowing with advertising aimed at poverty “alleviation” (how I hate that word). The interesting thing about both is they seem to have the same copywriter or advertising and marketing agency. The result is a begging bowl designed as what can only be a guilt box with pictures of colours and starved children smiling. The copy is shabby - chic, the paper and packaging is smart but biodegradable we are told, usually made in India (for $.20 cents says one) and the points of sale are strategically situated in areas where people shop for Christmas gifts – duty-free shops and airports are perfect placements. Where in India do we get biodegradable paper and packaging for $.20 cents? Shouldn’t the next question be where are the sweatshops?

It’s violent much like the pre-Diwali sales in India. You cannot walk into any departmental store where jewellery, cosmetics, perfumes, clothes, gift-items without a guilt box staring at you. These begging bowls typically have one type of message. For only $1 you can feed a child in Sudan for 30 days. For only $10 you can keep a child in India in school for a year. Logic? When you are spending thousands on expensive gifts what’s a few dollars. Let’s save two children in Sudan and ensure that two children stay in school in India for a year each.

There’s nothing innocent in this market-driven game of too much and too little. Multilateral and bilateral agencies are in the well-oiled business of keeping poor countries frozen in a spiral of poverty and disease with some points going up and down every year to give the notion of momentum. While the bosses may be in developed nations, the foot soldiers are in developing and least developed countries happy for crumbs that come their way.

Those who entertain the continuance of poverty and disease give loans and send experts, not drop coins into guilt boxes. Loans drive countries into debts, much like farmer loans in India. It’s a vicious circle. The Bretton Woods organisations (World Bank, IMF and WTO) are not in the business of charity and why should they be. Their job is to lend money at a negotiated price, ensure free and fair circulation of finance, goods and services.

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The question that no one will answer is why developing and poor countries don’t stand up for their rights because it is their markets that are being sought through the guilt boxes. India is a perfect example – people are looking at India as a market. Why can’t we play that to our complete advantage?

While they boast about moving towards level playing fields, even some United Nations (UN) organisations, especially those in the social and health sector have been saying, “we cannot leave anyone behind.” I should know. I wrote many such of speeches 20 years ago. At a time when technology and science change our view of things almost daily, why do we have Sahel? Most poverty and development experts have travelled the world to look at poverty and disease from ever angle except the one that counts.

Instant experts and foot soldiers may repeat after their bosses that poverty is female, but that decision was arrived at over 30 years ago by people more qualified to take that call than me. When we say poverty is female, it not just women don’t have jobs. Vulnerability, lack of opportunities, healthcare, safety, food, maternity health and childcare are only some of the issues women face on a daily basis. Here’s what the guilt boxes will never tell you.

Conservative data shows that women account for nearly 80% of poor people on earth, they accomplish 69% of work that the world needs, produce over 50% of the food the world eats but receive just ten per cent of its revenues and own one per cent of global property.

Let no one fool you into believing women are living better today than a decade ago. Globally, two-thirds of men in the age group of work have jobs – that number is less than half for women. In 92 countries – where unemployment data is routinely updated - women with higher levels of education do not get the same jobs as men with similar education and their take home is less as well. Over 160 million children under five years of age are stunted (vitamin deficiencies) and the number of children who die before they turn five is not decreasing, guilt box or no guilt box.

Try this. In the only global platform that countries have to voice their concerns, most notably the UN, 142 countries have said yes to equality of laws between women and men, 52 have said no. The world is still arguing about what is a human right and what kind of behaviour between people is condemnable during war and peace. Only 132 countries have agreed to a statutory age of marriage against 63 who say no.

Is it all bleak and dark? No it isn’t because there is a young generation of people in the world who have little time for jobs at 20 that will guarantee them a comfortable pension at 60. These are the children of today, not tomorrow. They understand risk, take it, fail, and rise again. These are children in their twenties and thirties who have little time for silly speeches aimed at holding up the status-quo. They are polite, well informed and willing to work up from the trenches instead of throwing a few coins into guilt boxes to cure the sick in some far away land. They believe disease knows no frontiers so why must prosperity? For them, the future is now.

PS: “On October 17, 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported 52, 958 measles cases in the European region since the beginning of 2018 which is more than double the 23, 757 cases reported for Africa in the same period.” The Lancet.

With inputs from Camille Martin

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