following on from my post of yesterday, below is the speech i gave at an international women's day event yesterday:
I’m going to talk about politics today, and I make no apology for it. Because the solution to poverty is political. Poverty will not be solved by NGOs, not by charity groups, not by fundraising drives by well-meaning groups. Live Aid didn’t solve the poverty problem. Bill Gates & Warren Buffett donating half their fortunes haven’t solved it.
Why? Because poverty is not the result of a lack of resources. It is a result of uneven distribution of resources. It is about power structures, trading structures. An example is a clip I saw on Al-Jazeera last week, which showed the effect of speculation on food prices. The way our commodity markets are structured serves to pushes up basic food prices, as those with money stockpile when demand is high. One hedge fund based in Mayfair, London bought 200,000 tonnes of cocoa on the commodities market. This is 7% of the world’s supply. Having cornered the market, they stored all the cocoa in warehouses, which lead to the price of chocolate reaching highest level in 30 years. Deregulation of the commodities markets mean that the same firms that caused the stock market crash are now trading in staple foods. Whenever there’s a disaster like a flood or a drought, traders bet on prices going up or down. They are systematically distorting prices to make money. Every economic decision has a moral consequence. Food is a fundamental human right, not a commodity. Speculation turns crises into disasters.*
Or another example: subsidies that allow farmers in western countries to sell at lower than cost on the open market. While their income is secure due to subsidies from their own government, it reduces the prices earned by those in poor countries, to below subsistence levels.
These problems can only be solved through political means. Through political resolve and the willingness of governments to stand up to capital, to regulate and to stand firm against the threats of capital flight. It requires a global response and a rethinking of the way we run economies. We have been fed the mantra of neo-liberalism, free markets and individual responsibility. We have had any attempts at collective action demonised, the most recent example of which is the union- breaking legislation in Wisconsin, USA, with other states trying to follow.
We had the employment contract act here, which has served to push down wages, and heralded the start of the wage gap with Australia. With the mantra of free choice, compulsory membership was removed, and inequality is the result. NZ used to be in the top 6 OECD countries when it came to the gap between rich and poor. We are now in the bottom six of the OECD countries.
Not only have wage rates dropped, but in the last few years there has been a push to treat workers as self-employed contractors, meaning they don’t even have to be paid minimum wage, they don’t get sick leave or guaranteed holidays. Here are the causes of poverty, and they require a political solution.
Which leads me to another point. When we think of poverty, we tend to think of people of colour. All the ads for aid agencies on television show poor brown people. Saturday’s Waikato Times, in discussing social welfare, had only one picture on the front page, of a brown man. Poverty is associated with colour, and what that serves to do is to alienate the majority of the population from those who are poor. They are “over there” and “not like us”. Combine this with the fact that the poor are blamed for their own condition, as if society doesn’t exist, as if government policy doesn’t exist, as if there was no economic recession and loss of jobs, as if employers never threw away a CV when they saw a foreign-sounding name. This narrative around poverty makes invisible any societal and collective responsibility for the conditions that allow poverty to exist. This mix of racism and vitriol allows us to treat the poor as unworthy and undeserving. Lazy. Bludgers. Sucking off the public tit. All these narratives allow us to unburden ourselves from the responsibility to help them, to work towards bettering their condition.
It means we don’t have to think about paying more taxes so that there will be enough all around. Tax is seen as theft rather than the economic means to create a stable and healthy community. It means we don’t have to think about paying decent wages, and taking less of a profit so that everyone can have a fair share in the fruits of their labour. It means we don’t have to think about the cheap goods we get to buy from countries that have weak labour laws, where workers work long hours for poor pay in unsafe conditions. We don’t have to think about how we contribute to poverty every single day of our lives, in almost every economic, social or political decision we make. It means we can avoid taking responsibility and pretend that it isn’t our fault.
But it is. If there are people dying of hunger today, it is my fault. If there are people dying of cold, because they have no home, it is my fault. If there are people dying from water-borne diseases because they don’t have access to clean drinking water, it is entirely, 100% my fault.
This situation exists because we allow it to exist. Because we fail to act. And there is only one way to act: collectively and politically. If we want to end poverty, it starts with the policies of our government. It starts with public action, organisation, collective voices, collective protest. It starts with all of us seeing ourselves as a community and working as a community, rather than as individuals who are here simply to look after ourselves and our own immediate families. We have to see every person as part of our human family.
Let’s not wait for the destruction of a city and the loss of so many lives before we develop that community spirit. Let’s demand more of our politicians – let’s expect them to have the courage to stand up to big business. Let’s push them to make decisions that benefit the whole community, not just the proportion of it that votes for them. We’ve seen in the Middle East the power of the collective voice. It is only when we have a collective voice, shouting one message and demanding change in the fundamental structures of society and of the world, that we will have any hope of tackling poverty.
* the second half of this paragraph, starting from the words "one hedge fund" is pretty much a direct quote from the al-jazeerah clip.