The Risk-Monger

Real Risks #2: Poverty

The death toll from the recent Peruvian deep freeze stands at 409, at least 200 of whom are under the age of five. The real cause of death is not hypothermia or pneumonia, nor should it be considered as a natural disaster, but rather poverty – people too poor to be able to protect themselves and their children from the effects of a sudden cold snap. This is hardly news today (only the most clever or most desperate would be able to attribute this cold snap to global warming), nor is it news that 3000 (mostly children) die every day from malaria (a combination of poverty and stupid western precautionary policies). We tend to look away from poverty on the streets of Brussels, how much easier to ignore it in African countries or Peru.

Some numbers to put this very real risk into context:

· 24,000 children die every day due to poverty (UNICEF).

· 2.2 million children die every year because they are not immunized.

· Of the estimated 2.2 billion children in the world today, 1 billion are living below the poverty line (the stats on lack of shelter, drinking water and education available for these children are too depressing to include here).

· Avoiding definitions of extreme or absolute poverty (<1.25 USD per day), poor, urban poor, at risk of poverty, … 80% of the global population survives on less than 10 USD per day.

· The richest 20% of global population accounts for 76.6% of consumption, the poorest 20% accounts for 1.5%. (World Bank, 2008)

· If we exclude China from poverty statistics, there has been little global improvement over the last decade.


I get a bit numb to the pages of depressing global poverty figures, because like many of us, I am numerically illiterate (I buy lottery tickets to pay off my credit card debt!), so let me contextualise things a bit. It is estimated that to provide universal clean water, sanitation and basic education for all would cost around 15 billion US dollars – we spend annually 17 billion USD on pet food in Europe and the US and over 150 billion USD on cigarettes and alcohol in Europe (1998 figures).

Today, we are not very concerned about this issue, we don’t talk about it and we definitely are not attempting to act on it (unless you are a Gates or a Clinton). Rather, we are told we must stop the planet from warming and everyone is mobilising for the great sacrifice that this war on climate will entail. We are being lobbied by the rich (either small ‘d’ NGO social do-gooders or big businesses who have spotted the opportunities in alternatives) to take on challenges that will further ignore the plight of the poor, or even harm them (eg, biofuels).

I gave a talk recently and I polled the room asking how many present were part of the 20% of Europeans at risk of poverty. No one raised their hand (not even the students!). EU stakeholder dialogue entails that consultations are arranged so that those concerned are able to bring their issues to the table (they listen to the views and then decide how to divide the pie). Mothers burying their children in developing countries do not have a voice, do not have friends in Brussels and, it seems, do not have hope.

Bjørn Lomborg, the Skeptical Environmentalist, tried at the beginning of the last decade to interject a bit of common sense into the environmental debate around the issue of sharing scarce resources. Nine years on, so many global problems could have been solved, millions of lives saved, if only common sense could have prevailed over eco-religious ambitions to save the planet.

24,000 children died today from poverty – that is a real risk. Pet food, solar panels or providing universal education, sanitation and drinking water to save millions of lives – how hard of a choice could that possibly be? For policy-makers under stakeholder pressure to save the planet, evidently pets and panels are more important.

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