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Our generationís choice

By Andrew Hewett - posted Friday, 17 November 2006


As chiefs of the world’s leading economies meet in Melbourne this weekend at the G-20, it is clear our generation faces a challenge - to end extreme global poverty. It is an enormous and complex challenge, but it is by no means insurmountable.

It is a challenge which cuts to the heart of our humanity and raises uncomfortable questions about our values.

It is a challenge which will not fade with the passage of time, but will continue to grow in the face of inaction.

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It is a challenge which discriminates on the basis of colour, race and gender, affecting certain groups more acutely than others - yet it will ultimately affect us all as it resonates throughout humanity.

Most fundamentally, it is a challenge that arises from the actions of human beings and can be overcome by the actions of human beings.

It is the challenge of extreme poverty in a world of plenty; the kind of poverty U2’s Bono refers to as stupid poverty: poverty which causes the unnecessary deaths of millions of women, men and children every year. It keeps children out of school, entrenches gender inequality, and harms our shared environment. But it is not a challenge for wealthy nations to tackle alone. It is a challenge that must also be met by the developing world and that’s why the G-20, which brings together economic powerhouses such as Australia and the UK as well as nations where extreme poverty persists such as Indonesia and South Africa, can be a powerful engine for change.

The recent Stern Review provided compelling evidence of the financial costs of inaction on climate change, demonstrating the potential for a global economic depression if urgent action is not taken.

Now, a new report from Oxfam International shows there is also a high price to be paid for failing to combat poverty. Our Generation’s Choice argues that well-targeted initiatives to combat poverty will ultimately save money. For example, by investing in drugs to improve the health and extend the lives of those living with HIV and AIDS, Brazil has saved more than $2 billion in public health costs since the epidemic started.

Similarly, the World Health Organisation found that, for every $1 spent on improving access to clean drinking water and sanitation, another $3 to $4 is saved on health spending or through increased productivity. By contrast, failing to provide water and sanitation will cost developing countries $84 billion a year in lost lives, low worker productivity, higher health-care costs, and lost education opportunities, according to WaterAid.

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Yet, more devastating than the financial cost of inaction is the potential human toll. Failing to meet the Millennium Development Goals - the eight internationally-agreed goals to halve global poverty by 2015 - will cost the lives, wellbeing, education as well as livelihoods of millions of women, men and children.

The projections of loss of life and sustained human suffering are staggering. For example, missing the target on sanitation will cost 10 million children’s lives. Similarly, the target to halve the proportion of people without clean drinking water is far off-track. More than one billion people still live without clean water and, according to the Millennium Project, water-related diseases cause five million deaths a year.

Many of these deaths occur in developing countries which are members of the G-20. Over the two-days the G-20 meets, more than 60,000 children will die from poverty related causes - a sobering thought.

Urgent action is required. At this economic meeting in Melbourne, Oxfam urges the G-20 to take the necessary steps to tackle extreme poverty. At the very least that means a commitment by rich nations such as Australia to debt cancellation for all countries which require it as well as spending 0.7 per cent of gross of national income on aid funding by 2015. The world can afford to act - we have the wealth and the means to eradicate poverty. The big question is - do we possess the political will to rise to the challenge?

The influence and legitimacy of the G-20 will ultimately be demonstrated by its actions, not its membership. Whether it elicits bold action on global poverty will be a crucial litmus test of the influence it claims.

Too often, the size and the complexity of the challenge of extreme poverty have provided excuses for inaction. Yet, the biggest obstacle is usually a lack of will from world leaders. Overcoming extreme poverty is not simply our generation’s challenge - it is our generation’s choice. This weekend, it is the G-20’s choice.

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About the Author

Andrew Hewett is Executive Director of Oxfam Australia.

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