UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty - October 17, 2014

Around the world, it is estimated that 842 million people are not getting enough to eat. It’s hard to make sense of numbers so large. Put another way, 842 million is the equivalent of 960 cities the size of Edmonton. Or 24 times the entire population of Canada. It’s a staggering picture of world hunger and when faced with such enormous numbers, it is normal to shut down and feel overwhelmed and powerless.  But the UN believes it is possible to overcome poverty. It is not inevitable; it can be addressed. Locally, United Way and Mayor Don Iveson also agree: Poverty is solvable. Step one is to identify ambitious goals and be brave and persistent enough to follow through.

In 1990, the UN Millenium Developmental Goals set out 8 goals to be reached by 2015, one of which focuses on eliminating extreme poverty and hunger. By 2015, the aim is to halve the number of people who earn less than $1.25/day and halve the number of people who suffer from hunger around the world.  The amazing news is they met the wage target 5 years ahead of schedule and anticipate meeting the hunger reduction goal by 2015. What an incredible achievement and one that, I hope, inspires us in Edmonton to think boldly about what we can achieve when we set clear targets and commit to the cause of eliminating poverty.

The theme for this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is “Leave No One Behind: think, decide and act together against extreme poverty”.  Reading through the material, I was very interested in the UN’s directive to reach out to people living in poverty and actively include them in decision-making.  It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that people who are living in poverty deserve our pity and charity, but not necessarily inclusion. We may think they aren’t capable, don’t have the education, time, means or interest in setting public policy, so we should “do it for them”. Or we may feel uncomfortable by the differences between us and prefer to stay with our likeminded neighbours, coworkers or committee members.  But the UN document emphasizes that people living in poverty must be empowered to fully participate “in all aspects of political, economic and social life, especially in the design and implementation of policies that affect the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society.”  

So how do we transform our view of poverty and the people affected? How can we recognize and eliminate the barriers to their full participation? How can we challenge systems that continue to give all the decision-making authority to those of wealth, influence and social connection?  

We can preserve and strengthen mechanisms that seek to level the playing field (like public education and public health). We can ask our policy-makers how marginalized communities were included and, on a very personal level, we can question our own biases and prejudices. As the United Nations suggests, we can, as communities and as individuals, reach out to people who live in poverty to include them in our quest to find the solutions.

I believe poverty is solvable, but not without the involvement of those who are most affected.