We Can Win The War On Poverty

  • From: Think.
  • Published: June 16, 2013
Bono1.jpgThe statistics show it: we can eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 – if we trust in the transformative power of transparency and new ways to share knowledge

Written by Bono

Let’s go back before Christ, three millennia, to a time when the journey for justice and the march against inequality and poverty really began. Three thousand years ago civilization was just getting started on the banks of the Nile, and some slaves, Jewish shepherds, proclaimed to the Pharaoh sitting high on his throne, “We are equal to you.” And the Pharaoh replied, “No, you’ve got to be kidding.” And they said, “That’s what it says in our holy book.” Cut to our century, the same country, the same pyramids.

Another people are spreading the idea of equality with a different book – this time it’s called the Facebook. Crowds are gathered in Tahrir Square, and they turn a social network from virtual to actual and reboot the 21st century. Not to undersell how messy and ugly the aftermath of the Arab Spring has been, nor to oversell the role of technology, but these things have given a sense of what is possible when the age-old model of power, the pyramid, gets turned upside-down, putting the people on top and the pharaohs of today on the bottom.

It has also shown us that something as powerful as information and the sharing of it can challenge inequality. Facts, like people, want to be free; and when they’re free, liberty is usually around the corner even for the poorest of the poor.

Facts can challenge cynicism and the apathy that leads to inertia. Facts can tell us what’s working and, more importantly, what’s not, so we can fix it. Facts, if we hear them and heed them, could help us meet the challenge that Nelson Mandela made in 2005 when he asked us to be that great generation that overcomes that most awful offence to humanity, extreme poverty. And what the facts are telling us is that humanity’s long, slow journey of equality is actually speeding up.

Since 2000, there are eight million more AIDS patients getting lifesaving antiretroviral drugs. There are eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have cut their death rates from malaria by 75 percent. Child mortality for children under five is down by 2.6 million a year, a rate of 7,265 children’s lives saved each day.

This fantastic news didn’t happen by itself. It was fought for, it was campaigned for, it was innovated for, and this great news gives birth to even more great news, because the historic trend is this: the number of people living in back-breaking, soul-crushing extreme poverty has declined from 43 percent of the world’s population in 1990 to 33 percent in 2000 and then to 21 percent in 2010. It has halved.

The rate is still too high. There are still too many people unnecessarily losing their lives and there’s still work to do, but this is heart-stopping. If you live on less than $1.25 a day, in that kind of poverty, this is not just data – this is everything. If you’re a parent who wants the best for your children, this rapid transition is a route out of despair and into hope. And if the trajectory continues, the data tells us that the number of people living on $1.25 a day gets to the zero zone.

This is the virtual elimination of extreme poverty, defined as people living on less than $1.25 a day, adjusted for inflation from a 1990 baseline. Some of you think this progress is all in Asia or Latin America or in model countries like Brazil. But look at sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a collection of 10 countries that some call “the lions”: Cameroon, Senegal, Guinea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger, Mauritania, Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Uganda.

In the last decade they have had a combination of 100 percent debt cancellation, a tripling of aid, and a tenfold increase in foreign direct investment, which has unlocked a quadrupling of domestic resources – local money – which when spent wisely – good governance – has cut child mortality by a third, doubled education completion rates, and halved extreme poverty.

At this rate, these 10 countries get to zero extreme poverty by 2030 too. The pride of lions is the proof of this concept. 2030 is just around the corner. So why aren’t we jumping up and down about this? The opportunity is real but so is the jeopardy. We can’t get this done until we really accept that we can get this done. The graph of inertia is how we screw it up. And the next one, momentum, is how we can bend the arc of history down towards zero, just doing the things that we know work. It is inertia versus momentum and, of course, the closer you get, it gets harder.

We know the obstacles that are in our way right now, the difficult times. Some who mind the US purse want to cut life-saving programs like the Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. And you can do something about that, you can tell politicians that these cuts can cost lives.

Right now, oil companies are fighting to keep secret their payments to governments for extracting oil in developing countries. You can do something about that too. You can join the One campaign and leaders like Mo Ibrahim, the telecom entrepreneur, in pushing for laws that make sure that at least some of the wealth under the ground ends up in the hands of the people living above it. We know that the biggest disease of all is not a disease, it’s corruption. There’s a vaccine for that too – transparency. Technology is really turbocharging this; it’s getting harder to hide if you’re doing bad stuff.

Let me tell you about U-report. It’s 150,000 millennials across Uganda: young people armed with 2G phones, creating an SMS social network, exposing corruption and demanding to know what is in the budget and how their money is being spent. Once you have these tools, you can’t not use them. Once you have this knowledge, you can’t not know it. You can’t delete this data from your brain, but you can delete the clichéd image of supplicant impoverished peoples not taking control of their own lives.

You can erase that – it’s not true any more. By 2030, by the time we get there, every place with a rough semblance of governance might actually be on their way. I’m thinking of Wael Ghonim, who set up one of the Facebook groups behind Tahrir Square in Cairo. He got thrown in jail for it, but I have his words tattooed on my brain. “We are going to win, because we don’t understand politics. We are going to win, because we don’t play their dirty games.

We are going to win, because we don’t have a party political agenda. We are going to win because the tears that come from our eyes actually come from our hearts. We are going to win because we have dreams, and we are willing to stand up for those dreams.”

Wael is right. We’re going to win, if we work together as one, because the power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power.

Bono is lead singer of the Irish rock band U2 and a co-founder of ONE, a campaigning and advocacy organization fighting extreme poverty and communicable disease.

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