[Hpn] YOU CAN’T FIGHT POVERTY ONLY AT CHRISTMAS
Mon, 02 Jan 2006 19:26:32 +0000
YOU CAN’T FIGHT POVERTY ONLY AT CHRISTMAS
Janet Bagnall ‘on social justice’
The Montreal Gazette, December 30, 2005
Worrying about poverty at Christmas – as opposed to at any other time of the
year – might satisfy some latent Victorian impulse to high-mindedness, but
it is, for all that, an exercise in futility. Poverty today generally flows
from structural, year-round problems such as the exploitation of the world’s
poor by wealthier nations like ours.
Choosing Christmas as the one time to feel guilty about conditions that
require a sustained, hard-headed effort to eradicate is probably more
harmful than anything else because we can pretend to be doing something
If global inequalities could be resolved by people in the West handing out
alms to the poor on Boxing Day, we would be living in a perfect world by
That we are not has very little to do with how Christmas is celebrated (and
much more to do with trade and migration barriers, political corruption and
But year after year, crotchety voices fault the ‘rampant consumerism’ that
modern-day observances of Christmas have become. Although, frankly, you
wouldn’t think it would come as a shock that Christmas is not exclusively
devoted to helping the poor or religious contemplation: Churches in Canada
are virtually empty, their congregations aging rapidly and their real-estate
holdings increasingly featured on Multiple Listing Services.
The modern-day Scrooges who denounce the pleasures of feasting and the
exchange of gifts would do well to remember that reproachful voices, equally
lacking in pertinence, were raised in other eras as well.
The Twelfth Night celebrations of the Middle Ages were suppressed in England
in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nowhere in the Bible, religious
fundamentalists said, did God call upon humanity to celebrate his son’s
This censoriousness, in both its medieval and modern forms, is based on an
artificial conflict between having fun and doing good. This clash is
possible only if one accepts that all earthly pleasures are sinful. We
don’t approve of this mindset when the Taliban expouses it, so why has it
become a stock-in-trade of Christmas commentary ?
The world is a better place for having a holiday for which families and
friends (of all religions or none) go to great pains to be together. Or if
they can’t be physically in the same place, they send gifts, write cards,
phone, send JPEGS and emails.
In the traditionally Christian nations of the West, this is when you go all
out to tell the people you care for that you love them. Nobody insists that
that take the form of an expensive gift, or a gift at all. Most people
don’t even like expensive presents. They want to be thought of, that’s all.
(Merchants might want Christmas spending to spiral out of control, but
that’s their problem.)
Christmas is, granted, as good a time as any to start the work of relieving
the conditions that condemn so many people to poverty. But the point,
surely, is to start somewhere.
We are already behind on our millennium promises to eradicate poverty. In
2000, world leaders from 189 countries made a solemn vow to carry out eight
goals by 2015.
The goals included improving the lives of at least half of the one in six
people living in extreme poverty, as well as the more than 800 million
people who are malnourished. World leaders also undertook to halt the spread
of AIDS and malaria and to educate all children.
The work to be done is enormous. Every minute, more than 20 children die of
hunger and preventable diseases. Every minute, a woman dies from regnancy
Unfair trade practices survived the 2005 meeting of the World Trade
Organization in Hong Kong early intact. Rather than a milestone in making
poverty history, the WTO meeting emerged with nothing more than an interim
deal to end farm-export subsidies by 2013.
These subsidies need to have a wood stake driven through their hearts
sooner rather than later. Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst
from India, has pointed out while 1.5 billion marginal farmers in the
developing world subsist in poverty, an equal number of cows in the
industrialized world live in the lap of luxury.
Cattle in developed countries receive ‘subsidies that amount to almost twice
the annual income of the average Third World farmer’, Sharma writes.
None of this has a great deal to do with Christmas charity, however laudable
it might be. As former South African president Nelson Mandela said, “Ending
poverty isn’t about charity. It’s about justice.”