Janine Larose janinelarose@hotmail.com
Mon, 02 Jan 2006 19:26:32 +0000


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 
natural disasters.)

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 
or childbirth.

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.”