Blog Action Day: A day for poverty

Today is Blog Action Day, an annual non-profit event that aims to unite the world’s bloggers and get them to post about the same issue on the same day with the aim of raising awareness. The idea is that a complex, global issue can be illuminated by thousands of posts examining the issue from different perspectives, political points of view and locations.

The Department for International Development is leading the UK government’s fight against world poverty, and so it’s particularly good that they got their new DFID Bloggers section up and running in time to join in with today’s’ post on Poverty in Helmand. Likewise, FCO Bloggers has an entry from Britain’s Embassy in Moscow on how Russia is participating in international development initiatives to tackle poverty around the globe.

But this is emphatically not a day just for big government departments or large companies to dominate the signal. Indeed, the strength of the ‘blogosphere’ is that all blogs are genuinely created equal and in the thousands of entries you’ll find on the Blog Action Day you’ll find entries from everyone and everywhere – check out the featured posts on the Blog Action Day website for a cross-cut of the very best from around the world. Overall I’m finding it hard not to think of the day’s activity as the blogging equivalent of a Live Aid conference: a massive cast from all over the world, all performing to one worthy end.

I’m hesitant to contribute much in the way of my own thoughts on the issue of poverty for the basic reason that I have very limited experience about it. I’ve been very lucky in my life and never been been desperately poor: I’m by no means rich and my family was entirely average middle class when I grew up, so obviously there were times when money was tight; but that’s a far cry different from being in poverty. And during the recent banking crisis, when a collapse of the entire banking systems seemed all too feasible and threatened to take away the savings that I’ve built up over the last 20 years of working, I confess I was stressing over whether and how I could live without the comfort blanket of a healthy current account balance behind me.

The fact is that for most of us, it’s hard to understand what poverty actually is in practical terms. The academic definitions don’t really help either, as they tend to couch ‘poverty’ as being a lack of income and wealth such that someone is excluded from the social norms of the society in which they live. Which means that here in the UK, poverty ends up being defined as someone who doesn’t have a mobile phone, or a television, or a car.

I’m not sure that definition would resonate with a lot of people, who would perceive poverty instead as not having enough money to eat, not having anywhere to live, having nothing in the world other than what they wear on their backs and carry in their hands. That sort of poverty does exist in large parts of the world, but fortunately is extremely rare in the UK with our social welfare system. And quite right too, a nation as rich as ours should certainly be able to stop its own citizens falling into poverty, just as it should be out there in the world helping to lead the wider battle to raise people from such desperation.

But the wealth of a nation doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be any poverty in a country, and we shouldn’t be complacent or blithely assume that ‘poverty is for other people’. I’m reminded of my time in the richest nation on the planet, the United States of America, back in 1998: I was traveling around the country on trains and Greyhound buses; one of the stops I made was in New Orleans on a bright Sunday morning.

I made a wrong turn and headed off in the wrong direction; instead of heading into the impressive midtown of towering office blocks and hotels, I ended up lost in an area of shacks and slums, where the roads petered out without warning to grass dirt tracks. Here, only a mile or two from the typical United States advanced civilisation we know around the world, was a shanty town more appropriate to some third world country. Thsi is where a large proportion of the city’s black population lived: in the world’s most prosperous country, they existed at a level of poverty I had never known or been closed to before. How could a nation be so thoroughly schizophrenic in such a short physical distance?

Apparently this was an area of New Orleans that really, really wasn’t safe to be in, and I’m lucky to have got out alive and with my belongings. Actually I had no trouble there at all, either because it was a sleepy Sunday morning and no one was up yet, or because the danger of the area was overstated by the respectable folk in midtown – as a good reason for never going there, never looking too close at this part of their otherwise fair city.

This part of New Orleans doesn’t exist any more of course – it would have been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina seven years later. Problem solved? No, of course not. The problem was just displaced, with the poor hardest hit and forced to flee to new, temporary shanty towns across the US. Maybe some of them got new starts out of it, but I suspect that for many it was just the backdrop of their misery that was changed. Too many even today still have no food, no home, no hope.

Our world should be a better one than that.

Other Blog Action Day links

  • Neil WIlliams writes: “I am a selfish person. That’s the main finding from my 59 days thinking about poverty: or rather, thinking about how little I usually think, let alone do, anything about poverty.”
  • Jon Bounds writes: “Social media can help in the fight against poverty, in a number of ways — but it’s still down to people.”
  • Emma Mulqueeney writes: “I would like to talk about the middle ground of poverty, the line that we could so easily cross – especially in the current climate. And I am speaking about poverty as in lack of cash, rather than lack of morals, education or access to clean running water.”
  • Gallomanor writes: “Living in Bombay the drive from the airport to downtown involved passing by shanty-towns and beggars with limbless babies pressing themselves against the window of the air-conditioned Mercedes as we stopped at the traffic lights.”
  • Peeebeee writes: “Call it middle-class guilt if you wish, but reading other Blog Action Day posts has been a humbling experience.”
  • Laura Whitehead writes: “Instead of writing my views on poverty, I’ve decided to highlight a few nonprofit websites to give inspiration to other organisations with their own design ideas.’ (And a great, worth selection it is too.)
  • Mike Butcher writes: “Technology can ease poverty, but tech companies need to get on board.”

  1. Hey Andrew. Thanks for the pingback. You have a half-deleted reference to me in your 2nd paragraph by the way!

  2. andrewlewin

    Oops! Thanks, reference deleted now. I started putting them in and then switched to the more flexible format of putting the links at the bottom instead, and forgot the half-started para. Obviously doing this too early this morning when I was barely sentient …

    Great to see almost everyone that we follow pulling together and contributing something to Blog Action Day, isn’t it?

  3. Cheers Andrew 🙂 btw am I supposed to do anything on my blog post other than tag and cat it with Blog Action Day? I lost the original email 🙂

  4. Nice post, I found it hard to decide what to write about, be it rural poverty (visible here where I am in Devon), digital poverty, and so on.
    Thanks for the link!

  5. andrewlewin

    (Email was belatedly sent to Mulqueeny, for any good it may have been!)

    Thanks, Laura – and you’re very welcome to the link of course. I also found it very hard to write a post that did the issue justice; if nothing else, racking my brains for some experience of poverty really brought it home how lucky I’ve been in my life. And made me appreciate all the more the striking, startling and moving posts by other bloggers yesterday.

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