Social taboos are always difficult to address, but talking about them is something NGOs, and society as a whole, is getting much better at. Take the issue of sanitation – once a taboo – now a widely addressed issue with a day marking it.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to an event on the International Day against Female Genital Cutting (FGC), something which I knew very little about.
The World Health Organisation defines this practice as 'procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.'
There are many emotional, and mental effects of FGC. In a recent study, nearly half of girls who have undergone FGC met criteria indicating some from of mental disorder. The vast majority of girls describe feelings of 'intense fear, helplessness, horror, and severe pain.'
And it doesn't stop there. Stories such as the one below are only too common.
'I lost seven of my nine children in childbirth. Because of the scarring I sustained I was not elastic enough. All seven of them suffocated inside my womb.'
For a long time, FGC has been regarded as a cultural issue. It has been considered that we in the West must not 'impose our values' upon those who carry out practices like FGC in the developing world.
But that's simply not true. The movement to end this abhorrent practice is starting within Africa- not the West - community groups are rallying together and starting discussions on this issue, key to ending it. And slowly but surely, Africa citizens are putting down the preconceptions, that, for example, FGC is an issue dictated by religion, and engaging with Human Rights based educational programmes.
So we were delighted to hear that the Department for International Development announced this week a new programme to support the ending of FGC, worth up to £35 million. It expects to reduce the practice by nearly a third in at least ten selected countries over the next five years by working directly within local communities. It also aims to get laws in place in these countries and fund research into the most cost-effective approaches to end FGC, to maximise impact.
So, change is being made- starting in communities who carry out the practice and being supported by the West. But, with all problems, the solution has not been reached. We need to do more to get this discussion started in more communities that practice FGC. Organisations such as the Orchid Project's courageous advocacy work raises this issue in important arenas, such as at this recent event in the House of Lords.
At this point, cynics would still argue that we in the West shouldn't be involved in African moral issues. But you'd be mistaken in thinking this is just an African issue- 66,000 people are estimated to be living with FGC in the UK alone, with a further 20,000 at risk of being subjected to the practice.
So it's important that we take action here too, and we're so glad the government is taking action.
Let's continue to raise awareness of this issue, and end the matter within a generation. Find out more at the Orchid Project.
On the face of it, that’s a huge step forward – a cause for celebration as evidence of things getting better. But, there’s still twice that many kids – some 72 million – who aren’t getting the chance to learn to read and write, to gain the skills that will enable them to take part in society.
It’s a topic that’s going to get a lot of attention later on this year, with the FIFA Football World Cup in South Africa focusing heavily on the power of education to change lives. FIFA have gotten behind the One Goal campaign, working to get all gets into school by 2015. They’ve got an amazing array of world leaders, footballers and celebrities behind the campaign – who you can see in this video.
You can’t tell it from their website or videos at the moment – but there’s actually a clear set of policies that One Goal is asking for, based off the work of the Global Campaign for Education, and focused on achieving the Education for All Goals, which in their briefest form are for all kids to go to and complete primary school for free.
One of these goals which has been largely neglected in the media coverage that you’ll see I quality – making sure that kids don’t just go to school, but they actually learn things are relevant, important and useful to them and to their community. ant, important and useful to them and to their community.
It’s something that I got to grapple with on a trip to Malawi, where early one morning I went out with the World Food Program to see how feeding kids at school was helping to increase attendance. Kids – and adults – who haven’t eaten properly can’t concentrate and learn properly, so the idea made lots of sense, and I wanted to see how things worked on the ground.
There, I met the headmaster of the school, Isaac, who you can see here standing in front of the maize used to feed the kids. He excitedly showed us around the school – through classrooms, toilets and the like – as kids swarmed in from all over the countryside. It was truly phenomenal to see them all, many walking four or five kilometers to get here, with Isaac saying that 98% of kids in the region were enrolled, and that attendance was around 90% - comparable to the USA, UK or Australia.
The challenge though, as Isaac explained it, was that the program had almost been too successful. On the meagre funds that the school had, Issac had been able to hire ten teachers, who took it in turns to share the school’s six classrooms. I asked Isaac where kids learnt if not in classrooms – so he showed me up to the end of the field, to a group of students gathered around a blackboard and teacher lent up by a tree. I asked what happened when it rained – “It doesn’t rain very often,” he said, before laughing, “but when it does, we get wet.”
As I watched the class, I took to counting – this third grade class had 147 students. I asked Isaac how many students there were in the whole school, and he said just under 1500. This was a typical class.
In the three hours I spent with Isaac and his staff, not once did they complain. They were excited that so many students were able to learn – and although they wished for more and better resources to teach with, they were focused on doing the best with what they had. As Isaac put it to me, “These children – they are the future. Most of their parents never went to school, most of their parents never got to learn how to read or write. This – this is not perfect – but it is so much better than nothing, and over time, we are making it better, we are making it so that all the children in our area can help make our country great.”
As I reflected on Isaac’s comments, and on the big picture changes that we’ve seen over the last decade, I’m filled with hope about our potential when it comes to education. There’s so much that has been achieved – but so much to do. There’s the knowledge that efforts at our end – calling for more and better aid to education, buying fair trade and enabling producers’ kids to go to school, raising money for charities who work to improve the quality of education – make a real difference. Above all, I’m left with the knowledge that Isaac, his teachers and his community aren’t waiting for a handout from people like me, they’re working as best they can with what they’ve got. What I, and what all of us can offer is support to do more, to go further and to go faster – and that’s exciting.
To find out more about education and extreme poverty, check out the Global Poverty Project Info-bank.
We hear about war all the time in the news. Afghanistan. Iraq. Israel/Palestine. And lots of random little wars in Africa and Asia. So, surrounded by news of conflict, I assumed that there are more wars today than there have been in a while, or at the very least, lots more people die or get hurt now than they used to.
Turns out I’m wrong.
Counting a war as something that kills 1000 or more people a year, we’ve fallen from 11 to 5 wars between 2000 and 2008 (the latest year for which data is available), according the Uppsala data set, an international database of conflicts.
If we add in smaller conflicts, of which there were 26 in 2007, and 31 in 2008, we still end up with less conflict than back in 2000 – 36 to 37.
Or, looking at it as an image, courtesy of the UCDP over a longer period of time, we can see that there’s been a trend since the end of the cold war to fewer conflicts:
For a slightly more subtle view of conflict – beyond wars – you can check out the Failed States Index that leading journal Foreign Policy have developed with the Fund for Peace. It tracks how ‘at risk’ different countries are of falling apart. As a bit of a thought experiment, I crunched some numbers using the Failed States Index, as I wanted to see what the relationship was between poverty and state failure.
Because poverty statistics aren’t easily comparable, I used the most recent GDP figures per person (the higher the GDP, the richer), and plotted them against scores on the failed states index (the higher score, the more failing your country). The graph with all the dots showing different countries is rather confusing, so I stuck on a trendline (r2 = 0.601 for the nerds out there), shaded the ‘risk zones’ – less than $1000 per person, and a failed state score of 96 or above – and dropped a couple of countries back in to illustrate the point.
The trend is clear – poorer countries tend to be failing.
A graph like this is just a snapshot into what is an extensive field of research on conflict and development. It’s a field that I think is best summarized by English economist Paul Collier, who calls conflict ‘development in reverse.’ We know that when countries get sucked into conflict, it hurts the poor first, and sets the country back decades.
So, as we look forward to the next decade, it’s great that there are fewer conflicts than before, but we know that the risks are still there. Unless more countries are able to lift themselves out of poverty, they’re going to see conflict as a continued challenge. To address this, we need to support countries to build strong and capable states that can support their citizens to prosper.
For those countries that are embroiled in conflict, we know that the road to peace is a long and hard one. The risks for falling back into conflict are significant for about 10 years once the guns have been laid down, as we’ve seen in a place like Timor-Leste, which has just celebrated ten years since independence and the end of conflict. And, it’s with Timor-Leste that I’d like to end – this ten minute film from Al Jazeera shows just how far the country has come, but how far it still has to go. To find out more about conflict and extreme poverty, you can click here.
I hated broccoli as a kid. Still do. But, that never seemed to stop my mother dishing it out, roughly once a week. And so ensued a conversation that I’m sure many of us are familiar with:
Mum: “Eat your broccoli.”
Me: “No, I don’t like it.”
Mum: “You know that children in Africa are starving”
Me: “Bet you they don’t like broccoli either.”
Mum: “You don’t know how lucky you are! Lots of kids would love to have that broccoli”
Me: “Fine, I’ll send it to them.” [gets up to find envelope]
Mum: “Don’t be stupid – you know what I mean.”
Suffice to say, it was usually a draw. At about this point, my father would pass by, proclaim his love for broccoli, and eat it off my plate.
The idea of poor people in far off places going hungry was something I grew up with. But, it’s not something I ever expected to take seriously as an adult. Until two years ago.
In a disturbing report, the Food and Agriculture Organisation announced that for the first time since records have been kept, 1 billion people on our planet would go to bed hungry. And, it turns out, the problem isn’t that there’s not enough food to go around, it is that the world’s poorest people just can’t afford to buy enough of it.
That struck me hard. I’d gone a few days – maybe four or five – without really eating properly, and knew, albeit fleetingly, about the dull pang and emptiness that comes with being really hungry. But still, I didn’t really know it. I didn’t know what it would be like to get up every day, go about my life, but do so eating just one basic meal a day – enough to survive, but not enough to ever really make me feel satisfied.
I got a sense of what that would be like last year when our Australian Manager, Rich Fleming took it upon himself to live off $1.25 a day for a month. You can read about that here, but from an outsider’s perspective, it was clear how hard it was. Within two weeks Rich was noticeably thinner. At the football one weekend he complained about blurry vision, and he was lethargic – slow to do everything.
So, I was intrigued to find out why hunger had gone up in the last decade – from 857 million in 2000, to 1.05 billion today. And, I wanted to know what was being done about it, and what, if anything, I could do about it.
The policy experts have spent – and continue to spend – ages arguing about why hunger has gone up. In short, it seems that it’s largely the result of the Global Food Crisis of 2007/8, which saw a big jump in food prices – which means that poor people, especially in cities, couldn’t afford enough food. This, in turn, has been driven by things like population growth, increasing fuel prices, less land being used to grow food, bad crop yields because of the weather, price speculation on international markets and more demand for food.
What struck me about many of these reasons is the presumption that the world’s poor buy their food, rather than grow it themselves. And, although this is increasingly the case as more people move to cities, we also need to think about what’s happened to farmers growing their own food.
And, it’s with this that we can start thinking about responses. At the most local level, the best way to reduce hunger is to support communities to grow enough of their own food. It’s for this reason that the G8 announced last year that they would provide $21b through the IMF to promote food security in the world’s poorest countries.
At the more structural and international level, there are a couple of things that we can do too:
Give to organisations that support farmers to be more effective. Some of the big international agencies like Oxfam do great work in this regard, as do some of the smaller boutique agencies like Heifer International or the Hunger Project. And, whoever who consider giving to, it’s important to ask how they help farmers grow more in the long-term, not just this year.
Encourage your government to invest in research and share it with the world’s poor, particularly for strong agricultural countries (looking at you, Australia). Technology, science and innovation are central to helping improve crop yields.
As we reflect on a decade of change in hunger, the picture isn’t great. There’s a lot of work to be done, especially with the prospect of sharing the world with 9 billion people by mid century.
It felt strange to be celebrating last September when a press release landed in my inbox from UNICEF, proclaiming that there were just 8.8 million deaths amongst children under five in 2008.
At an individual level, every child’s death is a tragedy. That’s 8.8 million kids who won’t get to go to school, to play with friends or tease their siblings. That’s 8.8 million families wracked by the trauma of losing a child.
But, at a global level, it was good news. It’s good news because we’ve seen increasing numbers of births alongside decreasing numbers of deaths, not just in the last decade, but for most of the last sixty years.
You might recall a TV advertisement for Make Poverty History back in 2005 in which celebrities clicked their fingers, in recognition of the fact that a child died once every three seconds from preventable causes.
Well, that ad wouldn’t work anymore. 8.8 million deaths a year works out as one death every 3.6 seconds … or rounded up, once every 4 seconds. Falling at an average rate since 2000 of 2.3%, 1.6 million fewer kids died in 2008 than in 2000.
Countries all over the world are bringing down child mortality by increasing the number of kids immunised against diseases like Polio and Measles, making sure that more kids drink clean water so they don’t get diarrhoea, and making it easier and more affordable for even the poorest to see a doctor or nurse when their kids are sick.
We’ve built great momentum in reducing child deaths in recent years, not just reducing deaths, but reducing them more quickly. In the below clip, Hans Rosling from Gapminder explains how Tanzania is dropping child deaths faster than a country like Sweden ever did.
As we look towards the next decade, there’s still much to do. The vast majority of the remaining 8.8 million deaths are preventable. As a planet, we’re going to need to work smarter and harder to achieve the millennium development goal of reducing child deaths by 2/3 between 1990 and 2015.
To do this, we need to support the governments of poor countries to build strong health care systems that reach into even the poorest and most remote communities. This involves making sure that governments can pay for the essentials like nurses, health clinics and doctors. And, it involves them being able to make the infrastructure investments that improve health – water and sanitation systems, electricity, and communications networks. To afford this, these countries will need to prioritise health in their budgets, and in part, they’ll need to use foreign aid - which will comes largely from our governments.
And, if our governments are to make these investments with our taxes, they need our permission. As we emerge from the worst economic period since the Great Depression, our governments are looking to cut costs – and cutting money to kids in other countries is an easy option. So, if you care about seeing fewer kids die, make a commitment, tell your MP that you care, and ask what they’re doing to see it happen.
To learn more about children and extreme poverty, start here.