William Wilberforce was a man ahead of his time, born into a world where the moral injustice of slavery was commonly dismissed as a necessary evil, if an evil at all. Wilberforce had the foresight to envision a future where all men and women were free. As an outspoken abolitionist for over thirty years in the British Parliament, his political peers shunned him, but he pushed on and, eventually, lived to see what would become the end of British slavery in 1833.
Today, Wilberforce's struggle is viewed unquestionably as a morally justified one. However, at the end of the 18th century, it seemed impossible. Nothing illustrates the contrast of modern attitudes and the common thinking during Wilberforce's time toward slavery and institutionalized racism than the worldwide reaction to Apartheid in South Africa.
Apartheid, a potent and ugly form of institutionalized racism was first adopted by the South African government in 1950. Almost immediately following its inception, the United Nations and the world turned their attention to this troubling development. For almost 50 years, the world struggled to bring Apartheid to an end. Today, this is rightfully celebrated as a moral injustice that has been triumphantly eradicated through education, action, and mobilization.
In our modern age characterized by the cutting edge of technological advancement, wealth, and higher education, we have the benefit of hindsight to see slavery as the evil that it always was. Now, more than 175 years after Wilberforce's time, I believe that bringing an end to extreme poverty is the moral and ethical issue of our generation. Like slavery was once excused, we are expected to believe the fiction that extreme poverty is the natural way of things - yet, this is not the case.
With the acceptance of the Millennium Development Goals by the UN, we now have a framework to bring about the end of extreme poverty. If we each do our part to implement these goals, we can bring about the kind of change that future generations can look back upon with the same kind of moral clarity that we now view slavery with.
William Wilberforce never gave up, spending decades of his life to work tirelessly against slavery. There is a great deal we could learn from his tenacity. Wilberforce, himself, put it best in his speech before the British House of Commons in 1791 when he said, "Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal..., released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country."
Together we can make extreme poverty a thing of the past.
Hugh Evans is CEO of the Global Poverty Project
With Wesley Nease.