Today, one in every five persons in the world is considered
extremely poor by the United Nations. Women are the majority in
that class. Children, the elderly, the disabled, migrants,
refugees and indigenous peoples, as well as those long out of
work, are other categories of the poorest. While the majority are
rural, many are moving to the cities for the new industrial jobs,
swelling poverty there and often leaving behind -- and further
impoverishing -- women and children.
Wherever and whenever they can, corporations will buy low (paying third-world wages) and sell high (to first-world buyers). Their profits on sales of cheap goods or resource result in huge rewards of wealth, first to top management and then to stockholders. The nations supplying the labor, resource or goods gain little financially and consistently suffer social, economic and environmental damage.
Cash incomes of transnational employees in less developed nations may seem good at first, but costs of food, shelter, transportation and other needs soon begin to outstrip wages. Workers who flock to the cities are often entering the cash economy for the first time. Everything that was obtained before by gardening, sewing, weaving and bartering now costs money -- even water in some places. Now, there is no such thing as "getting by", picking local fruit, trading eggs for grain or being cared for by neighbors or extended family. Many workers have had to leave their families behind in rural villages and now have no social support if they need any help.
City laborers for big business often live in slums without sewers, clean water or access to health centers, schools or transportation. Labor conditions, even where good regulations are ignored, can be unhealthy, inhumane and dangerous. In some developing nations -- usually not the poorest -- workers may earn more, save and raise their standards of living. Also, transnational corporations sometimes contribute to schools, health centers, roads and other community needs. But positive examples of globalized industry, agriculture or worker communities are very rare.
There are many hidden costs to the community, nation and the world, including lost revenue (when corporations receive subsidies or abatements), pollution, job health hazards, forests destroyed for sprawled factories and houses or cheap export timber, deserts created by over-farming and over-lumbering or over-irrigation of more affordable sites, silted lakes and rivers, et al. Indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable.
Since 1945, when the UN was started, global GNP has increased 700%; global per capita income, 300%. Yet, the 48 poorest nations, with 10% of the world's population, have only one tenth of one percent of the world's income. Their average per capita income in 1993 was $300 -- less than a dollar a day, compared to $906 for the developing world as a whole, and $21,593 for most of the developed nations.
South Asia has the largest number of poor people but half of all Africans and many East Europeans are also poor. The United States and Western Europe have only 1% of the world's poor -- but that is 15% of their populations. Developed countries have 34 million people out of work.
And the most wretched of the earth's nations and people are getting poorer. In 1960, the richest fifth of the world's population had 30 times more income than the poorest fifth. By 1991, the gap had more than doubled, the richest fifth having 61 times more income than the poorest fifth.
To call world attention to the tragic and dangerous crisis of poverty, the UN has designated the next ten years, 1997-2006, the "First International Decade for the Eradication of Poverty". October 17, the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, has been chosen as the day, each year, when nations and groups worldwide protest against poverty as a violation of human rights and show what they are doing to help eradicate it.
UN studies and declarations agree that poverty is linked to lack of control over resources, especially unequal access to land. The UN world conference on Habitat, which took place June 1996, in Istanbul, recommended the recapture of speculative gains in land values through local taxes in order to alleviate poverty and increase affordable housing. Real estate generally becomes more valuable as population grows and as communities improve themselves. Therefore, "recapture" is an accurate term since rising land value is presently being captured mostly by those who do little to increase its value. Their business is simply to anticipate such rises, then monopolize land parcels until they can sell them and reap high returns on their investments while depriving others of the use of land at affordable prices.
Unfortunately, references to the problems created by transnational corporations, the WTO and others are few and weak in most UN commitments and resolutions. Sadly, the MAI will probably even receive official endorsement by the UN. Reform groups call poverty a human rights violation. In The Crime of Poverty, American economist and philospher, Henry George wrote, "The crime...the meanness born of poverty...poison(s)...the very air which rich and poor alike must breathe...There is one sufficient cause that is common to all nations; and that is the appropriation, as the property of some, of that natural element on which and from which all must live."
That "natural element" is land. All nations, 185 countries, rich and poor, must realize that the appropriation of land and its resources by "some" results in poverty, endangers the environment and peace, and so threatens to poison "the very air which rich and poor alike must breathe."
Pat Aller, December 4, 1997
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