Every minute of the day, someone somewhere is suffering avoidably, and that’s inexpressibly bad. Civilisation abounds with preventable human misery, and I think people should think about that regularly, ritualistically, in an act of quasi-religious observance.
Look at the last few hundred years of human history and you see colossal, gut-wrenching waste. Every day, a veritable mountain of human potential gets wasted – bulldozed, dynamited, smashed off the face of the earth. Living, thinking, feeling human beings with the potential to achieve great things and enrich the lives of those around them are wrenched out of the only existence they’ll ever have, often for the most pathetically preventable reasons.
Billions more live, but are stifled – by incredible poverty and the exhausting, life-limiting struggle just to stay afloat, or through being written off as worthless by the societies they live in and denied the encouragement and investment that would let them live secure, comfortable, fulfilling lives.
Wiping out suffering should be the highest, most urgently pursued goal of advanced societies. We should plough capital and resources into righting avoidable wrongs wherever we find them. And until the war on preventable misery has been won, we should sit and think about the lives that are needlessly squashed and wasted and painfully curtailed every day.
But we don’t. The all-pervading ideology of neoliberal consumer-capitalism numbs us to all this – building a wall of well-rehearsed excuses between us and any notion we’re even vaguely responsible for it all, even as we take world-changing amounts of money and finite resources and collectively piss them up the wall.
We’re all morally culpable. And we need reminding, frequently, of the abominable human cost of the way things are. Which is why, completely against your will, I’m initiating you into my miserablist gloom-cult as we go zooming from crisis-zone to crisis-zone in my new item, the (August 2015) Global Mope.
The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Aid estimates NGOs needs $19.7bn to reach 82.5m of the world’s most vulnerable people this year. At the time of writing, they’ve only managed to raise 34% of that. The number in need of emergency help has doubled in ten years, and international aid budgets are under unprecedented strain.
Given that starvation and preventable disease kill more people in one year than the Holocaust did in four, a few billion dollars is a pitifully small price to pay to help stave them off. The accumulated wealth of the richest 10% of people in Britain is thought to be around £4,000bn – about $6,200bn. The richest 1,000 Britons are conservatively estimated to have about £500bn between them, or $780bn. The total cost of the US government’s 2008 banking bailout is now thought to be have been $29trn. And yet aid agencies are struggling to scrape together a comparatively puny $19.7bn to save literally millions of people from dying.
2015 has also been an especially terrible year. In January, UNOCHA and the aid agencies thought they would only have to find funds to help 57.5m people. Since then intensifying armed conflicts and natural disasters have piled on the kind of evergreen humanitarian catastrophes the world’s (sickeningly) become blasé about. And now, we’re going to look at just some of the reasons that 57.5m figure spectacularly became 82.5m (and situations closer to home that don’t qualify for that sort of aid, but are fucking miserable nonetheless).
Syria: Humanitarian disaster area since anti-government protests spiralled into full-blown rebellion in 2011. Four and a half years later, fighting between forces loyal to dictatorial President Bashar Al Assad and rebel groups continues. Complicating matters further is the presence of so-called Islamic State, ultra-reactionary jihadi extremists hoping to use the resulting chaos to further their own objectives.
The conflict is thought to have killed 220,000 so far, and injured more than a million. The average Syrian life expectancy has dropped twenty years since fighting began. 12.2m Syrians urgently need aid, 5.6m of them children. A mind-boggling 7.6m people have been internally displaced – 4.8m of them in besieged or otherwise difficult to reach areas – and over 3m have fled abroad.
South Sudan: One of the world’s newest and poorest countries. Already desperately impoverished, and wracked with malnourishment and horrifically high mother-and-baby mortality, South Sudan is currently being torn up by violent ethnic hatreds born out of colonial-era social engineering by the masters of imperialistic divide and rule tactics, us.
1.5m South Sudanese have been internally displaced. An estimated 4.6m don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Meanwhile, war crimes are being liberally committed by both sides – including violence against children, the forced conscription of some 13,000 child soldiers, and the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war.
Afghanistan: Violent and unstable since the US invasion of 2001. Fighting between pro-government and rebel forces continues, with recent extreme weather events exacerbating the misery.
A quarter of a million people require humanitarian aid. 100,000 have been displaced by severe flooding and resultant avalanches this year, 20,000 by violence. Millions more are left living in a battle-scarred, inhospitable environment – nearly 1m eating and sleeping within 500 metres of unexploded landmines and other ordnance leftover from the invasion.
Ukraine: Since 2013, Western-backed Ukrainian army forces have been fighting pro-Russian separatist groups (probably) part-funded by Moscow. It’s a grim proxy for Cold War Round Two, and it’s exacerbated Ukraine’s pre-existing problems – most notably, extreme poverty.
1.2m people have been internally displaced by conflict, with half that number forced out of their homes in the last year. 800,000 have fled abroad. 3.2m require aid, 670,000 of them in urgent need of food.
Yemen: Among the most dire of non-African humanitarian catastrophes, the Yemen crisis barely troubles the headlines in the UK. A lot of people wouldn’t know Yemen existed, let alone there was anything amiss there. In fact, it’s been in a state of permanent civil war for over four years. In 2011, the so-called Arab Spring swept the Middle East, taking Yemen’s dictatorial President Ali Abdullah Saleh with it. One of his underlings took over, but was quickly deposed by rebel groups, who formed a new government themselves. Troops loyal to old regime – crucially backed by the Middle East’s premier Western-sponsored feudal autocracy, Saudi Arabia – retaliated, and violence has raged ever since.
Almost half the population lives in poverty, two thirds of Yemeni youths are unemployed, and basic amenities are on the verge of collapse. Even more stunningly, 21.4 of the country’s 26.7m people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. 20.4m are living without access to clean water or basic sanitation, placing them at severe risk of potentially deadly illnesses like cholera. Conditions have seriously deteriorated since March, when Saudi forces began bombing opposition groups.
Nepal: Already crippled by extreme poverty – in fact, one of the poorest countries in the world – then struck by massive earthquakes earlier this year. In April, a quake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale hit. This was followed by 7.3 magnitude one in May, then several aftershocks, measuring 5.6 and 5.3 in some places.
Nepal’s densely populated slum cities were predictably devastated. More than 8,000 people were killed, and a staggering 8m people have been adversely affected. There are 2m living in the most critically hit areas, where the successive quakes obliterated the country’s already-threadbare infrastructure. 2.8m people have been forced from their homes, and 3.5m need urgent food aid.
Nigeria: Once something approaching an African success story, Nigeria has been thrown back into turmoil by the emergence of Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, literally ‘Western education is forbidden’, fanatically opposed to liberalising attitudes to women’s rights among other social issues.
Fighting between Boko Haram and Nigerian army troops has displaced 1.5m people. In the worst-hit north east, 4.6m people are food insecure, and lacking access to basic healthcare, clean water and sanitation. On top of all that, unexploded mines and other explosive devices make even the most everyday activities extremely hazardous.
Iraq: In a catastrophic mess since the United States and our very own United Kingdom, its ever-willing lapdog-nation, illegally blundered in to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Allies easily won the war, but were spectacularly unprepared for what would come after. Saddam was a thoroughly unpleasant mass-murdering dictator, but the chaos that followed his removal made him look almost preferable by comparison.
Since January, fighting between Iraqi government and rebel forces has intensified, forcing 700,000 more people from their homes (meanwhile, the corporate media struggles to contain its bafflement that Jeremy Corbyn feels the need to apologise for Labour’s involvement in invasion that sparked it all off). With widespread poverty, insecurity, and lack of access to crucial amenities, not to mention a landscape riddled with unexploded ordnance – birth defects and child cancer rates have spiked since the invasion as a result of the Americans’ liberal use of depleted uranium ammunition – it’s little surprise that a whopping 8.2m Iraqis are in need of humanitarian aid. On top of all that, 60% of Iraqi aid programmes are at risk of closure through underfunding.
Chad: One of the world’s poorest countries, largely populated by impoverished subsistence farmers and cattle-herders. It’s also plagued with governmental corruption and has experienced successive coups, as rival elements vie for control of the country’s plentiful crude oil reserves. Crises in neighbouring Darfur and Libya have led to an influx of refugees, compounding the misery of a country unable to provide the most basic amenities for its own citizens.
2.4m Chadians, or 20% of the population, are food insecure – they’re often not sure of where their next meal is coming from, in other words. 350,000 are experiencing global acute malnutrition, 100,000 of them under 5. Preventable diseases are rife – especially cholera, measles, and, most of all, malaria, which is expected to kill 1m in 2015. In a horrific irony, on top of all this some parts of the country have experienced terrible floods, while others have experienced protracted droughts.
Democratic Republic of Congo: One of the most fragile and dysfunctional states of the modern world. Ungovernably huge and mineral-rich, DRC was decimated by a decade-long five-way war that claimed a mind-boggling six million lives. Although a ceasefire agreement was signed in 2003, the violence has never really stopped, and the country remains a devastated shell filled with desperate, impoverished people.
7m DRC citizens need aid to meet their basic needs. 6.4m are food insecure. 2.8m are internally displaced. And killings, rapes, abductions, and the enforced conscription of child soldiers and miners continue.
Greece: Right royally screwed over by the in-built inequalities of the Eurozone – ‘core’ countries like Germany feed off underdeveloped ‘peripheral’ countries like Greece by getting Greeks to buy German exports; ‘core’ country banks lend Greeks huge, unrepayable amounts of money so they can afford to keep buying – and paying the price for decades of cronyism and political corruption allowing the richest Greeks to avoid colossal amounts of tax, the Greek state is in massive debt. Unable to both pay off that debt and provide basic services to ordinary Greeks, the government has had to go to the ‘troika’ – the IMF, the European Union, and the European Central Bank – for financial help.
In return, the troika has subjected Greece to the most extreme version of austerity ever attempted. The result has unsurprisingly been social devastation. Ordinary Greeks have become 40% poorer on average. Half of under-25s are unemployed. One in five Greeks are experiencing severe material deprivation. One in four are at risk of it. A shredded social safety net means 800,000 Greeks are without access to basic medical services through poverty or lack of insurance. Depression diagnoses have trebled. And in just two years between 2010 and 2012, the suicide rate rose by 35%.
And even in Britain, one of the the top ten richest countries on the face of the earth, we’ve learned this week that over 4,000 people died just weeks after being declared ‘fit for work’ and subsequently taken off benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions. By 2020, one in four children are expected to be living in poverty, 800,000 more than before the Tories regained power in 2010. 1.5m more adults are expected to have been pushed into poverty during the same period. Absolute poverty is rising at its fastest rate in a decade, increasing by 900,000 in 2012 alone. And the poorest tenth of the population saw its net income drop by 38% between 2010 and 2015.
These are just a few civilisation-shaming examples of the suffering and the pain and the pure, unadulterated human misery a world abundantly well-equipped to prevent just doesn’t. Inequality and injustice everywhere, pile upon pile of avoidable death, one thin slice of humanity living to planet-busting excess, while billions live on less than a pound a day.
This is what we need to think about, every day, until such a time when developed societies deem it all worth bothering with. Think about and – considering bringing home the UK’s median income puts you in the richest 5% of people on earth – throw money at. Each one of the examples cited above has a charity appeal or ten trying to do something to help. Charity is a flaw-riddled least-worst that does absolutely nothing to address the fundamental iniquities of capitalism, imperialism and war. But in so many parts of the world, it’s all that stands between the planet’s poorest, most vulnerable people and human catastrophes of apocalyptic proportions. If you can, give. And regardless of whether you can or you can’t, think, remember, what our way of life puts humanity through every day.