Why the Left ignores the global poor

For all their compassion, left-wingers are silent on the most crushing injustice of all


Millions of people are dying, and you’re doing nothing about it. You could do – we all could. If enough of us did, every one of those deaths would stop. But you don’t. We don’t. And, as a result, in the next few years, hundreds of millions of people will die – of causes we could easily prevent.

Poverty is the single greatest crime one bit of humanity currently inflicts on another. It obliterates any claim we have to living in a civilised society. At very least, it accounts for a third of human deaths – 50,000 a day, 18 million a year, and, conservatively estimated, 400 million since 1990. Add up all those killed in all the wars of the twentieth century, and you’ll get a death toll half that number.

And yet we ignore it. Our ignorance and apathy subjects hundreds of millions to a level of human suffering that trivialises everything else. But when I say ‘we’, I don’t just mean catastrophically shallow, short-sighted, inward-looking, triviality obsessed modern society in general. I also mean the Left.

Six reasons for a catastrophic left-wing blind-spot

It’s the most baffling conundrum my involvement in politics has thrown up: how do tens of thousands of compassionate, motivated, idealistic, altruistic radicals not even register extreme poverty – something that, joint with our suicidal attitude towards the environment, constitutes the grossest, most damning indictment of the way things are?

If there’s an answer, I’ve no idea what it is. I think it’s much more likely there are answerS, plural – dozens of them, all tangling together to account for this huge, catastrophic blind-spot in the radical conscience.

It’s something I’ll never be able to explain entirely. But there are factors and beliefs I’m certain are contributing to it in some way or another. Here’s just a few of them – six reasons the Left ignores the global poor.

  1. Because poverty is ‘natural’

Millions of people think extreme poverty is bad, but assume it’s essentially a ‘natural’ phenomenon – something that just happens. This can be intellectualised to varying degrees. Some will argue impoverished places like sub-Saharan Africa aren’t fit for human habitation, what with the stifling heat, lack of reliable rain, tropical diseases and so on. Others will say there’s always been extreme poverty and starvation, there always will be, and it’s no-one’s fault – or that there’s just not enough food to go around.

In reality, poverty is political. The richest 62 people on the planet control more wealth than half the human population. The wealth of the richest 1% is equal to the wealth of the remaining 99%. The West lives to grotesque excess, while billions live in squalor.

Roughly half of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. In 2008 – a year that saw the numbers of seriously malnourished rise by 40m – there was enough food produced to provide everyone alive with 2,800 calories a day. An adult female needs 2,000 a day, an adult male about 2,500.

In short – we can eradicate poverty and prevent every single death from starvation. We’ve got the resources, and we’ve got the technology. Governments, giant corporations, organised groups of private citizens – any and all of them could club together, and bring a secure, healthy, comfortable standard of living to everyone alive.

The fact they don’t demonstrates a criminal neglect of the world’s most vulnerable people, the moral bankruptcy of self-obsessed West, and, more than anything else, a catastrophic lack of political will.

  1. Because it’s complex, and there aren’t obvious goodies and baddies

Look at Israel/Palestine, and the injustice is obvious – a group of battered, helpless, impoverished human beings crammed into a tumbledown city-cage, having multimillion dollar missiles flung at them by one of the world’s biggest (and most sickeningly racist) militaries.

Iraq and Afghanistan were obviously more complex – but they still involved Western powers carpet-bombing into oblivion societies they shouldn’t have been bombing.

In these two examples, and plenty of others the Left bothers shouting about, there’s clear, convenient symbolism – walls, bombs, barbed wire etc. Obvious aggressors. And a (relatively) simple solution – Israel, stop oppressing the Palestinians. America, hands off the Middle East.

Look at poverty, and the picture’s much murkier. There aren’t clear goodies and baddies. It’s staggeringly complex, in fact. It doesn’t exactly help that the media blanks it almost entirely (there’s bucketfuls of emotive footage to be had if the newcasters were interested in going out to get it – instead they’re content to dive into the maelstrom that is Syria, take pictures of the carnage and simplistically blame it on Russia).

As an issue, there’s no obvious ‘in’. It’s a frighteningly huge, complicated, depressing subject. There’s no clear solution, there’s no clear place to start – and in the end, a lot of radicals concern themselves with things it’s much easier to get their heads around.

  1. Because you ‘can’t throw money at the problem’, and there’s no real prospect of solving it

Fatalism is one of the biggest obstacles to addressing poverty – and it’s almost always misplaced.

We hear all the time about money not being the solution to humanitarian crises like poverty – either because aid and donations supposedly don’t work, or because third world governments are so corrupt they can’t be trusted with the cash.

They’re both problems that have been vastly overstated by right-wing media outlets utterly opposed to any kind of wealth redistribution.

If you choose to try and address poverty by giving money to corrupt, dictatorial regimes (as was the norm for decades during the Cold War, with aid used a bargaining chip in negotiations), unsurprisingly often that money doesn’t end up where you intended it to go. The solution is to not try and distribute aid through dodgy governments, and give it to local communities instead.

Even if you do, sometimes, in certain circumstances, a certain kind of aid or donation doesn’t work, or becomes counterproductive. One approach that achieves spectacular results in one place and time might not yield the same in another.

Luckily, there are dozens of other strategies you can try. If food donations are making it difficult for local farmers to make a living, you can give people money instead – letting them buy from local growers and help the area’s economy. If giving people direct payments starts to create dependence, you can plough money into providing decent healthcare, schooling, water and communication infrastructure, and so on.

When you try and help, problems sometimes arise. None of them are insurmountable.

  1. Because almost all anti-poverty efforts/initiatives/campaigns aren’t socialist

Mainstream anti-poverty is dominated by neoliberal managerialism. Governments and the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and others try and ‘solve’ poverty by opening up impoverished parts of the world to the global market economy rather than redistributing wealth. It’s like entering a baby into a boxing tournament, and has similar results.

The Bono-Geldof school of activism asks ordinary people in rich countries to donate to help the global poor – while ignoring how the super-rich, big business, and the banks could eradicate poverty without anyone on an average income having to put their hands in their pockets.

Academics like Thomas Pogge denounce poverty, argue individual Westerners have a duty to help wipe it out, but are utterly dismissive of socialism. In their view, it’s something that can be solved with tweaks to the global market economy. Philosopher and activist Peter Singer calls on people to join his Giving What We Can initiative – ordinary people committing to giving a fixed percentage of their income to tackle extreme poverty.

Fighting poverty doesn’t look very left-wing, in other words. It focuses on individual charity rather than systemic change. Tinkering with the existing system, rather than replacing it with something radical and egalitarian. But it’s only gone that way because radicals have abandoned the issue to market evangelicals and rockstar philanthropists. Just because a lot of anti-poverty activism is like that doesn’t mean all of it has to be.

  1. Because it’s almost always communicated through faceless statistics

2 million a year die of diarrhoea. 3 million die within a week of being born. 800 million are chronically malnourished. 800 million lack clean water. 1.6 billion live without electricity. 2 billion lack essential medicine.

These statistics are important – incredibly so. And there’s no doubt they’ve got a big role to play in communicating the vast, staggering scale of the problem. But rely on them too much, and they very quickly lose their power. People stop being able to digest them – or see the human reality behind them.

These aren’t just numbers. These are people living in agony because they’ve not got the most basic life necessities. They don’t know if they’ll survive the most basic illnesses. They don’t know where their next meal will come from. They watch their friends and family die of things a two-pound malaria net or a few tablets we’d get from Boots would prevent.

Without getting people to grasp that basic fact – that human beings fundamentally no different to ourselves are suffering unintelligibly for reasons we could easily prevent – no amount of statistics are going to help get the message across.

  1. Because it makes us feel bad

And, finally – I don’t think you can underestimate how much people shy away from extreme poverty because it makes them feel bad.

Consciously or subconsciously, I think people stop themselves from thinking about poverty and starvation because it’s depressing – and because, deep down, they realise that to some extent they’re to blame.

Our ancestors impoverished and enslaved whole societies. They stunted the development of areas that otherwise could’ve gone on to become stable and prosperous. Today, Western governments rig the world economy in their own favour – and against the poorest people on the planet. Collectively, we do nothing while millions suffer – and I think at least some of us have a subconscious inkling of how terrible that is.

A radical left-wing approach to extreme poverty

Capitalism will always prioritise profit and exploitation over meeting genuine human need. That’s why so many elite-driven anti-poverty initiatives are much better at enriching big Western exporters than there are at helping people on the ground – even attempts to help (assuming there’s a grain of altruism in there somewhere) are polluted by the profit drive that’s hard-wired into the system.       

The status quo isn’t just impoverishing and killing hundreds of millions – it’s wrecking the ecosystem. As the effects of global warming become more obvious and severe, it’s the poorest parts of the world that will suffer the most. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates as many as 165 million more people could be pushed into extreme poverty by food shortages and other problems resulting from climate change.

There’s only one real solution to both problems – using the grotesque wealth of one bit of the world to alleviate the suffering of the other, declaring year zero with everyone on a newly levelled playing field, then getting on with building sustainable societies where each person has everything they need to live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives… albeit within strict environmental limits.

But in the meantime…

A radical humanitarianism has to noisily, persistently campaign for this – and constantly draw attention to how the sickening excess we see in the West could and should be ploughed into eradicating poverty and bringing comfort and stability to impoverished parts of the world.

But it also needs to be realistic. Hundreds of millions have died, and billions more will probably die, waiting around for socialism. Which may never arrive.

That means we have a moral responsibility to do things and support initiatives that are only really least-worsts. I personally think Peter Singer’s basic idea is a good one – at least for a situation in which full-blown luxury communism is about as far off as it’s ever been.

Balls to the wall consumerism is killing the planet. That’s something originally foisted on us by elites, but something now powered by the magpie materialism of hundreds of millions of people. Much better for the ecosystem, the starving, and the species as a whole if people spend their disposable cash on helping the most vulnerable rather than blowing it at Currys.

If you’re comfortably off, if you’ve got enough to support yourself and your dependents, I think you should give that money away – committing to donating (at least some of) the cash you’d otherwise squander on stuff you don’t really need to efforts to help the global poor.

Think of it as your moral responsibility/global solidarity tax – a fixed percentage of your annual income that increases the more you earn. In a world full of palaces and jet planes it shouldn’t fall to anyone but the richest and most unscrupulous to heave billions out of poverty. But as things stand, for the foreseeable future at least, if we don’t, no-one else will.