The challenge – the eradication of poverty

Poor Kenyan boy in Nairobi rubbish dump
Poor Kenyan boy in Nairobi rubbish dump (Flickr)

The United Nations proclaimed 1996 the international year for the eradication of poverty. The goal was to lift a quarter of the world’s population out of extreme poverty, which, for over one billion people, means surviving on less than a dollar a day. It was a noble goal and one that went largely unnoticed by the general public and the media. A billion people who live on less than one dollar a day. It’s a reality that is so remote for most of the other three billion people in the world that the imagination falters or draws a blank.

Bronze medal, New York Radio Festivals 1997

Original broadcast: April 30, 1997


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The Challenge”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

The United Nations proclaimed 1996 the international year for the eradication of poverty. The goal was to lift a quarter of the world’s population out of extreme poverty, which, for over one billion people, means surviving on less than a dollar a day. It was a noble goal and one that went largely unnoticed by the general public and the media. A billion people who live on less than one dollar a day. It’s a reality that is so remote for most of the other three billion people in the world that the imagination falters or draws a blank. This is what the United Nations means when it speaks of extreme poverty.

His name is Mujamin Haq (sp?) and age is 10 years. EB: Have you ever gone to school? No, he never been to school. EB: How long have you been working? He’s working last 3.5 years. EB: Do you also work in the carpet industry? He’s also working in carpet industry EB: Do you have sisters and brothers who are also working? He has 4 brothers and sisters, and 2 brothers are also working in carpet industry. His sister, her age is 7 years. She’s also working in carpet industry. EB: How many hours a day do you work? 10.5 hours. He starts work at 7 a.m. EB: Do you feel tired a lot. After work, he feels very tired and especially he feels pain in shoulders. EB: How does your employer treat you? His owner’s behavior is very bad. He says some bad things and punished him. EB: You say owner. Is that owner or employer? In one way, you can say it is bonded labor because his parents take some money from the owner. So, he cannot leave the job till he will repay the advanced amount. EB: So that is bonded labor. Bonded labor. EB: What type of future do you see for yourself? He want to do tailoring work and especially stitching work in government factory. EB: But it’s just work, work, work.  Do you like to play? He also like to play. EB: Do these children realize that most children don’t work? The children of educated people are not working. But we are poor, so we are working. EB: Do you think that’s fair? Because these people are educated, so it is alright.

Mujamam Haq and the other children who work in the carpet and textile industries outside the Pakistani port city of Karachi are stunted and suffer from respiratory problems. On average, they work 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. They earn about 3 dollars a month. They live in a slum which is home to over a million people, most of them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Burma. There’s no running water or electricity, no schools, no health centers. The streets are unpaved and  everywhere there are piles of waste, emitting a pungent, nauseous stench. I visited that slum in the winter of 1993. It wasn’t the first time I saw extreme poverty, not the last time I reported on it. But listening to the story of the tiny, malnourished Mujamam Haq, I still remember feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. There was nothing I could do to change the fate of Mujamama Haq and the other 50 or child workers, some as young as 5, who were gathered around me that afternoon. I’ve had that feeling of utter impotence many times in the past 5 years of reporting on poverty, its causes and its consequences. The figures are so staggering that the natural reaction is to give up hope that the war against poverty will ever be won. But how can we admit defeat to 10-year-old Mujamam Haq or to 12-year-old Sarah who works as a prostitute in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

She started when she was 8 years old. She started to get money. She needed the money to be able to help herself because she didn’t have her parents. EB: Where are your parents? They passed away. EB: Both of them died? They both passed away when she was 6 years old. EB: How did you start doing this? Between the period when her parents died and the time she started going out looking for men, she was being put up by a friend. And then she met some friends of hers, and these friends of hers showed her how to start. EB: What was it like the first time?
She remembers she was in pain, and she was afraid. She was very afraid. She stayed for a period of 2 or 3 months before she went out again.
EB: But then you started doing it again on a regular basis? That’s the time she went to stay in Eastleigh and she started every day. EB: How many men a day do you see? It depends. But she will go with 2, 3, 4. EB: Do you go to school too? No, she doesn’t go to school. She knows how to write her name. EB: Do you get scared? She says she has no fear. She just prays to God. I also asked her, as a matter of interest, whether she fears getting a guy who is really rough or something, or what would happen if she fell sick and she had nobody to take care of her. She says, I just pray to God.

Faith or fate is often the only thing the poor have to cling on to. Sometimes the problems are so immense that there is nothing else to believe in. Kenya, like many countries in the developing and the industrialized world, has an ever growing number of street children. The Kenyan capital, Nairobi, alone has 130.000. Poverty and its consequences are the reason most children wind up on the street. They resort to prostitution, begging, scavenging, menial work or crime to survive. Already, the second generation of street children is appearing in Kenya, and experts say that by the turn of the century, there could be up to 6 million children having to fend for themselves on the streets. Faith and fate are what inspired Kenyan actress Ann Manjugu to help some of Nairobi’s street children in her own special way. She had had the lead role in a docudrama about street children which used kids from the street. The children asked her to give them acting classes because they thought theatre or the movies were the best way to get off the streets. Ann dutifully conducted the rehearsals, but the children were always tired and hungry. What they needed was a home where they could eat and sleep.

One day when I was rehearsing at the St. Paul chapel, a gentleman just appeared and asked me what do you do here with these children? I said we rehearse plays. Have you done any? I said yes. We have done our first play. We perform with these children in churches every Sunday. What is the most cherished wish that you have for these children? I said to that gentleman if you can give us a home, God will bless you forever and ever and ever. He didn’t say anything. He just left. After two weeks, we and the children saw him again with a bunch of keys and a book from his lawyer. And he said there’s a house in Kangemi. You live there. Do not mention my name. I have done this for the glory of God. All my life, I have been looking for something genuine to help, and I cannot see any other genuine thing than this.

My name is Alex Kimani. I’m 15 years old. I will present you a speech. So, we meet again. We have actually met again. Remember me? Wonders never cease. Actually, wonders never cease. Remember me 6 months ago? Kimadi Street, near the traffic lights. The skinny boy who approached your car, and you quickly put up your window. Even you told your children to ignore me. Remember? That day, I approached your car. I had been sick for three days. Nobody knew. Nobody cared. You were my last hope and you pulled up your window. My parents, hopeless, hopeless, hopeless. I knew we would meet again. Yes, I knew, I knew. Looking at you, I have a wonderful sense of belonging. Wonders never cease. Between you and me, there’s a link, a mighty link, God our father, a mighty link, God our father. Thank you.

EB: Alex, what you said, is that something you wrote yourself? Yes, it was mine. EB: How long did you live on the street? About 2 years. EB: How old were you when you arrived on the street? I was 9 years old. My mom died. That’s when I was left in the streets. EB: And where did you live on the streets? I slept on the floor. It was difficult. EB: What happened? Some people in the street were harassing us and beating, stabbing with knives. That’s why I say the life of the street is not good. EB: Did you get stabbed? Just once, here. EB: In the forehead. Yes. EB: What did you do during the day? I was collecting papers and then I get my own money. I can buy food and clothes. EB: How much did you earn collecting the paper? When I collected the paper, I could see around 200 shillings a day. EB: And that was enough to live? Yes, for only one day. EB: So you had to work every day. Yes.

Alex has not only learned how to speak English. He also knows how to read and write, and he’s received a scholarship to further his education. His goal: to follow in the footsteps of Ann Manjugu, the woman who rescued him from the street, and one day, to become a professional actor.

The war to eradicate poverty is waged throughout the developing world by remarkable individuals like Ann. They’ve given up their jobs and cozy middle-class lives to live and work among the poor. In some cases, their motives are religious. In others, it’s to fight injustice and inequality. Their victories may appear minute, but people like Jugnu and Shabnam Ramaswami show us that individuals can make a difference in the eradication of poverty. They set up a large project in the Indian capital to assist children working in and around the Delhi railway station. Their goal was to provide an education to some 250 children, but also to break the cycle of poverty.

You see, the normal understanding of this child improving his lot is for the child to escape from this environment and become in quotes middle-class terms a more ‘civilized creature’ who has all the basic civic amenities, the kind of home, the kind of clothes, the kind of manners which we can relate to as middle-class people. I don’t think that’s the objective of this education. If this child ever leaves the slum, one wouldn’t like him to forget the problems from which he has emerged. One would like him to continue to relate and engage with these problems. Some of these children already feel quite strongly about helping others like themselves make their lives better. So I don’t think the question is of them escaping out of the slum. I would be proud if they were here and strengthened our hands and carried this project forward. I mean, this is their project. I could be in this project for 10 years. I’d be proud to hand this project to children who have studied in this school. We cater to these children to gather a sort of self awareness, to sharpen their self awareness as well as to use these as an advocacy tool, to create awareness in society about the problems of such children, of disadvantaged people, of people in slums, of people like their parents.

Today’s a little introduction that they’ve given you. They are going to perform a play in which they are questioning as to what do they see in elections, what meaning do they find in all these people wanting votes because they find every time people come to such slums, where votes they give. They elect a leader but the leader never comes and they don’t get anything. So as part of our education, it’s just we want to see what does this child think about this political system.

OK. Start. 1, 2, 3.

He’s saying that somehow each time, what happens is the promises are luscious. Given the difficulties of this situation, time and again, people do tend to get suckered in with promises of health facilities, with drinking water, of a better home, a better environment. It somehow seems to work every time. They get suckered. Finally they succumb. They need to believe in something. And then they do it and what do they get? Pinga, that is nothing. A big thumb, nothing. So it’s like buying a vote. EB: Would they do anything differently to change the system? He says that I think that when I grow up I must work for the welfare of my people, the poor people. And we have to unite against these touts, and with that unity will come our salvation. And we must work towards that.

In the beginning, in the first year, we had to fund this project entirely out of our personal savings. Recognition has come gradually. Today, funding is not such a big problem. But manpower is because very few qualified, educated people want to dirty their hands with such work. Too many are busy being upwardly mobile. EB: Even though they do have a lot of sympathy for the project. The sympathy is ideological possibly. It often boils down to lip service. Sometimes there is an approach of charity. There’s a bleeding heart approach. You feel sorry for these people, but very few people are willing to work among these people, give them the type of respect which they deserve as individuals, work shoulder to shoulder with them. EB: How do you go further? Well, it’s true. I mean, the problems we are confronting are so gigantic that to be awed by that is not to begin at all.

That’s the philosophy of many people involved in the war for the eradication of poverty. Their successes are often small, their failures frequent, and yet they persevere. Their goal is to inspire the poor to believe in a better future and to fight for it. A large portion of the aid funds provided by individuals and governments to the developing world also has the same aim: to help the poor to help themselves. Small amounts of money can make a big difference in people’s lives. Monthly contributions to programs like the Foster Parent’s Plan not only provide an education and a future to a child, they also improve the life of the child’s siblings, parents and the entire community. A few thousand dollars of Dutch development aid was all it took in Benin in West Africa to start up a savings and loan program for women. The money enables poor women to purchase goods which they can sell by the roadside. It supplements their husband’s income and provides the women with some sort of financial independence. Near the southern Indian city of Bangalore, another project financed by Dutch development aid is helping the poor to dream dreams and to make them come true. A group, known as Praxis, has organized and mobilized thousands of villagers who used to be bonded laborers. Alex Toscano is the coordinator of Praxis.

By and large, people understand why they are poor. What is preventing them from doing anything further than that or go beyond that is that they have only understood that they are poor. And beyond that they don’t think of. So the education also should include not only understand the relationship between their poverty and the exploitative behavior of the landlords or the upper class, but also to educate them to understand that the situation can be changed, that there is a wider link between their poverty and the manner in which the Indian society is organized and it functions, what kind of political system exists in the country. When 30, 40 poor people join together, hands together, they are in a position to raise voice against the exploitation. People begin to feel empowered. We had a number of experiences. Like, there was in one village…44 acres of land was given to the poor people, but that land was taken and controlled by the rich, wealthy people. No amount of requests and representation and petitions had altered the situation. When all the people from Delhvi (sp)? came together, when they got organized, then they went on a demonstration, came on the streets and that made the authority think differently. And within a matter of 3 weeks, the total 44 acres of land was taken away from the landlords and given back to the poor people. So that is what I call the organization. Wealth gives power to the rich people. But the organization of the poor people gives them power, their unity, numerical strength is their power.

Before Praxis started, most of us were bonded laborers under the rich landlords. We were depending for everything on them. We didn’t even have the courage to wear full pants and walk on the streets to meet the landlords. Now, our life has completely changed. Now, we work in our own fields, and we don’t work for the rich landlords. We have been ridded from the bonded labor and we have the confidence to stand on our own legs.

The war against poverty is like any other war, made up of big battles and small battles, long ones and short ones. In less than a decade, the villagers around Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, have gone from being voiceless bonded laborers to citizens who are willing to stand up for their rights and participate in the democratic process. It’s a bright note in what often appears to be a losing battle. According to experts, by the year 2025, the number of people living in extreme poverty could rise by 50% to 1.5 billion. Nowhere is the hopelessness of the situation felt more acutely than in Africa, which is often termed the “lost continent”. Throughout the continent, the young – who make up 50% of the population in most African countries – are losing hope that things will ever improve. Growing numbers of them, like Pepe, are heading north to greener pastures despite the dangers and the cost.

I saved up the money over several years. I tightened my belt and borrowed money here and there. Like most people, I got help from my family, my friends, some businessmen. That’s how I was able to get enough money. I was even able to fly from Dakar to Morocco, and I still had about a thousand dollars left over. When I got to Morocco, some guys cheated me out of $200. They had promised to take me across but they didn’t and they disappeared with my money. But I still had some money because I had worked in my country for several years until the economy soured. That’s when I decided that there was only one thing to do, to go across illegally.

I came to Spain by boat, in a dingy. These small boats are made for about 5 or 6 people, but they take up to 15 people. The trip cost us up to 80.000 pesetas or a thousand dollars, per person that is. It’s really risky. There are waves, and yet we do it. We take these risks to come to Spain. Sometimes everyone arrives safe and sound, but sometimes corpses are left behind because the boat doesn’t dock in Spain. It just stops off the coast because the traffickers are afraid that they’ll be caught by Spanish police or the guardia civil. So they prefer to throw us off board around 20 meters from the shore. If you can swim, OK, no problem, and sometimes lady luck’s on your side and everyone makes it. But frequently one or two people die.

Pepe and young people like him are making their way in ever greater numbers to the big cities of Africa and to the industrialized world. In some countries in West Africa, young men constantly ask how to get to Europe. They inquire about places to stay, where to look for work and other tips. Europe has been trying to nail its doors shut by making visas virtually impossible to obtain, and yet still they come. The growing disparities between the rich north and the poor south are like a pressure cooker that has not yet begun to show signs of cracking. But observers say it’s just a question of time. We must act before it does explode, says Professor Bas de Gaay Fortman of the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

I wouldn’t like to just tell people that you have an interest there because these people will come: forced migration, refugees, economic migration. They will simply come. This isn’t enough. There has to be an appeal to people’s moral conscience, and it should come from the churches, religious leaders, from responsible politicians, from NGOs. In human history, it’s not just one history of human escape. People have at a certain times moved to concrete responsibilities. My hope is that there will be a reversal of the trend and there will be a new struggle for global social justice.

Around the world, individuals are already taking part in that struggle, each in their own way. Some people cannot do more than make a monthly or yearly contribution to a charity group or a non-governmental organization. Others are trying lobbying or advocacy, like a listener in New York state who was so appalled by some of the reports we broadcast last year on the situation in Angola that she decided to act. She contacted Christian groups and non-governmental organizations and has been playing a small but important role in raising awareness in the United States about Angola’s huge landmine problem, and she’s succeeded in getting groups to assist the 35,000 street children in the Angolan capital Luanda. Other people might decide to go work among the poor for a while. The struggle will be long and progress will be slow. But as Professor de Gaay Fortman said, it’s about defending basic human and moral values. An official from the Dutch branch of Médecins sans Frontières or Doctors without Borders put it more bluntly: it’s about going to bed at night with a clear conscience. If the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty has at least created that awareness and willingness to do our part, it will have been a success.

“The Challenge” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Richard Vaessen. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.