The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: poverty

The Long Road From Charity to Justice

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. HAD EXACTLY one year left before an assassin’s bullet struck him down and traumatized a nation. He had spent recent months attempting to break through the “indifference barrier” by drawing a direct link between racism to poverty. It wasn’t enough, he would maintain, to seek equal rights for black Americans if they remained mired in poverty. And so on this particular night, April 4, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church, he laid it out as he had seen and experienced it:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

And there it was. He was calling on the nation to give more to charity, but to also change its structure so that human justice and not mere charity became the ultimate motivator and goal. He assumed most knew the story of the Good Samaritan, of how a man is beaten and robbed, left by the road side, and of how a compassionate Samaritan helped him. He praised such actions, seeing them as a great aspect of the American character. Yet he reminded his generation that true compassion is attacking the forces and systems that leave others in need in the first place.

As King saw it, to those living on the margins of our communities, acts of charity and compassion should be our very first response to meet the need. But then there is the next stage. What caused it? Who is responsible? How can we change things at their source so that acts of charity are not as required as those were we help those who begin to find their footing?

Reflecting on King’s words years later, Nelson Mandela concurred: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” And as the south African leader knew, the prevailing system of his time would itself have to be changed if justice was to be achieved. He knew, as we all know deep within us, that if an economic and social system leaves huge fallout, then the very best of charitable generosity will never be enough. Will donating to a food bank alleviate hunger pangs? Absolutely. But it can never eradicate hunger itself. For that there must change at deeper levels.

Richard Nixon had a different point of view at that time, maintaining that the best method for eliminating poverty was to “enlist the greatest engine of progress ever developed – private enterprise.” In other words, Nixon was looking for millions of more Good Samaritans.

In a very real sense, the former president got his wish but not his desired outcome. The corporate structure that has taken over our public policy machinery has recruited a plentitude of corporate largesse for those at risk, offering funding, expertise, services, and leadership. But after almost half a century of this, where has it gotten us? Poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental health and addictions – all these have grown, not diminished under Nixon’s structure.  They have had their opportunity; it has not worked.

The time has seriously come to ask ourselves, individual and collectively, “Will we just let everybody worry about themselves and rely on charitable donations of time and money to get by? Is this what we would want for ourselves if we remained mired in poverty? If so, then it won’t be too long until the damage created by present structure will become so great that prosperity will never be gained other than by a few.

Or will we be different? Will we reform by our actions and votes the deep and unjust structural inequalities at our nation’s core that favour power and abandon the powerless? To that wonderful Canadian trait of generosity and charity can we add a passion and understanding for justice? There are no quick fixes in justice – it is a long road – but the results last decades and lift millions out of their despair. Charity by itself is surely limited, but when added to sincere efforts at systemic restructuring it can become a springboard for change. Without serious reform, charity just leads to an ever-increasing cycle of hopelessness. Charity gives, but justice changes. What will we fight for, the present or the future?

Can Technology Save Us?

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SO MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ON THIS SUBJECT for 30 years that it’s become something of a preoccupation for many. But let’s just answer the question directly: no, technology can’t save the world – at least not alone.

But there is potential, lots of it. Everything is in the process of being “connected” to everything else, people too. Almost 90% of the data in the world today has been created only in the past two years. In only five more years, 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. The advances in DNA mapping and bioinformatics will turn humans into living data fields to be researched, monitored, and perhaps made healthier. Data in general will grow ten-fold in the next five years, to 44 trillion gigabytes.

And there’s an even deeper pool to draw from in the near future. Almost 99% of the data in the world today is what is termed “dark matter” – information that hasn’t been processed in a way that allows the knowledge and insights within that data to benefit us. That’s likely to change soon, however.

Just this bit of information alone would definitely lend credibility to the claim that technology has powerful potential to affect our future, just as it’s increasingly shaping our present. Yet the deeper we get into the digital domain the greater our challenges seem to become – advances in technology haven’t translated into mitigating climate change, reducing poverty, minimizing conflicts, or winning the battle for human rights.

Queen Noor of Jordan recently wrote about how this disconnect between technological advancement and our progress toward our highest aspirations will eventually stall civilization unless we link moral progress to the other advancements. She rightfully notes that technological progress without moral progress is merely an illusion of progress. She then lists a string of issues going on in our world where we seem unable to create change for the better.

“To go forward, to write a narrative of real and lasting progress, we must go back,” Noor says. She doesn’t mean turn back the clock, but to re-embrace the values we seem to have laid aside in our collective pursuit of wealth and comfort. “We must return to the roots of our common humanity and to the universal values that connect us to each other,” she adds. It’s an odd situation that just as the world is more connected digitally than it ever has been, we are in danger of growing too far apart from one another.

Marc Benioff echoes her sentiments. He’s the chairman and CEO of Salesforce and a pioneer in cloud computing. For all his accomplishments, he’s worried that, “Technology alone isn’t enough to improve the state of the world.” He understands that technology and public policy are two different things and that without proper progressive legislation all the digital advances won’t help us over our steepest obstacles. He singles out how governments have cut back drastically enough in research that we are falling behind in our efforts to solve our deepest woes. In both the United States and Canada, public funding for basic research and to universities  has dropped dramatically and we’ll pay the price for it at some point.

Benioff wonders how such advanced societies that develop and take advantage of the great strides in technology could possibly accept growing poverty at the same time, or how, given the clear damage caused by climate change, governments and citizens seem so enamoured by their technical devices to the detriment of the natural order. He’s a business leader who refuses to see the bottom line as his sole purpose. He writes like a pioneer in business with a broader awareness, as when he says,

“An environment in peril – oceans rising an average of 3.2 millimetres per year – is not good for business. Millions of people lacking in educational opportunity is not good for business. More than 200 million unemployed people worldwide is not good for business.”

Benioff’s solution? “Technology innovation, married with a more compassionate capitalism and civic engagement, has the potential to address these problems in the next decade and make the world a better place for us all.”

No, technology cannot save our world unless it is partnered with conscientious leadership and citizenship commitment. Thanks to modern technical advancements we have the tools; now all we need is the will to use them for the service of the human race and the planet.

Say the Word

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WE OFTEN ATTEMPT TO DEFINE THE WORLD WE LIVE IN by the use of a word or a phrase. We had the Stone, Iron, Industrial, Information, and now Technological Ages. When society is moving along without too many extremes, the requirement for words isn’t as essential, but when things get out-of-place or rocky we fall back on singular phrases or words to capture our predicament.

Aldous Huxley noted in his Brave New World, “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly. They’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” Thus we got the “Roaring Twenties,” the “Depression,” the “Era of Civil Rights,” or the universal “Globalization.”

Slowly, inexorably, a new term is consistently showing up in conversations and media venues that is remarkable for its ability to draw together, into a kind of rough consensus, voices that heretofore remained divided by ideological fences. That next word is “Inequality,” and it’s about ready to become the caption of our era, our footstep in history’s timeline.

“Inequality” hardly requires much context anymore because we have been living it every day, not just in developing nations, but in what once seemed the endlessly prosperous Western countries, like our own. The amount of commentary it has received in the United States and Britain has placed it front and centre in any coffee shop or policy discussion. Canada is quickly catching up the longer it takes prosperity to return to our national life.

Perhaps it won’t. Our hard-earned reputation, mostly established in previous times, appears to be eroding as the economic gap between the rich and the rest is opening up a tear in the Canadian fabric. The real issue is not so much about how much wealth the top 1% has acquired in recent years but the amount not gained by the rest. There is something wrong; we can sense it but look in vain for any serious political or economic leadership to shrink that chasm.

It is repeatedly said that this past recession is still leaving its fingerprints all over our present life. Research by numerous groups, including the International Monetary Fund, point to the real possibility that growing income inequality actually delays any economic recovery and also shortens the periods of prosperity that follow downturns. As we wait in vain for our economy to bounce back from a recession that supposedly ended a while ago, perhaps we would be better to ask why so little is happening, and if part of that reason is the economic inequality in this country, then the sooner we get at some kind of solution the better off we will all be. But first we have to talk about it in all seriousness. – what its persistence presence means to our national life and the future of our children. Should we persist on this path, the word “equality” will eventually be removed from our national lexicon.

In the movie, Ender’s Game, one of the main characters makes an astute observation: “There are times when the world is rearranging itself, and at times like that, the right words can change the world.” The opposite is also true: the wrong words can diminish us – “inequality” perhaps being the prime example.

Half the Sky? Think Higher

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WHEN MAO ZEDONG (CHINA’S CHAIRMAN MAO) noted that women hold up “half the sky,” he might have greatly underestimated that figure. Best selling author, and New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristoff wrote a book, co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn, and filmed a documentary that used “Half the Sky” as the title for both. He made his intentions clear at the very outset of both projects:

“So let us be clear about this up front: We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.  This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in.”

Hundreds of researchers and writers besides just Kristoff have repeatedly noted that economies simply can’t flourish unless women are permitted and encouraged to apply their entrepreneurial skills to their local environments. Nowhere is this more true now than in farming and agricultural businesses.

Recently, the United Nations spoke of how former rural dwellers are now migrating to cities by the millions, but a deeper look reveals that the majority of that great migration are men either searching for new lives, or seeking employment to send money back to their families in rural regions. Whatever the reason, the result is that women are having to pick up the agricultural slack left as a result. This represents, for women in developing countries worldwide and their communities, the opportunity they have been waiting for.

But as we might suspect, there are problems – lots of them, as farming increasingly transitions from men to women.

To begin with, women farmers are frequently deprived of land ownership. Laws haven’t kept up with the changes and an entirely new field of lawyers and researchers are rising up to correct such historical oversights in an attempt to assist women to gain a fighting chance. Today, half of all farmers are women and half of the food grown has come from their hard work. But it could be better. According the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), if women could just enjoy the same land rights as their male counterparts, their combined efforts could lift some 100 – 150 million people out of hunger. But that’s not happening because women can’t own the land they till.

But it’s not just about land; it’s also about animals. Women are greatly limited in the animals they can own, and they don’t even get all the revenue raised from the animals they do possess. We see this in South Sudan whenever we visit and it takes dedicated effort to change the culture over many years.

All this is important because it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Women most often have less educational opportunities than men and experience far more difficulty gaining access to seeds, technical information, fertilizers, pest control measures, and tools. That’s a lot to overcome, but they also carry advantages that men don’t. Their understanding of local market operations is vastly superior to that of their male counterparts, and the networks they establish in tireless efforts to feed their families would dwarf what others possess. Combine that seasoned expertise with the tools mentioned above and the developing world would go through transformational change.

We don’t have to venture overseas to witness the distinct disadvantage women face when gaining ownership of their lives is such an uphill climb. Just consider the matrimonial property rights dilemma that confounds our First Nations communities and how aboriginal women can lose a sense of ownership virtually overnight. This isn’t just a developing world phenomenon, nor merely a Canadian aboriginal problem – it is a global travesty of injustice, a lack of political will, and a refusal of many to build legal ownership into communities and countries as they modernize.

Given that women are quickly increasing their oversight over agricultural operations as the men depart to municipalities, it likely is true that the idea women hold up “half the sky” isn’t even close to reality. The task of beating world hunger is now squarely within their opportunity to rectify, but only if the global community fights to win them the rights, opportunities, and the tools to get the job done.

The Explosion of Civil Society

 

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AS THE HOLDER OF THE HIGHEST POLITICAL OFFICE in the land, President Grover Cleveland gained due praise for his integrity, honesty, and a commitment for self-reliance. He struggled mightily against political corruption in an era where it was all too prevalent. He was liked across party lines. Yet his pro-business stance sustained a system where the free market found little to inhibit it. The increasing pressure to reform capitalism before it consumed the social wealth of the nation went largely ignored by Cleveland.  At one point he said, “The factory is the temple and the workers worship at the temple.”  The economy took a severe downturn by the end of his term.

The period just prior to the end of the 1800s also felt massive migrations from the country into the city as the manufacturing industry successfully shifted the nation’s economic system from agrarian to urban. Many became dislocated in the process and the cry was continually raised by millions for a more receptive federal government that put an emphasis on some kind of social/economic compact that would respect the importance of cities.

And then something remarkable happened. Between 1880 and 1910, a civil society movement grew out of the subtle rebellion that changed and humanized almost every level of American society. As the government grew remote and the free market became the dominant force, and explosion of some of the nation’s great civic institutions erupted that would eventually modify capitalism itself and prepare it for years of unprecedented growth and success. Founded in that period, they line up as a “Whos-Who” of citizen organizations:

  • Red Cross
  • YWCA
  • Boy Scouts
  • Urban League
  • Labour unions
  • Parent-teacher associations
  • Rotary Clubs
  • Legions
  • Knights of Columbus
  • Sierra Club

Soon enough municipal charters were developed by citizen groups that oversaw the supply of transportation, water, gas, and electricity. Christian organizations joined together to fight for equal rights for women, including the right to vote. Numerous groups joined forces to fight promote labour laws and to strive for an 8-hour workday.

There had been a social capital deficit in America created by great economic and technological change aided and abetted by a government that refused to consider the fallout of such dislocation. When the political powers refused to listen concerning the growth of poverty, the lack of equality, and the ignoring of communities, it was citizens and not their corporations or governments that pushed back. Great reformers like Jane Adams pressed for political action to alleviate the direct conditions that cities were facing.

The result of all these efforts was nothing less than transforming. Most understood the importance of capitalism and markets, just not at the expense of people and hope, and they worked to develop a more balanced system between the free market and the freedom of opportunity for citizens. They worked with government over three decades rather than abandoning it. And from those efforts came the Federal Reserve Bank, regulation of food and drugs, the establishment of the Department of Labour, the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, and the preservation of more than 170 million acres of land through a vast network of national parks.

Virtually all of the groups mentioned above sought for balance, not dominance, and their efforts were ultimately rewarded a short while later in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Capitalism, reminded of its responsibility to the communities in which it functioned, nevertheless was unleashed in ways unimaginable three decades earlier, rewarding citizens with decades of unprecedented wealth.  And civil society, rooted as it was in local communities, brought citizenship to entirely new levels.

Canada followed a similar, though not as diversified, course, but the results were equally remarkable. The free market generated wealth and employment, and civil society produced people of value, industriousness, education, health, and responsibility. It was the beginning of the remarkable age that unleashed the creativity and dedication of citizens and businesses.

The parallels with our own times hardly need to be raised at this point. We are a people struggling with how to bring that balance of economy and humanity back into alignment. And it leads us to wonder whether we can do it again, whether we can pull ourselves out of our disillusionment with all the prevalent powers that march to a drummer not our own?

Andy Warhol observed that people, “Always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Perhaps it’s time we put that to the test – again.

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