Make poverty history

UN Security Council chamber (picture Hu Totya)

By John Roberts

This enlighted slogan has been current for some months, part of the campaign to forgive debts owed to the industrialized world by African and other poor countries. It has a seductive ring about it: who could object to such altruistic efforts being made by governments spurred on by voters happy to do good at little cost to themselves and perhaps leading to a better world? That has been a long time a-coming, so now, we are told, we can at last make it happen. The slogan fits very well with the political aims of governments who become unhappy with any serious attempts to change the structures of power in the world, since it confines argument to their own fields of knowledge and control.

Regrettably the sloganizers are disingenuous or dishonest or perhaps both. When the United Nations was established, from 1943 onwards, it was heralded with a great deal of idealistic talk and some clearly stated aims, aims which included ending global poverty and illiteracy, and maintaining international peace and security, plus some other goodies that people in a warring world could look forward hopefully to. Despite a few useful moves in the right direction, none of these ideals were realised.

The reasons for failure were diverse, but chief among them was the determination of the governments of the five permanent members of the Security Council, upon whom the responsibility lay for directing the United Nations and keeping international peace and security, to continue along their old paths. These, above all, included making and selling the armaments that turn every interntional and even national conflict into potential warfare. Stacking Africa and other poorer places with weapons has continued to ensure that advances in technology and welfare would be accompanied by greater military capacity and mutual suspicion of the divided territories.

This duplicitous progress has meant that the comforting and idealistic slogan is peddled either through delusion or hypocrisy. As the industrialized powers are still intent on selling more and more weapons throughout the world they are ensuring that there is no hope that the aims outlined in the United Nations Charter can be achieved. Nor can there be seious intention of doing that. The only conclusion has to be that they are one more means of misleading the peoples of the world, who, ignorant of the reasons for past failures and unwilling to make the effort to discern the truth, can once again be gulled by half-truths and propaganda.

Pacifists for many years have declared that wars will cease when men refuse to fight, which may well be true but does not recognize that men will regularly find reasons for fighting unless they can believe in a better way of settling their differences. That so far has always involved using law and its necessary accompaniments of the institutions of justice. There is no reason to believe that the world will suddenly find a different way of successfully solving disputes. Therefore if there is serious wish or intention of fulfilling the aims of the Charter of the UN we have to equip the organization with adequate law-making bodies and the machinery to make them effective. Nothing less will suffice.

There is, however, one precondition. We have to spread amongst the people of the world the conviction that they need to be, first or all, world citizens. They cannot expect to retain all their old prejudices and preconceptions unchanged and yet change the world for the bestter. We must abandon old ideas of the superiority of our own group: whether it be that we hold the faith God enjoined upon all; or as Americans we are God’s gift to the world; or if speak the language of God’s messenger; or have primacy as descendants of the oldest surviving ciillization.

None of these is any longer valid. We are all members of one minority or another and we must all learn to accept law made by and for everyone. Which implies that we have to create, among other things, a world parliament for our voices to be heard by all. We cannot assume that a United Nations that has failed for 60 years to end poverty or do those other things necessary for a peaceful world can be trusted to suddenly transform itself into an assembly capable of reforming itself and the world around it.

So – make Povery History? – yes, but do not pretend it can be done by the methods that have failed for two generations. Require governments to abandon manufacture and exports of weapons: bring them – all – under the rule of law and make sure that the law is the expression of the will of the peoples of the world. Do not delude ourselves with slogans designed to obscure the truth and lull people with a false sense of good purpose and bland untruths. We spend ten times as much on preparing for war as for any useful ends: first change that and then set about making Poverty history.

John Roberts is a former Chair of the Trustees of the One World Trust. He writes here in a personal capacity. This article was first published as World Citizen Letter 501, and represents the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. He may be contacted at

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