The worst thing about poverty is how deeply and unexpectedly it affects lives. When we begin to list that indicate poverty we think of a lack of food, a safe place to live, work, education, maybe at a most basic level of description: money. But, for me, it is the way that poverty deeply erodes some of the less obvious and yet fundamental aspects of life, that is the hardest and saddest thing to accept.
I do not profess to be any expert on poverty but I remember clearly the constant wrench I felt in my stomach of sadness and the profound surge of anger I felt in my veins when, studying Latin American politics, I read anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes account of the normalisation of infant mortality in a shanty town in South East Brazil. For the women of Alto do Cruzeiro burying a baby that had died from hunger in a shallow grave behind the house was as normal as feeding the wailing infant on cheap or free drugs to drug it temporarily and stop it crying out in hunger. In Alto do Cruzeiro mourning the loss of a child was a luxury that its inhabitants could not afford. So, you see it is the basic, fundamental human emotions that are stolen by poverty and not just the obvious aspects of life that are affected.
But you don’t have to travel to Brazil to see the impact poverty has on children and adults alike. I recently learnt that according to research by national homeless charity, Shelter more than more than one million children in Britain live in inadequate housing: damp, over-crowded, temporary homes that are hardly conducive to quality of life. In addition, children living in poor housing conditions are amongst the most vulnerable children, most susceptible to bullying, mental ill-health and unsurprisingly are amongst the lowest academic achievers. The poor housing of these “hidden” children can have devastating impacts on their health and the instability of being constantly on the move make them insecure. Living in such poor conditions have a real, profound and very negative impact on life chances alone.
How hard must it be to aspire to a better life, an education, a healthy existence when you live in a damp home, you feel bullied daily, embarrassed and depressed? What kind of half-life does a woman leave when she cannot even the mourn the death of a child nor feel the joy of motherhood? It takes a certain amount of stability, a certain promise of food in your mouth or roof over your head to even begin to feel the normal, natural, human emotions of sadness and joy.
Today we held our annual Giving Nation awards ceremony. Forty-two teenagers brought the Treasury to life, buzzing full of happiness, enthusiasm and excitement as we gathered to celebrate their achievements and to be inspired by their stories of raising hundreds and thousands of pounds but also taking a stand and lending their names and voices to campaigns against child poverty, climate change and over 50 other causes close to their hearts. Together we are very powerful and schools and our young winners represent exactly that. Persuading 1600 to walk 10 miles is not a small feat but can be done if you are a school charity team determined to make a difference. The power of people to make a difference, the passion of young people to be part of and drive that change should never be underestimated.
In early 2008, national Giving Nation awards winners Felpham Community College traveled to Malawi with Sightsavers International. Whilst there the students helped at an eye screening of children and their parents and grandparents in a village: ” I tested the sight of a 21 year old guy, he had two cornea scratches on his eyes.” Myles, from the school aged 16 told me. “The scratches on his eyes have only developed to this state because the medical intervention needed early on, i.e. a small dose of medication in the early stages, did not take place. It is so crazy to think that his sight will be damaged for life now because some thing very small did not take place.” Myles told me. What is more devastating is to think that the original illness was caused potentially by a lack of clean water to clean his eyes or the unsuitable conditions the boy and his family were living in. Deciding to drink the scarce water resources rather than wash your face in it which has basic health impacts so easily avoided indicates just how complicated poverty is.
Myles got it, lots of young people do. On such an inspiring day like today, where teenagers put us more cynical and “busy-with-our-lives” adults to shame with their passions, commitment and hard work in the face of cynicism, it makes me feel more than ever how powerful we really are. It makes me even more certain that there by recognising and supporting campaigns to expose the complexity and deep-penetrations of poverty and by using our own knowledge to help people empathise with and better understand the suffering but also the common humanity of others, there must be a way to help people live fuller and happier lives.
I have also seen the happiness. I have seen how intervention can work. In Malawi we had the honour of meeting Moses, the name alone makes me smile, such a beautiful name and such a beautiful man. His lovely, smiley wife and he lived with their children in the Blantyre area of Malawi. He was a bicycle repairman who lost his sight but on losing his sight was supported by Sightsavers International to adapt his bike-making business and do the bits of his work he could do without sight. Wanting to and needing to supplement his income, he was also given the training needed to become a corn farmer. So in his late forties, the man lost his sight and gained a new career and way of life. He is now the most successful farmer in the region and, simply, he and his wife were of the smelliest, loveliest people I have ever seen.
Take hold of the power you have against poverty, I say. Tell people about it, try to understand it, shout about it. Get some one to do some thing about it. It is that simple.