With the approaching holiday season, as we are being thankful of our good fortune and mindful of the poor, we should ask ourselves some serious questions about global poverty.
We in the affluent countries are the beneficiaries of a slanted world in which the poor get poor and are kept poor. The gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider every year. In fact, it has doubled during the past 40 years. Poor countries are being harmed through an inequitable global system that is continuously shaped and coercively imposed by the political, business and military machines of the rich and the powerful.
If people have a right not to be harmed, regardless of whether they are compatriots or foreigners, then we as the beneficiaries of this inequity have a duty to require a fundamental reform in our lifestyle and institutional policies that perpetuate this harm. The stakes have never been higher, both for our individual well-being and collective survival in an interconnected and interdependent world.
We must expand our vision and inject a global consciousness in our personal endeavors. For starters, we must critically examine our consumer lifestyle. Consumerism adversely affects the well-being of the planet and diminishes the quality of life for all its inhabitants, including our own. Also, our thirst for consumption and the quest for domination over global resources are the causes of much of the conflict in the world.
We will never win our "war on terror" unless we take note of this broader picture of global domination. The radical inequality in the world order and our penchant for using military might to sustain it is itself a form of global terrorism that causes perpetual deprivation for three-fourths of the world's population. As we strive to see the connection between the local and the global, we'll see that the same factors which are causing the massive disparity globally are also the ones responsible for the widening gap between the rich and the poor on the domestic front.
The Vietnam War that ignited mass protests in the past is long gone, but we still have the same social and political syndrome that gets us into war under false pretense. The current war in Iraq is an example. Today, however, the stakes are higher than they were during the Vietnam days. As we preach nuclear restraint for other countries, we are about to expand our already large nuclear arsenal.
There is a looming global environmental catastrophe as never before, much of it due to America's excessive consumerism, but the Bush administration has vowed to ignore it. An ethnic cleansing is currently unfolding in Sudan that may eventually dwarf the one that happened in Rwanda 10 years ago, but we seem to be least concerned because Sudan has no oil.
During our life span, over a billion human beings, mostly children, will die from poverty-related causes. This is preventable, yet we don't seem to have the political will to do anything about it. Only 1 percent of the defense budget of the rich nations can wipe out the specter of AIDS in Africa - a continent that has been ruthlessly exploited by the Western world. Yet, despite the plea from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the West is unwilling to invest even this relatively tiny sum to rescue Africa.
A majority of Americans (75 percent) believe that the United States spends far too much on foreign aid. In reality, the United States ranks the lowest of all 21 developed countries in the share of national resources devoted to economic aid for poor countries, only 0.11 percent of GDP, which is about $4 in taxes for an average American. Yet we are by far the largest beneficiaries of the resources from the poor countries.
Because of mass ignorance and apathy that caters to trivia and shuns substance, we, the good people of America, are accessories to this glaring global injustice.
If moral values are truly our top priorities, then we should seriously reflect upon our personal and institutional responsibilities in creating a more just world.
Deen Chatterjee teaches philosophy at the University of Utah and is the editor of The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy and co-editor of Ethics and Foreign Intervention, both published by Cambridge University Press.