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Compound Fracture:  Addressing Poverty’s Multiple Wounds, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 May

ICRC

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.  Mother Teresa

The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. Muhammad Yunus

Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.  Mae West

The Chibok Girls, at least 82 of them, were released by Boko Haram this week. We’ll no doubt hear much more about this, including we hope from the ICRC: the stories of their captivity, the brutality and isolation they experienced, perhaps some of the despair and frustration they felt from having spent three long years of their relatively short lives wondering who if anyone was looking for them, why it seemed that they had been so completely abandoned?

As I stare at this ICRC photo and others, there is sadness, certainly in the faces of many of the girls, but in me as well.  This ordeal is not over for them.   They are thankfully freed from terrorist control, and they will be for a time the focus of international attention and support.   But the support will fade, most probably sooner than needed, and the girls will be left with their questions for families and government officials, their recurring nightmares and pervasive insecurities, their struggles to find meaning and material sustenance with psychic impairments as severe as any physical deformity.

And they will never get their childhoods back.

Many diplomats and observers at the UN rightly insist that poverty reduction must become what India this week called the “unrelenting focus” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Though poverty reduction per se is first in the listing of the SDGs, it is not the only SDG concern for the international community.  Climate and oceans, employment and gender discrimination, corruption and violence, health and employment all need attention and are all interlinked.   While the Security Council was away assessing the peace agreement in Colombia, the rest of the UN in New York was engaged in a dizzying array of events focused in whole or in part on diverse aspects of the poverty reduction challenge.  From global health and the health of our forest communities, to the rights of indigenous persons and the need for the UN (as noted clearly on Friday by UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed) to streamline mechanisms for better coordination of poverty responses (including its conflict prevention dimensions), the UN’s grasp of the magnitude and diversity of its poverty-related challenges seems to be growing by the week.

Though relatively few persons in the UN community have endured poverty or lived in communities of material or psychic deprivation, the UN’s current levels of interest in all aspects related to poverty reduction are thankfully more than rhetorical, even more than material. Diplomats now widely grasp the peace and security implications of a world of large and growing inequalities, disparities which rightly annoy and largely inconvenience some but condemn others to an often-disheartening life with too few options.  As populations in global regions grow disproportionately, as drought and desertification expand their reach, and as water and other resource scarcities reach epidemic levels, our ability to manage stresses related to our systems of governance and security is certainly under strain.   So too is our ability to respond to the collective psychological needs of children and other victims of violence and deprivation.

And much of that need lies beyond the headlines. I recall vividly from my time in a Harlem parish in the 1990s some of the many ways in which poverty subtly and unhelpfully diverted the attention and energies of the community.   People didn’t dare to dream too much; they largely coped – with losses of income and relatives, with often unresponsive and even dismissive government bureaucracy, with schools that seemed design to keep students in their places rather than opening doors to a better place, with drug-induced street violence that erupted almost without warning.  Coping, adjusting, shielding, standing on endless lines, cutting your losses: It wasn’t always that dire, it wasn’t the plight of the Chibok Girls or of the families fleeing violence in Mosul, but it was often dire enough, disheartening enough.

For the children of Harlem at this time, it was also the dawning of the social media age and its multiple messaging.  On the one hand, cellular technology has opened new worlds for people and helped them overcome some of the pervasive limitations of the still-applicable digital divide.  The other side of course is that the new technology represents a handy medium for keeping close track of all that some people have that others do not.   The relentless marketing by “smart” phones that seem mostly “smart” for advertisers brings a world of affluent consumption into the personal spaces of so many millions, serving as a constant reminder of what it is possible to own and have in this world and, perhaps more insidiously, invites people to assess their own lives in accordance with the prevailing standards of luxury.

For a generation of Harlem children, let alone the Chibok girls and others fleeing violence without their families in makeshift life rafts, such reminders are most likely to aggravate their wounds, to compound their anger and frustration, to grow their sense of isolation and doubt that they are worthy of love and material support in a fair, predictable and secure global environment.

For us, there has always been truth in the maxim that assessment is largely a function of expectation.  And even in this increasingly climate stressed, resource scarce and violence-riddled environment, expectations for affluence have perhaps never been higher.  Nor have the many gaps of education, income and health care separating the affluent and those on the margins been so obvious.  If “inequalities” are permitted to herald our collective undoing, if our “share and care” capacities are left buried under mounds of trauma and material envy, if we can do no better than simply manage violence and “comfort” its many material and psychological impacts, then the carnage that currently fills our media screens will only become more frequent. The cycles of destruction and deprivation will tend to spin ever faster.

A World Health Organization representative on a UN General Assembly panel this week highlighted that agency’s “no regrets” model of detection and treatment, referring primarily to pandemics such as Ebola that, like armed violence and drought, both push people into poverty and dig a deeper hole for those already there.

This model seemed like a hopeful metaphor to inspire much of our sustainable development activity. “No regrets” on ending inequalities of rights and opportunities.  No regrets on efforts to prevent armed violence, genocide and war.  No regrets on creating conditions for safe and healthy communities. No regrets on ending assaults on the dignity, confidence and psychic integrity of our children.  No regrets on our messaging to next generations that balances acquisition and almost infinite distraction with a genuine hopefulness for the future and our own deep resolve to fix what we’ve broken.

Slowly but surely, our policy communities are coming to full recognition that lonely, angry, abused, unwanted children and youth can scuttle our development agenda as surely as super typhoons and cluster bombs.  We must resolve to keep all these challenges to the human spirit together at the center of our development policy and practice.