Wednesday, July 06, 2005


To know poverty you must spend seven years living in a foreign land, amongst the people, amidst the carnage, like Bruce Wayne in BATMAN BEGINS, and only then, possibly, good fortune willing, you may be able to appreciate what the lesser among us endure.

To know poverty you must spend your entire life treating the sick, the wounded, the feeble, the lost, and only then, certainly, can you begin to understand what the wretched of the earth have known for so long.

To know poverty you must attend a series of concerts, featuring multiple artists in multiple countries, and only then, for a moment, will wisdom announce its reclusive presence.

The truth is, I fear, that we can never know true, lasting, grinding poverty unless we are in it. Unless we are of it. Unless we are one of the billions who are unfortunate enough to have been born among it.

Cynicism never leads anywhere, which is why I hope I’m not being cynical when I find the whole Live 8 phenomenon somewhat, well, depressing.

Let me be clear: I think the concerts were a fantastic idea. I firmly believe that drawing attention to Africa’s problems, drawing attention to poverty itself, is a necessary, worthy and, dare I say it, divine goal. It united the world for a good cause, as the pundits say, and who can argue with that?

And yet.

I read that at the end of the concert held in Barrie, Ontario, Bryan Adams and Dan Ackyroyd and The Tragically Hip and thousands of concertgoers all chanted ‘Canada cares’ before leading into an impromptu rendition of our national anthem, ‘O Canada’.

Who can quabble with this warm-hearted display of sentiment and solidarity? Shit, if I were there, in that place, in that crowd, I have no doubt whatsoever that I, too, would have been smiling and laughing and singing along. It’s what we humans do.

And yet.

How many people will truly, sincerely, authentically be inspired to, well, DO something? Act. Engage. Some, especially the young, will. Others will have had a good day out.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Again, I believe that the concerts were a rousing success. One shouldn’t nitpick attempts at goodness, at greatness, at humaneness.

But I will, regardless.

My concerns:

1) A concert for Africa – Africa is not a country. Africa is a mammoth continent composed of dozens and dozens and dozens of countries. Some are doing fairly well; most are not. In most people’s eyes, the concept of ‘Africa’ seems to be: a place that is dying, and a place that needs our help’. Fine. All well and good. But Africa is filled with countries and cities and towns and villages. And people. Individuals. Some are good and some are bad and some are arrogant pricks while others are bordering on sainthood. Africa’s countries can and should speak for themselves, and I think they should have had a much, much larger presence within the concerts themselves. Maybe television ratings wouldn’t have been as high, and maybe more people would have tuned out, the message thus being lost, but still – it’s condescending, patronizing, and more than a little colonial to assert our own power and principles while relegating the people concerned to a status little higher than that of a helpless victim. It's our duty as more successful countries to help those less fortunate, but it's also our duty to include the people in their own projected development. The whole 'teach a man' to fish truism is truer than I ever knew; it's not easy to do, and it may not be what the people want to do, but capacity-building is the only way. You have to help the people help themselves, and that will not (only) be accomplished through an influx of cash; it will take years and years and decades and decades of teaching and development.

2) Canada cares – Well, good for Canada. Canada has decided that it cares. For me, that’s irrelevant. The concerts were supposed to be about the people who need help; when everything is reduced to ‘look how good we are’, topped off by a singing of our own national anthem, something has been lost in translation somewhere. Why was ‘Oh Canada’ being sung? To celebrate that concertgoers attended a cool concert? To wallow in how generous a country we are? Bullshit. Caring is action, plain and simple. If your action was nothing more than going to a concert to watch Neil Young jam again, well, I don’t think that’s something to gloat about. The issues involved are too big and too sad for that kind of pat-on-the-back. If every Canadian had decided to go to an African country for one year, six months, even month, and teach English, or architecture, or help design a road, if every Canadian had signed a legal pledge to do that, then I would truly, sincerely, believe that 'Canada cares'. Words are cheap, and sentiment alone, divorced from action, is even cheaper.

3) Africa Is A Place Designed For Our Goodwill – Africa has governments. It has corrupt governments. It has governments that will do whatever it can to take all of the money earmarked for development and keep it for themselves. As I’ve written about before (perhaps ad nauseum), I don’t think Westerners quite realize how absolutely entrenched corruption is in the very fabric of most countries’ social systems. (I sure as shit didn’t before I came to Cambodia.) The G-8 countries can give 20, 30, 40 more billion bucks every year, and it won’t mean shit. Unless safeguards are in place, unless accountability is in place, than the money will be filtered through channels so Byzantine that it will never be found. Somebody wrote a good column about this the other day – how, if no one’s held accountable for actions and intentions, then what’s the point? (Donor money keeps getting pumped into Cambodia, and the money keeps being squandered; it is only now, after a decade, that the donor countries are starting to say to the Cambodian government: You better do with it what we tell you to do with it.) The point is, Africa is not just some mythical blob of suffering that will be healed by cash. Cash will help; cash never hurts. But when you have generations of people raised to believe that ‘foreigner equeals someone who gives me money’, that damages and taints everything, from infrastructure to infant mortality.

4) There Is No They – Another one of my recurring themes here at this blog for the, oh, two people who may read it on a regular basis. The whole point of the concerts, as I understood them, was to force the G-8 countries to pony up the cash for Africa. Fine. But there was no talk of Africans helping themselves, and very little asked of the people attending the concerts. Mass mobilizations can work wonders and bring down civilizations, as recent events in the Middle East and Central Asia have shown. But that’s not enough. It comes down to you, and you alone. It comes down to the Africans. It comes down to individuals guided by conscience. There is no ‘they’. There is only you.

I hate to sound like a curmudgeon for writing all of this, but I don’t think most Canadians (barring the native Indians) have ever really, truly seen poverty up close. It stinks and it’s dehumanizing and it’s ugly. Poverty is two thousand kids picking trash at a garbage dump every day with the hope of raising twenty-five, maybe fifty cents for their family after ten hours work in the blazing sun. Poverty is a brilliant, shining girl living in a small village who studies English hard every single day and who will never go to university because her parents can’t afford the yearly tuition, which amounts to about the cost of sixty of the bottles of water sold at the Canada Live 8 concert. Poverty is a life of bathing and drinking from the same water you shit in. Poverty means selling children for sex, transporting children for sex, and killing children, physically and mentally, for sex. Poverty is the scab you pick that regenerates itself. And the only reason I sometimes get so worked up about this whole issues arises from my own guilt, my own sense of bourgeois liberal shame; you can’t live here and not feel, well, superior, because you are – economically and educationally, as a foreigner, you are superior. As a person, no. The kindest people I’ve ever met have had nothing at all; as Paul Theroux ends his account of Africa, Dark Star Safari: “The best of them are bare-assed.”

The attention from Live 8 will, hopefully, enable the G-8 leaders to give Africa the support it needs and deserves. But such support is complex; it needs hard questions with even harder answers. It needs acknowledging the responsibilities that individual governments in individual countries need to live up to. It entitles asking people to help themselves and lay claim to themselves.

I have no answers; sometimes I feel stupid even acting like I know what I’m talking about, when I really, really don’t. Perhaps I’m misguided, and misinterpreting and overanalyzing the whole thing. I don’t know. At the very least, though, I’ve asked myself these questions, and thought about these concerns; two, three years ago, they weren’t even on my radar. I’ve started to see, living here in Cambodia, how complex and fucked-up and craven the world truly is. I’ve also realized its’ generosity and good-heartedness.

Balancing those two realities, dwelling within their borders, accepting your own role and your own responsibility, is a life-long endeavor that requires much, much more from others and ourselves than a little song and a little dance every decade or two, I guess is what I’m saying.


bethanie_odd said...


during the tsunami aftermath I remember feeling a lot of the same things. being in se asia brings poverty to the front of one's focus but living in a fairly wealthy area made me not have the isolated confused feelings that comes when I was in India and Cambodia. Yet at the same time, being back here in North America, I wouldn't wish the kids I am looking after to understand poverty. I agree that the world is uninformed and ignorent of the levels of poverty that happen but when is a good time to rip away the security that kids in Canada grow up with? When is it healthy for them to see kids on the garbage heep? I look at the abundance here and it is so frustrating but at the same time would I wish it any other way? Would I wish poverty on kids here so they could learn to be thankful? I have been homeless living on the street, and I have been truly hungry without a chance to get food, but I have never had poverty be my status, my birth label
and my guarenteed future...the future of my children and probably theirs. When I first came back to NA I felt like patting Canada and the States on the forehead for their cute little issues and then tucking them into bed. Now I just look on in awe, much like I did when I was living in Asia. Confused and unable to sort it into catigories that make me feel comfortable.

Scott said...

Good points. Maybe there isn't (and shouldn't be)any easy way to introduce these ideas back home. Maybe the security most people have back home is what is needed to later go on and help bring that same security to others.