Poverty and Apathy

The bottom line, it turns out, is that most of the Western nations don't care very much at all. Behind the fancy speeches of the satiated West hides great apathy.

WASHINGTON - A visitor from Mars arriving at the International Monetary Fund conference in Washington would think that the Earth was populated mainly by blacks and that the whites are the small oppressed minority. Most of those attending the conference are black representatives from African countries.

This phenomenon is anchored in the tradition of each and every African delegation coming to the conference in "full complement" - with all the clerks, directors and aides who take advantage of the opportunity to have a good time in Washington. The delegations from Europe, on the other hand, consist of only two or three officials.

Up until the 1998 conference, world poverty and the debts of the Third World were not a topic for discussion. International economic conferences dealt primarily with financial crises and centered on debates on ways to promote competition and globalization.

But in November 1999, something happened: The distinguished representatives of the World Trade Organization, which met in Seattle, were not even able to enter the conference's auditoriums due to the violent demonstrations by some 40,000 people who wreaked havoc in Seattle's streets and besieged the city center.

That was shock therapy. The conference ended hastily and prematurely, and the demonstrators succeeded in putting the problems of poverty and the Third World's debts on the world agenda, proving that when politicians say that violence achieves nothing and will only hurt those who use it, they are not exactly correct.

A year later, in 2000, at the IMF conference in Prague, the picture repeated itself - violence reigned in the streets of Prague and greatly influenced the conference's sessions.

Since then, poverty and the debts of the Third World have been accorded a central position at each conference. But let there be no mistake, this does not mean that anything has been solved.

This year, the voices are again calling loud and clear for a struggle against poverty and forgiving the debts of the poorest states. There are about 30 of these, most in Africa (the sub-Saharan countries), where the annual per capita gross national product is about $300 and that have vast debts to the West - about $50 billion. As a result of the their debt repayments and the interest on these debts, these countries are unable to allocate sufficient funds to improving the living conditions, education and health of their citizens - and cannot therefore pull themselves out of poverty.

This time, England and Holland are spearheading the effort to alleviate the debts of these countries. England's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown explained that the poor countries are buckling under the burden of their debts, which are preventing them from investing in infrastructure and from developing.

Brown is therefore suggesting that the wealthy Western countries repay the debts in their stead. Brown even announced that to participate in this debt relief proposal, England had already budgeted $180 million annually, until 2015. His call is as yet unanswered.

It turns out that we are living in a very dichotomous world. While the population in the West enjoys a constant rise in its standard of living, there are some 1.1 billion people subsisting on less than $1 a day and 2.7 billion on less than $2 a day. In most cases, these people have no education, no reasonable health services, no clean water and no sanitation systems. They are also more exposed to natural disasters, violence and crime. The foreseeable future does not look more promising either. Over the next 30 years, about 2 billion babies will be born - 97 percent of them to poor families.

In his address to the IMF conference's plenum, World Bank President James Wolfensohn said that the countries of the West must invest more in development and reducing poverty in these countries. He added that this was also in the interest of the rich Western nations because this dire poverty and desperation was a potential source of global instability.

Nevertheless, beyond the official speeches, the Western nations are not willing to do very much. They refuse to open their markets to the import of agricultural produce, cotton and minerals from the poor countries due to opposition from their own farmers and industrialists. They are also not forgiving the debts, despite the discussions of the past four years.

The United States, for example, is conditioning the relief on the elimination of the administrative corruption in the debt-ridden countries. The United States fears that the money will reach the narrow ruling class, and not the masses, and it wants the countries to present real plans for recovery, reform and change, including in education and health, in order to ensure a real exit from the cycle of poverty.

The bottom line, it turns out, is that most of the Western nations don't care very much at all. Behind the fancy speeches of the satiated West hides great apathy. This will apparently not change until there is a disaster. And if someone finds a connection between the handling of world poverty and the handling of poverty in Israel, it is not without foundation.