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Home » Africa is Poor and 5 Other Myths: Simon Moss at TEDxWarwick (Transcript)

Africa is Poor and 5 Other Myths: Simon Moss at TEDxWarwick (Transcript)

Simon Moss

Simon Moss – Community education expert

I spend my time traveling around the country, traveling around the world, talking to people about the progress and challenges that the world faces, dealing with, what I say, is one of the biggest challenges to humanity. Which is the challenge that 1.3 billion people on our planet are struggling to get by.

Along the way, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with people, answered hundreds of questions. And today what I wanted to share with you were some of the misconceptions, some of the assumptions that I hear from people, and I wanted to try and challenge some of them, and I want to share with you some surprising facts, and insightful stories that, I think, mean that we can look at the issue of extreme poverty a little bit differently. I wanted to start with this myth, that many of us have heard, that Africa is poor.

First of all, I want to try and ask, “Where does that come from?” For generations, we have been brought up on photos, that look a little bit like this. We see them in the media, we see them in charity advertising. We have this sense that nothing ever changes, and that actually, Africa is a bit of a basket case.

Well, Africa’s actually 54 different countries. There’s a huge amount of diversity. And the time I’ve spent in Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, doesn’t look like this at all. It looks a lot more like this. Because Africa is a continent that is full of amazing people doing amazing things. And although we might not hear all of the story a lot of the time, we should actually be really impressed with the progress the Africans themselves are making. And be asking the question, “What can we do to get in behind and support?”

And I’m proud to say, actually, the people in our country, they’re generally pretty generous. The foreign aid that we give, all around the world, to Africa, is about 50 billion US dollars a year. That’s a lot of money. A lot of people have said, “But it never makes any difference,” and it’s important to recognize that, actually, aid to Africa, isn’t really that much money. Remittances, money sent home by Africans themselves, working overseas, are about another 40 billion dollars a year. And you add those two things together, 90 billion dollars, and you’re still well short of the roughly 400 billion dollars a year that predominantly leaves Africa in the form of natural resources.

The question of, “Why is Africa poor?”, I think, is the wrong one. The one I’m more interested in is, “Why are there so many people in Africa still living in poverty?” If we take a step back from a yearly figure like this, we can actually see that over the last 40 years or so, some 18 trillion dollars worth of money has left Africa when it probably shouldn’t have. This is a report that was put together last year by a group called Global Financial Integrity. What they found was that vast amounts of money leave Africa, and come here. The City of London is one of the largest financial centers of the world.

The centers of Europe are also where this money goes. And the challenge, I think, we’ve got to face, is asking ourselves, “What is our role, as citizens in a country like the United Kingdom, in doing something about this?” Because actually, the money that helps buy things like this, which is the 21 million pound mansion owned by Equatorial Guinea’s Agricultural Minister Teodorin Obiang, is I think a really important one. Teodorín, lives in a country where 70% of people live on less 2 two dollars a day. How he can justify spending some of his and his country’s money, on this house, on his two Bugatti Veyrons, on a golf course, on a nice swimming pool, is a little bit beyond me. What’s also beyond me is the fact that, actually, he puts his money in our banks.

And we don’t seem to see fit to ask some tough questions about that. So if we’re serious about trying to see what we can do about poverty in a place like Africa, let’s stop thinking that Africa, the continent, is poor. And start thinking what is it beyond just aid that we can do that is going to help us actually address some of these issues. That leads me to a second myth, something that I hear all the time, which is this idea that poverty is getting worse. And I think it’s fair to say that actually, it’s just not true.

The World Bank put together the world’s global figures on how extreme poverty is going, and in fact, they did their figures last week. And since 1981, roughly 30 years ago, the world has halved the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty. From 52 % of the world’s population, down to just 25% in 2005. And this week, it was updated to say that actually it’s down to 22 % about 13 billion people.

This is a huge success story, something that we often don’t hear about, and something, I think, we should be incredibly proud of. Because if we ask ourselves a question, “Well, how did this happen?”, we did it by doing things like using the aid that countries like ours gave, but also the hard work of people all around the world, to do things like completely eradicate a disease like smallpox. We’ve contained a disease like polio, which my mother had, by 99%. We’ve cut diphtheria rates. We’ve cut measles deaths in Africa by 93% in just the last ten years.

We’ve cut tetanus rates by 85%. These are actually phenomenal achievements, and I wanted to take a moment, just to take a step back, and realize, just how important it is, that these changes are taking place.

(Video) (Gulshan has polio) (her life would have been different with a few drops) (Help) (end polio) ( A disease like polio is a disease that means a lot to me. In the 1950s my mother was one of tens of thousands of people in Australia that suffered part of the polio pandemic.

Means she’s got one leg shorter than the other, she can’t run properly, she can’t walk properly. And thanks to the global efforts of tens of thousands of people getting together, actually, what we have seen, is a huge transformation. In the last 23 years, polio rates are down 998%. Last year, there were just 650 cases of polio.

And this is thanks to thousands of people, in countries like ours, and countries like India and all over the world getting together, and actually showing that progress is possible. In a case like polio, we’ve gone from 125 countries with the disease, in 1988, down to just 4 last year. And some of you might have seen in the media, but in fact just a few weeks ago, that number dropped to 3. Because India became one of the few countries that’s actually completely gotten rid of polio largely under its own state. They’ve gone an entire year without a single case of polio, and that’s because they’ve gotten together with people from countries like ours, to say that we actually can do something about it.

So next time you hear someone say, “You know, it’s just not possible to create change” I’d like you to say, “Actually, it is.” The world’s been making some absolutely huge changes and transformations in addressing big issues. And it’s being done because we’ve got together with other people to do it. And as you do that, they’re likely to come back to you with a question like, “But, we’re never going to fix poverty if people keep having so many children.” And I’d like to say, well, we’ve got the logic here around slightly the wrong way. Because actually, I think, they have too many children, or they have many children, because people are poor. It used to be that people would have a really large family. In a place like Bangladesh, 40 years ago, women had 7 children and expected a quarter of them to die. Thanks to making investments in healthcare, thanks to making sure that little girls got to stay in school, thanks to giving families access to information about fertility and family planning, Bangladesh now has roughly 2 children per woman.

And, only about 1 in 20 of them don’t make their 5th birthday. Absolutely huge changes are possible, but we need to make sure we understand how and why. Because it used to be, back in the past, even in countries like our own, the people would have 4 kids, but 2 of them would die. They died from preventable diseases like diarrhea, from disease like measles. Over the last 50 years, the world has made phenomenal progress.

People still have 4 kids, but we’ve reduced, dramatically, the number of them that don’t make it to their 5th birthday. That means that populations grow, and they grow rapidly. But as you just saw from Bangladesh, what happens over time, is that, actually, as we contain the number of kids who die, families choose to become smaller. In 2050, our planet will have 9 billion people on it. There’s not really much we can do about it.

If we want to make sure it doesn’t go much beyond 9 billion, that it doesn’t reach 10 or 11 billion, what we need to do is not say, “How do we stop them from having children?”, but say, “How do we stop poverty?” “How do we support people to make the decisions they want to make around their family sizes?” And as we do that, you’ll often hear people ask this question, “Well, there’s not going to be enough food if there are 9 billion people.” And, often implied in that, is that if they keep having all these poor people with so many children, maybe it’ll be easier if we let just a few of them die.

Now, I don’t think that’s ethically acceptable, I don’t think that’s kind, in fact, I don’t also think it’s true. Because we know from all the data, that’s being collected by groups like the Food and Agricultural Organization, there’s more than enough food to feed the world. The problem is not a supply one. It’s a distribution problem. And a useful way of thinking about this is instead of thinking about, “Where is all the food?”, is to ask, “What do we do with the food?” Because this year, the World Food Program, the UN agency charged with feeding the roughly 925 million people who go to bed hungry tonight, has a budget of about 3 billion pounds a year. That’s about a third of the food that British households will throw out, you know, the food at the back of the fridge, gets a bit smelly. The leftovers we never get quite around to eating. That 420 pounds per household, all the households across the country, about 10 billion pounds worth a year.

Because actually, when we start asking questions around things like food and hunger, the challenge isn’t whether or not there’s enough food, it’s where we choose to send it. And a useful way of thinking about that is by looking at the balance 30% of people in sub-Saharan Africa are classified by the World Health Organization as malnourished — they’re not getting enough or not getting enough of the right food. The obesity rate in the UK is 26%. What we need to be thinking about is not, “How do we stop more people from existing,” but “How do we make sure that everyone can get access to decent, affordable food in their local area?” And given that we, in the UK, throw out 40% of the food between the farm and our houses, there’s a huge amount we can be doing about that.

Now, the final two things I’d like to have a look at are a bit less about facts, and a bit more about us. They’re about the way that we see the world. And they’re about things that we often try and do to help make a difference. The first of those is the idea that, “I’ll help by volunteering overseas.” To those people who have considered this or done that, I want to say, brilliant, that’s absolutely wonderful! But, when we think about trying to help out, we need to remember that trying to do something about an issue like poverty — it isn’t about us.

It’s about people living in poverty themselves, and it’s about what they’re doing, and what we can support them to do a little bit better. And so if we want to volunteer overseas, we need to make sure to ask ourselves some questions, about why we want to do that, what value they’re really going to add. Because I travel around the country, I meet far too many people who are really keen, but like this next person, haven’t necessarily thought a huge amount about it.

(Video) (voice): Yes, how can I help you?

(Man): I want to be an aid worker.

(Woman): Really? Why?

(Man): Because I want to save the poor peoples.

(Woman): What do you know about aid work?

(Man): I want to heal the world. I want to make it a better place.

(Woman): That is a song lyric, not a reason. What do you know about aid work?

(Man): It is glamorous. I want to meet Bono. I want to save the children.

(Woman): That is not how it works. Have you even thought about this?

(Man): Yes I bought a white armband. I want to be an aid worker.

(Woman): Do you know anything about poverty and development?

(Man): I read the book, “The End of Poverty,” by Jeffery Sachs. I want to end poverty. It is my calling.

(Woman): OK. But you do not need to be an aid worker. You can do other things. Give money. Volunteer for charities here. Join campaigns to change laws that keep people poor.

(Man): Yes. I’m a volunteer. I went to Africa last summer, and did aid work. I built a school. I taught English. I want to be an aid worker.

Simon Moss: Now, that’s a little video that we put together last year, that we hear a lot of people say exactly those things. And honestly, they’re all fantastic things. But they all need context. Because going to another country, for a month, if you don’t speak the language, if you don’t have any practical skills of building or teaching — and if you’re only going to hang around for a month, isn’t likely to actually make that much of a difference. You’re going to learn a huge amount about it.

And if you go in knowing that actually you may not be very much help at all, but you’ll change your perspective, could be a really valuable thing. This is my friend Mark. And five years ago, Mark and I went to Malawi together. And we went knowing that we wouldn’t be particularly useful. We went to learn, we went to listen, we went to understand some of the challenges that local communities were facing, and what they were doing.

The local said, “Well, you’re here, give us a hand!” They asked Mark to fill up some water. And you can see him here at a hand water pump. It took Mark twenty minutes to fill up one 20-liter tub. The ladies spent most of the time laughing. When Mark said, “Fine, you have a go at it!” they filled up a 20-liter water jerry in about a minute and a half.

Mark came away from that saying, “I just — I feel like I’m not really making a difference.” And he was right. But what he took from that experience was that what he could do, was phenomenal, if he used his skills as a banker. He went away and learned Indonesian after that, and he’s just come back from 12 months of working in Timor-Leste, in East Timor, supporting people running micro finance organizations to build better financial control systems. If you take the time to learn the language, if you take the time to think about what you are doing volunteering can be wonderful.

People like Darsy here, have spent years traveling the world, volunteering, learning huge amount, but also contributing to communities. I think that if we take the approach that we need to first listen, recognize that communities themselves know a lot more than we do about their issues, and actually, we can make a huge difference but recognize that we’re partners, not people who know more than others.

And I’d like to finish with a final myth, which is about charity overheads. Most of us, I think, have been mugged by one of those charity stalkers on the street, asked for money, and the immediate question we want to ask is, “How much of it will you spend on administration?” And I’d like to suggest that that’s actually the wrong question to be asking. It’s a little bit like asking an airline, how much money do they spend on safety.

I don’t actually mind how much money a charity spends on their overheads, in the same way. I don’t mind how much EasyJet spends on safety, so long as they get me safely from one airport to the next one. Because at the end of the day, our obsession with asking charities about overheads means that they stop thinking about doing really good work on the ground, they stop thinking about making sure that kids can read and write, and make sure that 95 pence and every pound you give them actually just gets sent to Africa. No time for monitoring, no time for checking, and no time to tell you actually what happened. So next time you stop by one of these charity muggers, what I’d like to suggest is to ask them a different question. Ask them what success looks like.

Ask them what proof you have, to make sure your money is really going to make a difference. And ask them how they know when they’ve failed, and what they’re going to do about it. Because all in all, actually, we can make a huge difference. Because when we ask better questions, we ask questions like, “Can they read and write?” We can start making sure that charities are focusing on what really matters. Which is making sure that people living in poverty themselves have a chance to fight it.

I want to finish with a couple of alternative suggestions to this idea, that are put out around these myths. First, Africa is a continent that’s rich, it’s wealthy, it’s wonderful. Too many Africans are poor because they’ve got bad governments, and because we’ve got governments and systems that allow them to do that. If we’re serious, what we need to do is start telling people about what’s actually happening. Demonstrate that poverty is really getting better around the world, in the vast majority of places and for the vast majority of people.

To demonstrate that, actually, the best way to slow population growth is by making sure that kids can go to school, and making sure that more kids survive. The best way to reduce pressures on population, the best way to reduce pressures on food, is to waste less food ourselves. And the best way to make sure we’re really making a difference — is to say that good intentions aren’t enough, that we can make a huge difference. But only if we stop to ask a few questions first. Only if we stop to ask the question, “Is what I’m doing actually going to help?” “How’s it going to help? Whom am I going to help?” “And do they actually want my help?” Thank you very much.

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