Transcript – Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission, talks on The Hidden Reason for Poverty the World Needs to Address Now at TED
Gary Haugen – Human rights attorney
To be honest, by personality, I’m just not much of a crier. But I think in my career that’s been a good thing. I’m a civil rights lawyer, and I’ve seen some horrible things in the world.
I began my career working police abuse cases in the United States. And then in 1994, I was sent to Rwanda to be the director of the UN’s genocide investigation. It turns out that tears just aren’t much help when you’re trying to investigate a genocide. The things I had to see, and feel and touch were pretty unspeakable.
What I can tell you is this: that the Rwandan genocide was one of the world’s greatest failures of simple compassion. That word, compassion, actually comes from two Latin words: cum passio, which simply mean “to suffer with.” And the things that I saw and experienced in Rwanda as I got up close to human suffering, it did, in moments, move me to tears. But I just wish that I, and the rest of the world, had been moved earlier. And not just to tears, but to actually stop the genocide.
Now by contrast, I’ve also been involved with one of the world’s greatest successes of compassion. And that’s the fight against global poverty. It’s a cause that probably has involved all of us here. I don’t know if your first introduction might have been choruses of “We Are the World,” or maybe the picture of a sponsored child on your refrigerator door, or maybe the birthday you donated for fresh water. I don’t really remember what my first introduction to poverty was but I do remember the most jarring.
It was when I met Venus — she’s a mom from Zambia. She’s got three kids and she’s a widow. When I met her, she had walked about 12 miles in the only garments she owned, to come to the capital city and to share her story. She sat down with me for hours, just ushered me in to the world of poverty. She described what it was like when the coals on the cooking fire finally just went completely cold. When that last drop of cooking oil finally ran out. When the last of the food, despite her best efforts, ran out. She had to watch her youngest son, Peter, suffer from malnutrition, as his legs just slowly bowed into uselessness. As his eyes grew cloudy and dim. And then as Peter finally grew cold.
For over 50 years, stories like this have been moving us to compassion. We whose kids have plenty to eat and we’re moved not only to care about global poverty, but to actually try to do our part to stop the suffering. Now there’s plenty of room for critique that we haven’t done enough, and what it is that we’ve done hasn’t been effective enough, but the truth is this: The fight against global poverty is probably the broadest, longest running manifestation of the human phenomenon of compassion in the history of our species. And so I’d like to share a pretty shattering insight that might forever change the way you think about that struggle.
But first, let me begin with what you probably already know. Thirty-five years ago, when I would have been graduating from high school, they told us that 40,000 kids every day died because of poverty. That number, today, is now down to 17,000. Way too many, of course, but it does mean that every year, there’s eight million kids who don’t have to die from poverty. Moreover, the number of people in our world who are living in extreme poverty, which is defined as living off about a dollar and a quarter a day, that has fallen from 50% to only 15%. This is massive progress, and this exceeds everybody’s expectations about what is possible. And I think you and I, I think, honestly, that we can feel proud and encouraged to see the way that compassion actually has the power to succeed in stopping the suffering of millions.
But here’s the part that you might not hear very much about. If you move that poverty mark just up to two dollars a day, it turns out that virtually the same two billion people who were stuck in that harsh poverty when I was in high school, are still stuck there, 35 years later.
So why, why are so many billions still stuck in such harsh poverty? Well, let’s think about Venus for a moment. Now for decades, my wife and I have been moved by common compassion to sponsor kids, to fund microloans, to support generous levels of foreign aid. But until I had actually talked to Venus, I would have had no idea that none of those approaches actually addressed why she had to watch her son die. “We were doing fine,” Venus told me, “until Brutus started to cause trouble.” Now, Brutus is Venus’ neighbor and “cause trouble” is what happened the day after Venus’ husband died, when Brutus just came and threw Venus and the kids out of the house, stole all their land, and robbed their market stall. You see, Venus was thrown into destitution by violence.