Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Matter of Oil and Death

Recently, I’ve been researching Kenyan slums for the novel I’m writing. I learned some harrowing facts about the impoverished state of that country. Over 50% of the population lives in abject poverty, existing on less than $2/day, and 40% of the people are unemployed.

Kibera, which is about five kilometres from Nairobi City, is the most densely and highly populated slum in Kenya, with between 800,000 and a million inhabitants—one of the biggest in the world. It is a microcosm of most of the slums in African urban centers and it exemplifies the appalling living conditions for many in the cash-strapped continent.

Like many of the urban slums, Kibera lacks basic services such as infrastructure, sanitation, a sewage system, and a clean water supply. As a result, diseases like malaria, cholera and typhoid are highly prevalent; and with no public healthcare, there is little hope for the sick but to languish and die under dire circumstances.

Charitable organizations have set up health-care clinics and schools, and are trying to alleviate suffering; but their efforts are often impeded by gang warfare and political tensions. Since the last election in 2007, crime and violence have increased, including the torching of dwellings and indiscriminate violence.

Basic human needs such as food, clean water, sanitation, health-care, security, and education are not even close to being met. If a woman gets gang-raped on her way to the latrine, ten minutes away from her shack, there’s no point going to the police because they may have been involved in the rape themselves.

HIV/AIDS is another major problem. A woman has virtually no control over her body and is forced to submit to her mate’s desires despite his multiple exploits. Once infected, treatment is difficult to obtain and many young parents soon die, leaving their children orphaned and abandoned.

When I see the pictures and read about the lives of these people, I can’t imagine a more horrible existence.

Yesterday the media highlighted the state of Haiti, still writhing from the devastating earthquake, six months ago. Not much has changed for the people there, despite the billion dollar pledges of public and private aid from concerned citizens and organizations everywhere.

Simply scanning the paper, we see articles about misery and suffering every day, sometimes provoked by man, sometimes by nature. The BP oil spill (the quintessential manmade disaster), is an example of extreme capitalism gone wrong. I am a capitalist through and through, but I have concerns about multi-billion dollar mistakes that destroy the environment and cause economic havoc.

Having just read that the cost of the BP oil clean-up will cost an approximate thirty billion dollars—that’s $30,000,000,000 (including clean-up costs and liabilities) See Globe and Mail article: Spill costs to cut BP tax bill by $10-billion—I can’t help but think about our impoverished global neighbours and their dismal lives.

For many of us, it’s the luck of the draw that we were born in North America. Either our ancestors or our parents made the wise decision to travel to this land in search of a better life. We are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices. Is it therefore not incumbent upon us to live up their hopes and dreams and to also help others less fortunate?

When thirty billion dollars (which is probably a conservative estimate) goes into fixing a corporate mistake, I am sickened and saddened—for the people who are directly affected, and for victims of poverty at home and abroad, who could have used that wasted cash to build better quality lives. Thirty billion dollars would go a long way in helping impoverished nations with food and clean water, sanitation, infrastructure, schools, healthcare facilities and security—the things we take for granted in the west.

The BP shareholders are suffering financial misfortune, much of their investments gone down the tubes (or to the bottom of the sea). Perhaps in hindsight they should have invested their money in NGOs (Non Government Organizations), whose product is improved human lives. The big picture shows that the greatest returns are best measured in human terms. This may not be the strongest argument for investing in third-world countries, but I know if I’d lost a chunk of cash with BP, I’d have wished that I’d sent that money to Haiti or Africa instead.

I wonder if Bernie Madoff’s clients, who lost billions to his ponzi scheme, would also have preferred to use their cash for more constructive purposes than lining that crook’s pockets.

We cherish our free markets and our individual freedom, but clearly there is a continued negligence when it comes to oversight, transparency and accountability. Governments need to enforce stronger regulations and individuals should be more discerning when it comes to investing.

Maybe I’m naive and idealistic, but I do believe that the global community is getting smaller and that our interconnection is getting closer. We still have to look after ourselves, but we can’t forget our global neighbours.

And when we help our neighbours, we help ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. It really is sobering to think of the way some people are forced to live. It's hard not to wonder why we have been so completely blessed when others suffer so terribly. Thanks for sharing this Carla, and for reminding me that Haiti needs our money now more than ever.