The biggest challenge to humanity? Poverty?
In the last 5 years, I have been attending and talking at numerous international and Indian conferences in the social sector and it has been fascinating to hear from fellow colleagues, senior leaders and organizations that have clearly articulated the greatest challenge that humanity is facing… which is “poverty” (although right now, it seems to be climate change as the biggest challenge). Nothing worse than poor people starving, who don’t have access to basic human needs (food, shelter, livelihood) and the millennium development goal project has articulated it well with a broader list of top 10 challenges facing humanity. We have several speakers and organizations talking about this. A recent example was from Prof. Nick Haan, Director of Global Grand Challenges at Singularity University, who posed the question “What is the greatest challenge humanity faces today?” to the audience gathered at this year’s Summit Spain in Seville. “It depends on your perspective and what you are personally most passionate and curious about,” he stated, adding, “That question really only matters in as much as it affects you to do something about it. These are not rhetorical questions anymore.”
Prof Haan explains the different areas of challenges which then were bucketed in different “sectors” which could be the way forward for solution and innovation. But he did miss highlighting a point that was common on majority of those problems.
Inequality of existing rich and poor divide would be a narrow understanding, I would rather broadly categorise as:
Inequality amongst people
Inequality in access to resources (natural resources, economic, government)
Inequality in access to opportunities (livelihood, quality education)
To address the biggest challenge to humanity through inequality would be to really challenge our basic human bias towards people from different race, countries, communities, caste or economic/ social class. This permeates to lack of equitability amongst people.
Inequality challenges the larger power hegemony which exists amongst “powerful” nations over developing/ under-developed countries (I personally find these terms of categorization fundamentally flawed based on our narrow of understanding of human development, economic muscle, geo-political domination). Inequality challenges the corporate companies, powerful individuals, organizations or global agencies that make sure our resources are centralized and concentrated. And as we recognise more trends, patterns and outcome, we look at the present time and future where equal access to opportunities has been deprived to people across the globe. I have been inspired by Nobel Laureate, Dr. Amartya Sen’s body of work as he nails the inequality challenge from his early papers to recent books such as Inequality Re-examined, Ethics and Economics, Rationality and Freedom, The Idea of Justice.
After working at the grass root level, observing and interacting with below and above poverty demographic in rural and urban regions in India, I found that many are okay with their state of poverty, even when organizations have come forward to provide them with opportunities but the individuals have not made any effort to take up the challenge of getting out of poverty. The reasons are not as simple as they are happy or have accepted to be in poverty but rather psychological conditioning, social subversion, lack of education/ exposure and many other contextual reasons. But what I found more disturbing was the people who face inequality on a daily basis, although they want to come out of poverty, who are hungry for opportunities, who want to protect their resources (their main source of survival), whose aspirations are as high as yours and mine yet are not given any access to equitable opportunities or resources.
This is where the heart of injustice, “unfreedom” and poverty rests till we continue to manipulate and ensure that the world’s resources continue to remain concentrated and centralised amongst a few. The recent Oxfam report amongst many other resources has rightly pointed out the inequality challenge. I don’t think we need to add lot of quote and statistics to prove my point, we know it and we experience it and there is enough evidence. Not just in current times but across time, civilizations and history, inequality has always persisted but maybe this time we have a chance to bring some changes, work towards a shared goal.
So here are my reasons for why I think inequality is the biggest human challenge:
- Power hegemony, systemic challenge: Government, institutions, corporate companies, powerful leaders, and international agencies are part of a complex web of power dynamics and its politics that need to be recognised as the cause and effect of trickle down inequalities. They influence and yield access to resources and opportunities that can choose to concentrate or disseminate it. We need more people in these spaces who are willing to work towards an equitable scenario as it can have a huge impact on reducing inequalities.
- Access to resources, equal rights: Farmers, livestock owners, land owners, tribes and communities living in natural habitats are often denied their fundamental right of survival. Their dependency on natural resources is not just for livelihood but for their sense of identity, human survival and dignity of life. Equal access to their local resources is denied across regions around the world at a local or state or international scale of interference, denial and injustice carried out. The compensation, replacement and displacement are the root cause of inequality and injustice that limits their development at social, economic and psychological level. We continue to witness tribal communities’ displaced and mass suicides by farmers in India due to debt and exploitation as a glaring example of inequality.
- Access to opportunities, human potential: Social and economic deprivation leads to lack of access to equitable opportunities in education, livelihood and life skills. The inequality of access to these opportunities does not allow people to maximize their potential for better quality of life and their own development. This has been fundamental to the skills gap, opportunities gap, human potential gap and development gap. Quality education, quality skill development, continual learning environment, personal development and complete awareness of one’s potential can unlock massive opportunities for people to live life of happiness and dignity. The economic trickledown effect has been proven false and the only way of bridging the inequality gap is by maximising the potential of the bottom line.
- Ecological plundering, where is sustainability? It still seems baffling that environment degradation, climate change, ecological exploitation as still treated as “separate issues” and not closely discussed with economic and social challenges. The ecological resources are closely interwoven to human progress, sustainability and survival. The economy at every level and nuance is heavily dependent on the environment, yet we don’t have any discussions or answers from corporate leaders, businessmen or the government. They seem to treat this as a separate issue with no accountability except some broad mechanisms of control and monitoring. The systemic violations of environment sustainability need to be accounted and corrective actions are imperative as we address the global challenges of poverty, hunger and livelihood.
- Peace and Global cooperation: The inequality challenge that deepens in any community or society has only been a ticking bomb leading to revolt, rebel or revolution. The injustice and inequality served by the elite is met with disturbance and resistance by the enslaved. Peace is not just the lack of war but also harmony amongst societies is imperative. A concerted global cooperation is imperative to maintain peace but it can only happen when leaders and the countries are willing to share an equitable scenario of resources and opportunities for all. The bias we have as individuals of race, caste, country or communities has been the cause for denying equal chance of sharing our limited resources for unlimited opportunities.
A way forward to this challenge is to make our effort to bridge this gap of inequality with inclusive development. Encouraging new ideas, models of economics, shared vision or collaboration, we can find that bridging the gap would become easier. As I remember the conversation with a credible social entrepreneur from India, Mr. Vijay Mahajan, he spoke about the need of a new knowledge base to solve the 21st century problems, a new epistemology for 21st Century.