Freakishly Lucky

InequalityDo you ever think how freakishly lucky you are ?

We often tell ourselves that most of what we’ve achieved in life is down to our hard work and good choices, and while up to a point that’s obviously true (work hard at school kids), there’s also no getting away from the fact that stupid random luck is even more significant.

Now I obviously don’t know how educated, wealthy, safe or healthy you are . . . but if you’re able to read this, are doing so on some kind of computer connected to the internet, have time to think about these things rather than safeguarding your family or scraping enough money together to eat tomorrow, and aren’t distracted by the problems that come from lack of healthcare or clean water, then it’s safe to say you’re doing better than most people on the planet.

There are seven billion of us going about our daily lives today.

Around 0.8 billion of us are chronically undernourished (that means hungry)

Around 1 billion of us have insufficient access to clean drinking water

Around 1.5 billion of us don’t have access to electricity

Around 2.5 billion of us lack access to basic sanitation (that means toilets)

Around 3 billion of us survive on less than $2.50 a day

Around 5.2 billion of us survive on less than $10.00 a day (net income of $3,650/y)

If you’re lucky enough to be earning the UK average national wage (£26,500) you’re earning more than 99.3% of the people on the planet. Welcome to the global elite !

If things had turned out differently. If you’d been born into circumstances without clean water, toilets, immunisation, doctors, sufficient food, electricity, education, safety and security, how different would your life have been ? How different would your attitudes be as a result ?

I saw the film Elysium a couple of weeks ago.

In many respects it’s a fairly entertaining science fiction romp with spaceships, robots and futeristic firepower, with a hero saving the day, defeating the evil villain against all the odds.

But there’s something else going on.

It’s set between an overpopulated and polluted Earth, where everyone lives in grinding poverty, with little healthcare, education or prospects – and the gleaming hi-tech orbiting space colony home of the world’s super-rich, who exploit the labour of the billions of desperate poor, and will do anything in order to protect themselves, and their belongings, from them.

Queue existential angst as we wonder whether we identify more with the poor hero, or the rich villains!


The film’s South African director Neill Blomkamp is quoted as saying: “People ask me if this is my prediction for the future. I say no, this isn’t science fiction, this is now, this is today. It’s about the third world trying to get into the first world”.

The fact that the dystopian setting for much of the film was shot on one of the world’s largest landfill sites in Mexico City, where thousands of real people spent their working lives, scavenging the waste for recyclables to sell, until it’s recent closure, makes it hard to dismiss his view.

It seems as if the lives of the rich and poor have never been so starkly different. We’ve certainly never been so acutely aware of it.

Barack Obama has described inequality as the defining issue of our time.

It’s not wrong to be lucky.

But is it wrong to be lucky, but do nothing to help our less lucky neighbours around the world ?

“The main reason many are so poor, is that a few of us are so rich”

Something to ponder as you watch the inequality videos below.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in my ebook The Year I Saved the World]

Photo by May S Young (creative commons), via Flickr

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World Hunger Day

171 - HungerA guest post by Eimear Rigby from the global hunger charity Concern Worldwide.

The 28th of May is World Hunger Day.

There are 875 million people in the world are hungry today.

It’s hard to comprehend that figure – 12 times the population of the UK, or one in eight people worldwide.

At Concern Worldwide we believe that no one should have to live with hunger and the damage it causes. We work hard alongside the poorest and most vulnerable, in order to build a world where lives are not limited by lack of access to enough nutritious food. 

One location Concern Worldwide is working is South Sudan, where poverty, drought and families returning home after years of civil war are all contributing to a significant food crisis.

Our staff in Aweil in the north of the country shared their stories of just some of the people affected by the crisis earlier this year, including  four year old Avur – one of thousands of children who were badly affected. Avur and her grandmother Amou had walked for miles from their home in the north of the country, an area with widespread hunger and soring child mortality rates, to one of 34 health centres supported by Concern in the south.

Avur was not only malnourished; she was also suffering from diarrhoea and coughing fits that were further weakening her. Concern’s specialist staff at the center admitted Avur to an intensive feeding programme, providing special therapeutic food designed to bring malnourished children like her back to health over six to eight weeks. This removed Avur from danger and set her on the road to recovery.

A nurse weighs Avur as she waits for treatment

There are many more children like Avur in South Sudan and Concern Worldwide provides help and support in order to help improve their own lives, such as training local volunteers to spot the signs of malnutrition so that families know when to seek treatment. Concern is also distributing therapeutic food and teaching mothers how to use it, so that malnourished children recover in the safety and comfort of their own families.

As well as providing urgent crisis response, Concern works within communities to help them protect themselves from the prospect of future crisis. In Tanzania around 75% of the population are poor rural farmers who can’t afford the tools, seeds or crops they need to grow food in a country susceptible to both flooding and drought. Concern is able to offer support in these rural areas by proving simple tools and resources, and transfer skills to local communities: Marcelina Bedastus and her husband used to struggle to feed their four children and usually survived on just one meal per day.  In 2009 Marcelina joined a Farmer Field School run by Concern and received training and three chickens to help boost her farm. Marcelina was able to breed her chickens and now has coop of 20.

Reflecting on the difference this has made to her life she says, “I had nothing before, but now I have something. I can sell eggs to get money for items like clothes and food. We have three meals a day and I can vary the types of food we eat. I can also pay for school uniforms and I hope for all of my children to go to school – education is the most important thing for them.”

Christopher and mother with chickens

Concern would obviously welcome your support for its work, but even more importantly this World Hunger Day, asks that you tell as many people as possible about hunger in the world, the damage it does, but how many, including Concern Worldwide, are working hard to tackle the problems and transform lives.

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Feed the World – Starting Local

160 - TinsThese are undoubtedly hard times for a lot of people.

In austerity Britain, as in most of the developed world, the Government is struggling to balance the books – and, as is usually the case in such circumstances, it is the poor that are facing the most hardship as a result.

Remarkably over twenty percent of the UK’s population is considered to be living in poverty: more than 13 million people, including over 3 million children. Most projections suggest this figure will increase further over the coming years.

Of course how you define poverty matters – discussions of poverty in the UK and other developed countries tend to consider relative poverty, the level of  inequality across society, rather than absolute levels of material deprivation or hardship. The current most widely used UK definition of poverty is a household income below 60% of national median income, ie: below £13,000 a year, or around £250 a week (varied depending on family size). It’s not hard to see how household income levels much below this figure can place the family under continual financial stress and uncertainty and contribute to social exclusion – preventing the family from engaging in things like travelling to see more distant relatives, attending children’s activities like swimming or sports, or taking holidays, trips and occasional meals out.

Inequality and social exclusion are certainly important issues, but focusing  on issues of relative poverty alone can obscure something else even more important – the existence of more extreme levels of poverty and hardship.

Absolute poverty is typically defined as an inability to meet basic human needs such as shelter, warmth, food, health and education, and while precise definitions vary, in the UK the typically used household income figure of £216 a week is used as a threshold for a more absolute level of poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate around 8.4 million people in the UK are in this position.

This can mean living in unfit housing badly affected by damp and mold, lack of sufficient heating, a shortage of basic clothing, no access to transport, and increasingly severely restricted access to food.

A family living hand to mouth has little ability to plan and save for the future, and when something goes wrong such as the car needed to travel to work needs fixing, or the heating boiler breaks and needs repair, or the main breadwinner is unable to work due to injury or illness, then food is often the thing that suffers.

The growth of foodbanks across the country is a testament to people’s concern, compassion and solidarity for those most in need within their own communities. Last year UK, foodbanks fed over a quarter of a million people.

The basic idea of a foodbank is that it collects and stores tinned and packet food donated by individuals, and then works with the various professional agencies like schools, GPs, social services and Job Centers etc, so that people and families considered to be facing substantial hardship, can be referred to the foodbank to receive a few days worth of food, to help tide them over any period of crisis. The aim is not to provide long term support, but just help take some of the pressure off the family finances to help them get back on their feet. The majority of UK foodbanks are affiliated with the national foodbank charity The Trussell Trust, who assist with organisation and data collection etc.

Over the last year I’ve been part of a small team working to set-up a foodbank in my local area – organising premesis, governance, finances, applying for grants, recruiting volunteers etc, and last Saturday I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours, along with the Youth Forum and many other volunteers, helping collect food donated by generous shoppers outside my local Co-Op supermarket, on behalf of the (soon to be opened), Forest of Dean Foodbank.

If you’re looking for something positive to get involved in within your local community this year why not consider your local foodbank – they’ll be happy to accept food donations or any offers of help, and you can be sure you will help make a tremendous positive difference to people’s lives.


Photo by sterlingpr via Flickr

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From Petrified Forests to Poor People

One of the golden rules of blogging, is that you should have just one clear message per post.

Watch in awe as I break the norm and boldly ignore that piece of advice.

I’m unashamedly going to combine two points in a single post – but you’re all such smart people, you’ll be fine (golden rule number two – flatter your readers).

Let’s begin in Arizona’s Petrified Forest.

A natural wonder of the world, Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park contains the remains of a forest, stunningly fossilised and preserved from 225 million years ago. The park is hugely popular and visited by over half a million people a year, the problem is that many of them decide to take just a small reminder of their visit home with them – resulting in 14 tons of fossilised wood fragments being removed from the park every year by visitors !

Needless to say, worried by this rapid erosion, the management quickly put up signs to deter visitors from taking fragments: “Your heritage is being vandalised every day by theft losses of petrified wood, amounting to 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”.

The results weren’t quite what they hoped for . . . losses went up significantly !

By suggesting the idea of stealing wood fragments to visitors, indicating that everyone else was doing it, and also raising the prospect that, if you wanted a wood fragment you better get one quick before they’re all gone, the signs were a Triple Fail !

Bottom line – people knew it was wrong, but when they thought everyone else was doing it, they did it anyway.

This is an example of  a perceived ‘social norm‘ trumping a moral or ethical belief. The evidence shows that we’re all far more likely to be influenced by the behaviour of others around us, than we are by our own moral or ethical code. We’re a social animal and it’s not surprising we like to fit in, rather than stand out.

With the help of Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona University, the park were able to design new signs highlighting that though the vast majority of visitors treated the park with respect, a small minority were damaging it for everyone else. These were much more successful – turns out we don’t like to feel bad about ourselves by doing something we know (or think) most of our peers would disapprove of.

Which brings us on to my second point = the fight against poverty.

We know there are a lot of poor people in the world, whether in far off countries, or down the road.

We may be aware there are around a billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. That 800 million people go to bed hungry each night. That 50,000 people a day die from poverty related causes. These facts can seem very abstract when we see them printed on a screen, can’t they.

If you regularly read Next Starfish I’m sure you likely share my strong desire to combat poverty and tackle the various inequalities and injustices in the world. You probably share my ethical and moral perspective that ‘something must be done’.

But the chances are also most likely, that you’re probably living a fairly comfortable life yourself – food, clean water, warm home, healthcare, education, new mobile phone and all the rest. The odds are that you’re also surrounded by friends, colleagues, neighbours, relatives who are similarly living fairly comfortable lives . . . for many of us, this is our ‘norm’.

If both the above are true, but you’re still currently giving most of your spare money away to tackle poverty and injustice across the world, then you’re acting 100% in alignment with your ethical and moral principles, and, just between you and me, you’re quite a remarkable person.

If like the rest of us you give a little of your spare money, and then sit wringing your hands about poverty, before going off to buy a new car, iphone or expensive pair of shoes, then it might just be you’ve been influenced by the ‘norm’ of living in a (relatively) affluent society and having (relatively) affluent friends to compare yourself against.

This isn’t meant to be a guilt-trip. Just an observation that we all tend to judge and compare ourselves, our lives and our behaviour, with reference to what we see around us. I don’t think we should feel bad about this – norms are normal after all.

But there are two things I’d suggest.

If, both individually and as a society, we were more familiar with the lives of the poor, then ‘normal’ would begin to shift , perhaps we’d begin to appreciate what we have a little more, want a little less, and maybe be a bit more generous with our wealth as a result.

Secondly, we should also realise we’re part of someone else’s ‘norm’. Maybe if we visibly changed our behaviour, perhaps by being personally more generous towards the poor, giving where possible, or supporting aid policies etc, those around us might feel just a little more inclined to do some of the same things themselves.

With that in mind, I’ve linked to a few powerful short films illustrating the lives of the poor around the world (both far and near) below.

Why not help shape your friends and colleague’s ‘norms’ by sharing some with them.


Photo by PetrifiedForestNPS via Flickr

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You Are the Future of Philanthropy

If you type the word philanthropy into Wikipedia you find it was first used by the Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, in the play Prometheus Bound and literally means ‘the caring of man’ – caring, nourishing, improving and enhancing the quality of life for other human beings.

Whatever meaning it had back in Ancient Greece, it’s become a word we now tend to associate with the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Bill Gates, George Soros and Warren Buffett – incredibly wealthy men giving away their millions later in life to worthy foundations, charities and causes.

Men who tend to get libraries, concert halls and public buildings named after them.

BIG philanthropy.

It’s fairly normal to be cynical about this type of giving, and unsurprisingly we sometimes question the motives involved:

‘It’s OK for them to give a few million when they still have millions left. If they really cared they’d give more’.

‘They’ve enjoyed all their money, now they’re just worried about how history will judge them’.

Do we ever ask ourselves the same questions ?

We may not have Bill Gate’s billions, but no doubt many of us reading this have more than we really need. How would our choices about how we spend our money look from the perspective of a hungry parent in the developing world, struggling to feed and nurture their children ?

Would we also be seen to be just cynically donating a few pounds here and there in order to feel better about ourselves, while still squandering much larger sums on luxuries we don’t really need ? If we really cared would we give more ?

These aren’t questions with easy answers. We have to wrestle with and resolve them ourselves on an personal basis.

In her uplifting TED talk below, the social change activist Katherine Fulton argues that things are changing when it comes to philanthropy. That philanthropy is being democratised, influenced in large part by the networking and collectivising power of the internet.

The world might be facing more significant emerging global problems than it’s faced before, but we also have more potential to create emerging global solutions than ever before. Our ability to connect, support and give, to all kinds of people around the world offers new opportunities and incentives.

We are now able to connect far more directly with the beneficiaries of our giving. We can individually select recipients of micro-loans we might make to developing world entrepreneurs through Kiva. We can sponsor individual children, and their villages, through international child sponsorship schemes like those run by World Vision, Barnardo’s or Compassion International. We can find and choose organisations and causes we might wish to support more easily than ever through sites like Charitable Giving, Just Giving or Donors Choose, and we know far more about how money is spent by these organisations, and what effect it has than ever before.

And it’s not just about the money.

These are tough times, and many in our own societies who previously felt comfortable, are now struggling financially. Charity donations have begun to decline in recent years – but there are many ways to support charities and good causes other than sending money:

- Donate your time to a local group or campaign such as foodbanks or conservation volunteers.

- Record yourself reading a public domain book.

- Spend one hour helping someone get familiar with the internet.

- Look at Do-It, IVO, Volunteer England for more ideas.

If we are to be successful in tackling the many challenges facing the world – whether in India’s slums or down the road – we’re going to have to further refine our vision of philanthropy, and embed it more into our normal, everyday lives.

Katherine’s TED talk finishes with two pictures.

The first is a photo of her Great Grandfather and Grandfather, taken nearly a hundred years ago, who devoted much of their time, money and energy in the benefit of their local communities, and whose legacy is her admiration, fondness and inspiration.

The second is a blank picture, which she asks us to imagine is a photograph of us, viewed a hundred years in the future, perhaps by our grandchildren.

What would we wish our legacy to be ?

What is it you want to be part of creating ?

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