It used to be the Marlborough Brandt Group’s “Lent Lecture” – now, for its 35th edition, it was moved to be the “Harvest Lecture”. Among those previous lecturers there had been four Directors of Oxfam – and, in that organisation’s 75th year, it was most apt for this year’s lecture to be given by a fifth Director of Oxfam GB – Mark Goldring.
For such huge charity as Oxfam, looking after such a vast and geographically diverse slate of humanitarian crises, Mark Goldring’s message began on a very optimistic note. Over one billion people have moved out of poverty in the past 25 years.
But…there are still 800 million men, women and children who may go to bed hungry. And he gave the example of Jamina, a woman he had met on a visit to the Yemen – “a war-torn, isolated and desperately poor country”.
Goldring said that if the ‘success story’ about global poverty being more than halved was better known, there would not be such knee-jerk criticism of development funding. He stressed the key elements in this success – provision of basic education, literacy, vaccination and the fall in child mortality from 43 per 100 before their fifth birthday in the early twentieth century, to 4 per 100 now.
“That is an amazing success story. And it’s not about aid – it’s about development.”
One important element in development was about encouraging government activity. Goldring cited the example of a place he had visited in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the only official activity he saw was the collection of tolls from very poor farmers taking their produce to market.
One of the key elements mitigating against continued progress against poverty is conflict: “Conflict destroys progress – puts back civilisation in all its forms.”
However, the good news about poverty reduction has been tempered by a recent UN report that numbers of those going to bed hungry has risen again – by between 20 and 30 million in the last year. This was caused largely by the rise in conflicts and the effects of climate change.
Before conflict erupted in Syria, 90 per cent of the population had immunisation, schooling and safe water. With the extremes of that conflict the number has shrunk to percentage figures in the 20s.
Climate change, Mark Goldring, explained, hits the poorest – tens of millions are being driven into poverty by climate change – its effects crops, fish stocks and deforestation.
More than aid, nations needed good governance. In whose interests is the country being governed? He stressed the valuable work done by small organisations in the richer countries: “They’re not going to end poverty on their own – but they can make a huge difference locally.” And he cited the Marlborough Brandt’s Group work in The Gambia.
He spoke movingly about economic inequality and about gender inequality: and repeated the fact that eight billionaires have the same wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people: “We must leave no one behind.”
He was insistent that economic progress is a necessity – based on jobs and fair pay: “We need a fairer world as well as a more prosperous world to drive out poverty.”
Mark Goldring took questions. He countered an interesting question about the likely effects of population growth – unchecked would it cause mass poverty? “It won’t – with successful development, education and an end to early marriage – the size of families falls.” And he showed how the much-criticised growth of the garment industry in Bangladesh had given women more economic power and helped reduce the size of families.
Are poorer countries suffering under the huge debts they owe to the IMF and World Bank? Goldring said there had been huge progress in reducing debt – with debt relief given when governments spend more on public services.
Asked about gender inequality and empowering women, Goldring revealed that Oxfam is working on a ‘Commitment to reduce inequality index’ – to track how seriously a government is tackling economic and gender inequality.
“Oxfam”, he told the audience in the Theatre on the Hill, “likes to be gobby” – likes to put leaders on the spot about inequality and gender. Oxfam’s work is based on a new set of ‘four freedoms’ – practical freedoms: safe water & sanitation – work for fair wages – giving rights to women – and economic inequality.
However, for all the ‘gobby talk’ about gender: “One of the biggest challenges for development is to ensure work for men – including self-employment and co-operatives.” That is one way to stop young men setting off on the desperate and dangerous journey from Africa to Europe – and more generally, in all the world’s poorer countries, to help underpin economic development.
A collection was taken to support the work of Oxfam and the Marlborough Brandt Group.