Does this measure cost of living? What basket of goods can these populations afford? Has this number been exchange rate adjusted? Does the number include welfare services? Is this earned income or state handout?
More importantly, would increasing this number really help? If so, how much? How far up Maslow's pyramid does one need to travel to be considered developed and will increasing incomes get them there?
My point here is that I think his measure falls woefully short of describing poverty. It's a good touchpoint, but a hard measure to empathize over. I say this because this was the message that hit home last week. I've been looking at development statistics for some time now, and yet I was caught by surprise last weekend by a very poignant implication of poverty.
A Real Gap
A friend of mine was hosting a guest from Uganda. The two had worked together developing clean water projects in rural villages and this was the guest's first visit to the US. While staying in Houston, my friend decided to take his guest to the various museums in the city.
The guest was blown away, fascinated by what he saw. He couldn't believe that the Earth was many millennia old and that once reptilian giants roamed the land. He had never heard of T-rex or that life on earth was once far different than today. At the NASA space center, he saw man's footsteps on the moon. He had spent a lifetime looking up at our celestial partner and never once conceived that a person had actual set foot on it.
It is a measure of his awe, that in witnessing it, we ourselves were in awe and shared in his wonder. If providing clean water was a chance to share a drink, this was a chance to share a dream. But why was this moment so special?
I would posit her that the moment revealed the real gap in human development. It is not just a gap of income, but also a gap of EMPATHY.
I'm not suggesting that the critical need for the poor is knowledge of dinosaurs, but rather that one tragedy of global poverty is the alienation. We can and must meet the immediate needs of the famine and drought-stricken, and emergency aid can be helpful here. But unless we are able to envision a true sharing of cultures and experiences, I believe we will struggle to endure the hard task ahead of us. Fighting poverty means fighting ignorance, fighting corruption, fighting disease and fighting doubt.
Doing so will require the best efforts of all mankind.
In 1962, President Kennedy spoke at Rice University and shared his vision of America's space program. In a soaring speech that resonates to this day, he shared:
"There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again.
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."
I hope these words resonate with you as they have with me. Fighting global poverty and oppression may be the hardest thing we every do, but if we can bridge the chasm to the stars, then let us believe that we can and shall succeed in this endeavor as well.