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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Real and Relative Poverty


David Adams • Irish Times, 16 September 2005

I glanced approvingly at the grey, overcast skies as we came in to land at Dublin airport last Saturday morning.

After four weeks working for Goal in the blazing sun and daily temperatures of 33 degrees in Niger, for the first time in my life I was looking forward to a dose of cold, wet, Irish weather.

More than anything else, I was looking forward to seeing my family again. I was able to make periodic contact with my wife while away, but international phone connections were, to put it mildly, somewhat unreliable.

Of necessity, our conversations had been confined to family matters. On the road from Dublin to Northern Ireland, she brought me up to date on some of the news I had missed: the sad loss of Mo Mowlam (our greatest ever secretary of state), the death of Lord Gerry Fitt and the still-unfolding disaster in New Orleans.

On a happier note, I learned of Northern Ireland's surprise victory over England and Liverpool's progression to the group stages of the European Champions League.

Yet, as we travelled along perfect roads, alongside other immaculate vehicles, and I gazed absent-mindedly at row upon row of well-kept houses, happy as I was to be with my family again, I was distracted.

Something I couldn't quite put my finger on was eating at me.

Over the weekend, as I read back-copies of newspapers and listened to media reports of street violence breaking out in many parts of Northern Ireland, the uncomfortable feeling I had had since travelling from Dublin began to take solid form in my mind. The contrast in weather conditions was welcome, but it was another even more stark difference which had so disconcerted me.

The disparity between the living conditions of the populace I had left behind in Niger and the society I had just re-entered had struck me like a sledgehammer. And, more than that, I felt deep anger that we, like most people in the West, have absolutely no appreciation of just how fortunate we are.

We are almost completely oblivious, or simply don't care. We live in luxury while other human beings are dying in circumstances we could do an awful lot more to alleviate. A majority of the world's citizens cannot even begin to imagine, much less aspire to, the quality of lifestyle we enjoy. For people in places like Niger, every day is an uphill struggle. Life amounts, quite literally, to a daily against-all-the-odds battle to find enough food and water for survival.

Alongside this is the ever-present fear of sickness, disease and the dangers which come with sharing semi-desert living space with all kinds of harmful flora and fauna, in complete absence of anything that could even remotely be described as a viable healthcare system.

Personal ambition extends little beyond a dream that some day such basic necessities as adequate sustenance and clean, germ-free water can be taken for granted. Sadly, a large majority of people in the world today live in similar, or only slightly better, conditions to those in Niger.

It was against that backdrop that I returned home to Northern Ireland to hear complaints about poverty and deprivation here.

They are relative terms, of course, but you can take relativity only so far.

After witnessing genuine poverty and deprivation at first hand, it strikes me as bordering on the obscene that any section of our over-pampered Northern Ireland society should use such language to describe their own sense of grievance. And even more so that they should then embark on a three-day orgy of violence and destruction to try to prove the point.

Northern Ireland, a prosperous, well-educated and almost fully-employed society, we should remember, has received in the region of £7 billion in aid over the past 10 years. Some poverty, some deprivation.

And the Republic is now deemed to be among the wealthiest countries in the world.

Yet a debate is raging within Government on whether the target date for a miserly donation of 0.7 per cent of gross national product for overseas development assistance should be 2012 or 2010. I'm sure the malnourished people of Niger and beyond will be dancing with glee in the streets on learning of such largesse.

Then again, the celebrations might be slightly muted if they discover that an earlier promise to reach the 0.7 per cent GNP target by 2007 was abandoned.

How short our collective memory is as well.

Over centuries, as economic migrants or fleeing persecution, Irish people of every religious and political persuasion settled around the world.

Yet, both North and South, too often we demonise and discriminate against those who have recently come to these shores seeking sanctuary or a better standard of living for themselves and their families: human beings in need, whose skin colour, religion and culture we should recognise as mere incidentals and the location of their birth as accidental.

Last Sunday, a friend welcomed me back to "reality". I smiled and thought: I haven't returned to reality, I've just left it.

The reality of Niger will haunt me for a very long time - forever, I hope.

Reprinted with permission from the author.


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
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Index: Current Articles

27 September 2005

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