by Sandra Macias del Villar
Picture this: It’s the weekend. You wake up and make some coffee. You open up your laptop to have a relaxing morning browsing around facebook or your favorite website. No matter where you poke and click around, chances are you end up reading grim headlines. There is no doubt our world is going through some difficult times. Between wars, climate change, racism, inequality, human rights violations, sinking economies, just to name a few, any alien taking a look at our planet earth would probably not have the best impression of our current state. And then, you take a sip of your coffee and with a click of a button it can all go away.
For many of us living in the northern hemispheres, it is hard to relate to the hardships going on around the world, as many the impacts of these crises often don’t touch our daily lives. For example, the United States, has been waging a war in the middle east for over a decade now, but yet, if don’t pay attention to the news and people go about their own it is easy to forget that the country is at war. All the causalities are abroad after all and we don’t see killer drones flying around our houses. Another example could be the devastating impact that climate change is having in communities all around the world. Houses are being flooded, rivers are disappearing, soils are eroding, entire nations are disappearing. Yet, the impact of these effects is mostly felt by individuals living in economically disadvantaged communities.
If indeed you are reading this on your computer at home, with an excellent wireless connection, while sipping your morning coffee, chances are that you a living comfortably and mostly untouched by the harsh impacts of our world crises. Why is this important? How do I even dare to assume this? I don’t deny the fact there is some level of empathy from those in the northern hemispheres and I know many residents in the “first world economies” also live in poverty and experience large injustice, but what I want to talk about is how disconnected we can be and how it is important for us to put ourselves in the shoes of those that are fighting a daily struggle. Most importantly, we need to understand that our current lifestyles do have an impact and, many times, contribute to the crises the world is experiencing.
Do you own a smartphone? Do you enjoy eating bananas year round? Do you like shopping for cheap clothing? Have you enjoyed purchasing for items online and getting them sent to you with just the click of a button? If your answers are yes, then all of these comforts come at a large cost to our system and to individuals around the world. Smartphones are made by hands exploited by cheap labor. From working on the assembly line to the mining of minerals used to make them no smartphone is exploitation free. Even though online shopping is extremely convenient, I myself am guilty of this, think about all that needs to happen in order for us to get our two-day free delivery product at our door. If we focus purely on the transportation cycle from the warehouse to your home just to deliver a product you could probably purchase at a local store, think about the impact to the economy and in our environmental footprint. The coffee you enjoy in the morning, and the food in our table, could be way more expensive if the hands that harvested it were paid fair wages. We enjoy fresh tomatoes and bananas year round thanks to migrant farm laborers that work arduously from sunrise to sunset under physically hard conditions. Our clothing is mostly made in sweatshops around the world made with fabrics that require a lot of natural resources, such as precious water, in order for us to pay $20 dollar t-shirts. I mention all this not to take you on a guilt trip but for us to be conscious. Even though you may think you cannot change the world and eliminate poverty with your daily actions the truth is that you can. When it comes to our role in ending poverty, it is easy to think of solutions that involve jumping on a plane and landing on a community in the global south where we can see poverty with our own eyes and try to do something for those poor people we see suffering. While that experience can make us feel good, and may have minimal impact, we need to analyzing our actions and start change from within.
What are some day to day actions we can do in order to change poverty around the world? While I don’t have a magic formula I know that any effort we want to make to change poverty needs to start with ourselves. We start by reading and learning about the current system we live in and our role within that system. We then analyze our daily routine and see how comfort has been made possible thanks to the labor of others. Better yet, your purchases must be made to products and services that avoid economic and environmental exploitation. We vote with our wallets, and our wallets should reflect our values. While not many can afford to buy the now “fashionable” fair trade, organic, conflict free, cruelty free, local products we can still analyze, learn, listen, and educate others.
I’m not going to lie, as an international development practitioner it does feel good to jump on a plane and go see communities that I want to help. But after many years of working “in the field” I have learned that the solutions to poverty are found within the communities, it is not up to “us” to save “them”. Communities are made up of families and families are made from individuals. And thus, as I sip my own cup of coffee I can type with certitude and tell you that now more than ever I am convinced that as individuals in this system we must question, we must analyze, we must learn, and we must start change within.
Sandra is a mother, a humanitarian, and passionate activist. A native from Mexico but Latin American at heart, she also spent her formative years in the Pacific Northwest, a place where her activists roots were born. In her day job she works with and on behalf of grassroots community-based organizations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean at The Global Fund for Children. In her limited free time Sandra volunteers with local grassroots movements in Washington DC advocating for human rights and democracy.