We can end global poverty, and only politicians can stop us

For the first time, billions of citizens have the tools we need to overcome extreme poverty and diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.

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Across the world, more people have lifted themselves out of poverty in the past 15 years than in the preceding century. Communicable diseases are on the run. There’s a lot to be excited and optimistic about. 

But then there’s politics. 

In Australia, anti-poverty campaigners learned the hard way that short-term thinking and parochialism are alive and well. Consecutive governments have raided the aid budget to fund domestic priorities, cutting aid to the world’s poor. They’re both responsible for backing out of past promises and, what’s worse, the Australian public barely made a noise. 

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In some ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Some years earlier, then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer left me in no doubt as to his thoughts of the electorate’s views, when I asked him to bolster Australia’s commitment to fight extreme poverty. No-one gives a f*** about foreign aid, he told me, except he didn’t say “f***”.

I couldn’t disagree more. Australia should never turn its back on the world. We’re better than that, and there’s so much we can do to help promote peace and security, as well as better health outcomes and greater prosperity in our region and throughout the world.

I turned to activism on global issues as a teenager in the late 1990s after seeing wrenching poverty first-hand in the Philippines, India and South Africa. Back then, the most I could do was fire off a letter and wait until I was old enough to vote. There was no social media to find and recruit allies, or put pressure on policy-makers. Many passionate activists threw up their hands in despair at the barriers to making change happen.

 

A few years later, I joined with a group of uni friends from Monash to help bring the Make Poverty History campaign to Australia. We had the idea of staging a small concert with local Aussie artists. When Bono, The Edge and Pearl Jam agreed to headline the show, it exploded beyond our wildest dreams.

The government heard us – doubling investment in global health and development, an additional $AUD6.2 Billion. It felt like a huge victory. 

As we know, it didn’t last.

Our experience with the Make Poverty History showed us that one-off spikes, like what we’d created with 2006’s Make Poverty History Concert, are not enough. We need to bring about lasting change. And it needs to happen everywhere, otherwise any government has a ready-made excuse that it can’t possibly carry the burden of global action alone.

But, how could we create enough pressure, and build a broad enough army to win these fights for the long term?

We needed to take the excitement generated by events like the Make Poverty History campaign and turn it into a lifelong commitment. It needed to become part of their identity. 

That’s why, in 2012, we founded Global Citizen. 

But this is not about any one organisation. It’s about individuals taking action. And research data tells us that of the total population who express concern for global issues, only 18 per cent have done anything about them. Why? Mainly because they believe they can’t make a difference, but they can.

 

Global Citizens joined with Rotary Clubs to call on the Australian, Canadian, and UK Governments to contribute to polio eradication. Together, they made a $665 million investment.

Under the Global Citizen banner, tens of thousands helped persuade the World Bank to boost investment in water and sanitation by $15 billion.

Global Citizens helped persuade Prime Minister Modi of India to affirm his commitment to put a toilet in every household and school by 2019. 

Spurred on by American “Late Night” Host Stephen Colbert, Global Citizens persuaded the government of Norway to double its investment into girls’ education.

Recent successes by nationalist parties in Europe, as well as the increasingly divisive political rhetoric seen in the United States of America over recent years, make people wonder whether we’re sliding backwards. They fear that rapid globalisation sends us scurrying back to bunkers of tribe, class and religion. This is defeatist and wrong.

Transformational change always attracts powerful resistance, especially among people who prospered from the way things have always been. Flare-ups of anger, confusion and resentment are inevitable, but we must not allow them to obscure the bigger picture.

We still face daunting challenges, none larger than the deep cuts to aid we saw in the Abbott Government’s first budget. We need to resist pitting poor against poor, and fooling ourselves into believing we can somehow isolate ourselves from our neighbours and the wider world.

Look at what happens when we ignore Rwanda, when we ignore Syria, when we ignore climate change.

Once an abstract idea global citizenship is now a practical reality. We have a unique chance to enact large-scale positive change around the world – holding leaders to account on the new Global Goals for Sustainable Development launched last year by the United Nations.

In the lead up to the Federal Budget and the Australian election, now is the time for Australians to demand that all political parties live up to their commitments, and fully engage in the fight to end extreme poverty by 2030.  

Global Citizens, who joined the movement in every corner of the world at the rate of 100,000 each week in 2015, understand that the world has changed – and that those of us who look beyond our borders will find ourselves on the right side of history.

Hugh Evans is the co-founder and CEO of Global Citizen.