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Eritrea's main enemy is poverty

Women in a village in rural Eritrea. Photo: Esel Initiative E.v


Simon Weldemichael
College of Arts and Social Sciences

If we do not lift people out of poverty and deprivation, safeguard their human and democratic rights, and improve their material, cultural and spiritual lives, attaining independence will not amount to anything. National Charter of Eritrea

Poverty is an economic and social condition involving a lack of money and basic standard necessities, such as food, water, education, healthcare and shelter. Poverty is a complex web of disadvantages, each one aggravating the others. For example, the economic dimension of poverty affects and is affected by the social and political dimensions. Moreover, poverty is associated with health problems, ignorance, civil strife, disorder and so on. These conditions often lead to dysfunctional family and societal relationships, low self-esteem, hopelessness and an obscurity of vision. Poverty is thus defined and manifested by far more than a simple materialistic view. A lack of material wealth does not necessarily mean that one is deprived; rather, poverty is a lack of hope.

While poverty is frequently described as an inevitable or natural phenomenon, the first and possibly greatest cause of poverty is government policy and the second is the harmful economic arrangement of the international system. The long list of causes attributed to poverty frequently depends on these two sources. Government has many roles, including the establishment of a social, economic, and political environment that allows for a decent life. An effective, responsible government is expected to allocate available resources for immediate needs and develop a governing system where inclusion and equality are admired and perceived by the society as fundamental objectives.

Africa is blessed by the generous hand of nature. At the same time, it is deprived of visionary leaders. Accordingly, it continues to be a field of poverty. Its precious available resources are diverted from domestic needs to foreign markets. Poverty is not about availability and unavailability of resource, it’s about governance. If resources were a panacea for poverty, the Democratic Republic of Congo, possessing approximately 25 trillion dollars worth natural resources, wouldn’t be one of the world’s poorest countries.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 795 million people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment during the period 2014-2016 (FAO 2015). For reasons of mismanagement and poor prioritization, hunger and famine plague the African continent. One vivid example is the ongoing hunger crisis in Ethiopia, the most populous country in Africa next only to Nigeria. Specifically, Ethiopia has sold more than 3.3 million hectares of land to profit foreign investors. Millions have been displaced forcefully from their land in order to give the land to foreigners for minimal pay. It’s ironic that while Ethiopia is struggling to feed its own people, countries around the world are consuming food produced in Ethiopia.

It is important to understand that the international system has been designed in a way to perpetuate hunger and poverty. George Kennan, Head of the US State Department planning staff until 1950, would state,

We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…In this situation; we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.…We should cease to talk unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. …The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better (in Chomsky 1985: 48)

While the rich, powerful nations repeatedly agree on the necessity to end global poverty, they continue to act in contradiction to such objectives by protecting their national interests and ensuring that poverty remains prevalent. For example, rich nations secure a constant supply of cheap resources or utilize manipulative trade arrangements which only serve to reinforce poverty. Dictators and other corrupt rulers often have the support of wealthier nations to help fulfill those national interests. The proclamation of “end poverty”, echoed annually by powerful nations and international organizations or institutions is often hypocritical. Beneath the rhetoric, an invisible evil net of poverty and dependency are lain down. While colonialism involved overt theft and plunder by raid, we have moved on to an era of plunder by trade. The complexities of economics and trading systems also make it hard to address poverty. If the wealthy nations want to end poverty, why do they generally perceive as threats other governments that try to improve the conditions of their own people?

As long as the exploitative international system is in place, poverty will not end. The existence (and cause) of poverty and hunger is down to the ordinary operations of the socio-economic and political systems in the world. Essentially control over resources based on military, political, and economic power that typically ends up in the hands of a minority, who live well. Prosperity for the tiny and poverty for the majority has increased tremendously.

While poverty alleviation is important, so too is tackling inequality. Addressing inequality implies tackling many social, political, economic, and environmental issues (for they are interrelated in many ways). Inequality breeds resentment and resentment breeds conflict. Conflict destroys the production and reductions in productivity invite poverty. Inequality is not just bad for social justice; it is also bad for economic efficiency. Inequality is the worst enemy living between the haves and have-nots. If you scan the world’s stormy areas, you can notice violence is more common in more unequal societies. The widening gap between rich and poor creates a morally, economically, politically and socially harmful environment.

Currently, development is generally measured by calculating numbers rather than adequately exploring how the lives of the general population been truly transformed. The National Charter of Eritrea stipulates that “we must strive to build a people-oriented society in which every Eritrean can develop his/her capacity, free from oppression, fear, poverty and ignorance.” Development is thus much more than economic growth, which is only a means – it is about transforming practically the lives of the people. Discussing poverty, President Isaias Afewerki, once noted that “the dearth of money in pocket is not poverty but if the deficiency is of mind, this is poverty.”

With all of the progress and advancement of humankind, it is tragic to still see people dying of poverty and hunger. These two most ancient evils of humanity are still dancing over the head of humankind. The world produces enough food but hunger is everywhere – a bitter fact to swallow “in a world of plenty.” Countries proclaim double digit economic growth rates but their people remain yearning for basics. What type of cursed development is this?

Development can only be said to be successful if it can help improve living standards and access to all basic needs (e.g. food, water, shelter, clothing, health, education, security, etc.). Poverty can be ended primarily by the genuine effort of citizens. Those found in poverty must face it, fight courageously, and stand firm. Struggle and persistence is the antidote of poverty. Eritreans, long known for their struggle for liberation and national sovereignty, are now fighting for economic liberation and freedom from poverty. Let us bury poverty alongside our former enemy.
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