Looking after the Small Guys

Few of us understand what is meant by the Gini Coefficient let alone its implications in our societies. It represents the degree to which our economy is distorted by the gap between the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful. It represents the extent of extremes in our economic relationships with each other.

Eddie Cross

There was a time in our world when this had centre stage with the Communist and Capitalist systems competing for the creation of a more equal and prosperous world. Today there is no doubt about who won, but in the rush of history we seem to have lost our understanding that an unequal world will be less stable and that in such a world humanity will be poorer in spirit, if not wealth.

Somehow the digital revolution that has followed the clash of ideologies has made the situation worse on a global scale but that does not represent the whole picture, our capitalist systems and ideas have made the accumulation of wealth possible on a scale never seen before in all of human history. And yet our capacity to lift the poor out of poverty and to give opportunity to every child and to guarantee a decent living for the physical and mentally disadvantaged has never been so challenged. We live in a world that seems to have forgotten the small man or woman in real life.

The challenge of an unequal world is reflected by the fact that every hour of every day 200 million people are on the road to somewhere, to what they see as a better future, fleeing poverty and political oppression. Fleeing military dictatorships and religious intolerance that really should be a thing of the past in our so called “modern” world. Despite our education and sophistication, we remain barbarians in how little attention we pay to the little people in our countries and societies.

We have the means today to give every child access to a school room within walking distance, where they are safe, have access to electricity and clean water and the right to be taught by a well-trained and motivated teacher. We have the means and the resources give every family security over the land that they live on and use to generate a living. To deliver to them the basic health services that will see their children inoculated against infectious diseases and assistance when home remedies do not work. We have the means to give our elders dignity and provision in the days when they can no longer support themselves.

But it is not happening. In my family’s lifetime we participated in one of the greatest outpourings of humanity in history in the 1800’s when, in response to the Christian revivals sweeping Europe and the Americas, educated and talented Christians volunteered to go to distant places to teach and bring medicine to the poorest people on earth. It was as a direct consequence of this movement that in the 19th Century, 90 per cent of education and health services for the absolute poor in our society received an education and access to health through what are termed today as “faith based” institutions. It was out of those places of learning that our early indigenous political leadership emerged – Ndabaningi Sithole, Joshua Nkomo, Herbert Chitepo, Robert Mugabe, George Nyandoro, Cephas Msipa.

Had it been left with the political and economic elite of the day, these men and woman would have been denied an education because the elite recognised that education is a primary trigger for the desire for liberation and freedom.

Those days are gone following the decline in the Christian Church in most western countries. The motivation to give on a scale never seen before or since has gone with it and modern aid systems simply do not seem to have the same impact. The key to that in the faith based programs is the simple dedication of the men and woman delivering the service. That is why Church based hospitals and schools still deliver a superior product to their State or donor funded counterparts.

But if we are going to tackle the unequal nature of the world system and to make the changes necessary, we have to recognise that a key element is to create systems that empower people to help themselves. That is why I am so keen on empowering the small people and businesses in our Countries.

If we look closely at the world economy, it is not dominated by the big names – it is almost everywhere driven mainly by small business. Toyota has 1,5 million suppliers – all they do is assemble and market the final product. The world is fed by small scale farmers – not agribusiness. Our problem is that it is the big boys who get the attention and political support and funding. When it comes to getting attention, it is the big firms who can employ the lawyers and lobbyists to influence policy.  The small guys have no one to represent them and no one to fight in their corner for what they need in the form of policy.

The other aspect of all this is that the big corporates really represent no threat to the political elite in a country. On the contrary, they support the elite irrespective of their willingness or reluctance to do the right things. Empower your peasants and the elite understand that they are creating a force that might challenge their dominion over power. So the early regimes in Rhodesia, South Africa and Namibia restricted education for their indigenous populations. That is why it was illegal to teach a black person maths until halfway through the 20th Century. The new elite created after the transition to democracy in southern Africa have perpetuated these policies by denying their people security of tenure over the assets they control.

The ANC has not given title to the new farmers they are settling on land acquired from the white farmers, the millions of homes built under the RDP program are all leased out under conditions that require the occupants to vote the ANC. The same policies are being followed in Zimbabwe in both urban and rural settlements.

Where the State has empowered its people with title to the land they occupy, there has been a huge response. The changes made to rural land in China after Deng Xiaoping came to power has transformed the rural economy in that country. In Rwanda, the post genocide State, has granted 12 million title deeds – virtually one for every family. The consequences have been an explosion of economic growth.

I remember visiting a community in Delhi, India where a very wealthy man bought 2 500 hectares of urban land that had been occupied by refugees for 25 years. The people were living in abject poverty and under plastic and every few years had seen their homes destroyed by the City which viewed them as an unsightly nuisance. He divided it into 50 square metre plots – one for each family and gave each family a title deed to the land and US$500 as a loan.

I was there five years later and the transformation was absolute – three story homes, streets, schools and water with sewerage systems. But most of all dignity and security. I talked to a teenager who told me that she had lived under plastic for 12 years and was now studying and planning to go to University to study medicine. The businessman was a Christian – the entire Community was Hindu.

The UN has adopted the goal of universal primary school education for every child. What are the global Community doing about this? We spend on average US$20 per child per month on education, yet this tiny amount constitutes a quarter of our national budget. Would it not be possible to top this up? Give our teachers a living wage and decent classroom conditions and a home? We have 900 000 small scale farmers eking out a living on land they do not own, we have 1,4 million families living in homes that they do not have title to? What would it cost us to give title and control? Nothing, but the impact on our people would be massive and immediate.

If the global Community of Nations is sincere about bringing democracy and development to developing countries, these are the foundations. Do anything else and you are building on sand.

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