HomeBlogGlobal Poverty: What Everyone Needs to Know

Global Poverty: What Everyone Needs to Know

The following is a guest post by Professor Thomas Nazario, Founder and President of The Forgotten International. He will speak at the World Affairs Council on Tuesday, April 29th, 2014.

I was four when I first got a look at poverty. At the time, I lived in New York City in Spanish Harlem. It was Thanksgiving Day and on the way to a restaurant, I saw a woman and her child going through a garbage can in search of their Thanksgiving dinner. I had seen poor people on the street before, but I remember thinking that going through the garbage for your Thanksgiving supper was simply wrong and that no one should allow that to happen. At the time, of course, I had no power to stop it.

That was also the first day I realized that there was a big difference between how people lived. Before then, I believed everyone lived pretty much just the way I did.  Even though most would have considered my family quite poor, we at least did not have to search through people’s garbage for dinner; hence it seemed poverty was relative. In short, it was the first time I thought of myself lucky.  I also realized that there were people who needed the help of others, and someday I would like to provide that help.

As I grew up, I began to realize more about the world we live in. When I turned sixteen and had managed to save up enough money to buy a car, I began to explore other worlds outside of Spanish Harlem and one day visited the North Shore of Long Island. It was a place where many of Manhattan’s rich lived during what was once called “America’s Gilded Age”. They bought huge mansions and summer homes to get away from Manhattan’s intensity. So it hit me, how could some people have so much, while others have so little while not knowing much about the other’s existence. There seemed to be such unfairness about that.

Around this time, the Civil Rights movement in America really began to take hold. I got very interested in the relationship between race, class and poverty, and how that affected one’s ability to acquire justice in America.  As a result, I decided to become a lawyer and turn my attention to defending the poor. However, rather quickly I realized that helping the poor who had gotten in trouble with the law was not enough and that if I was going to create any kind of real change in the status quo, it required an earlier intervention on my part.  What made more sense was to work with the children of the poor and try to immunize them from the effects of poverty in America. So my attention shifted to working with children and learning more and more about their rights and problems.  In doing so, I began teaching law and developing local nonprofit organizations that sought to help inner city kids.

Shortly after acquiring some notoriety in this field, I was called upon to work internationally on projects that served the poor. This interested me since I knew that America makes up less than 6% of the world’s population and the greatest amount of the world’s poverty exists outside our borders. Throughout my travels to various countries around the world I began to see more of the same kind of poverty that I had seen as a four-year-old child—in fact, it was much worse. It was then that I decided to transition from my life as a child advocate to developing a foundation devoted to issues of global poverty, particularly poverty that disproportionately affects women and children. I made this decision after spending some time in India with the Dalai Lama. For myself and my work, I arrived at 12 simple beliefs. Those beliefs are:

  1. That all people, regardless of where they happen to be born or live, are of equal human worth and deserving of the kindness of others.
  2. That in women and children, who are often the most defenseless among us, lies the hope and future of the world and, for that reason, they are most in need of the world's help.
  3. That in giving, the giver receives as much, if not more, than he or she gives.
  4. That we are far more the same than different, and we should never let the differences that exist between us divide us.
  5. That goodness is the rule and evil the exception and, as such, we should trust in the basic goodness of all humankind.
  6. That ego, greed, and/or the lust for power is often responsible for much of the world's poverty and suffering. Hence these impulses should, at all cost, be resisted.
  7. That money is not the root of all evil but a means to an end, and that "end" can be to do good and relieve suffering. It is for us to choose.
  8. That the acquisition of wealth often has at least as much to do with luck and/or the service of others than a particular individual's skills, gifts, or ingenuity, and as such, one's wealth should always be shared with those less fortunate.
  9. That nothing cares for the world's people as much as the Earth itself, and it is for that reason that the Earth must be cared for in the same way that she cares for all of us. We are dependent on each other. It is a reciprocal relationship.
  10. That all of us have the opportunity to leave this Earth better for having been here. It is what defines a meaningful life.
  11. That positive change often occurs through the work of many people making small contributions. Hence, there is no problem too big as long as enough people care.
  12. That, on occasion, all of us who live comfortable lives should step out of what we know to experience the world outside of our privileged communities. No one should be allowed to simply ignore or forget there are so many all over the world who have so little and suffer so much.

These are the same beliefs on which my foundation is based and which guide much of the work we do. Called The Forgotten International in an effort to shed more light on the problem of global poverty, this year we have published a book with W.W. Norton and Quantuck Lane Press called Living on a Dollar a Day; The Lives and Faces of the World’s Poor. It is a book that has been four years in the making, and in the process of writing it, we traveled to 10 countries on four continents to capture the lives in words and pictures of nearly 50 individuals and families who work to survive on less than a dollar a day. I hope to meet many new faces on April 29 at the Council and encourage them, in one way or another, to help change the face of poverty around the world. 

Image © Shutterstock


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