Try seeing poverty through the eyes of a child

From a Royal Society of Arts lecture on poverty and globalisation, given by Mike Aaronson, the director general of Save the Children

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I would like to start with the story of a boy in Rwanda. Augustin is 11, and was five when the genocide occurred in 1994. He witnessed some terrible things, but he does not know how to deal with them, and no one can help him. His parents are very poor, with a small banana field and some land. They need to find other work, because they don't have seeds to plant, and their soil has lost its fertility.

I would like to start with the story of a boy in Rwanda. Augustin is 11, and was five when the genocide occurred in 1994. He witnessed some terrible things, but he does not know how to deal with them, and no one can help him. His parents are very poor, with a small banana field and some land. They need to find other work, because they don't have seeds to plant, and their soil has lost its fertility.

Augustin has been chosen by the rest of the family to go to school, which is one hour's walk away. However, he has to help in the house, and is sometimes late. When he is late the teacher beats him badly and makes him stand at the back of the class. Because he misses some days, he does not always understand what is going on in the classroom, but he tries hard and is intelligent. When he comes home, he tries to do his homework by the light of the fire, but firelight is very hard to read by and he usually has to stop before he finishes because his eyes are tired. How can we make things better for Augustin?

The main purpose of this story is to show how, once we consider the issues from the point of view of the child, we get a very different perspective from the way these problems are usually seen by those involved. All of us - government officials, business people, representatives of international donor organisations - all see the problem in our own terms. We only see that part which concerns us.

The 1990s saw the capacity of many national governments to bring about change increasingly constrained by cutbacks in resources, the competitive pressures of globalisation, and the growing power and resources of giant corporations whose wealth far exceeds the GNP of many small and medium-sized countries. Despite renewed awareness and global targets, unacceptable numbers of children still live in poverty: 600 million in total. Governments are struggling to meet the demands of the largest generation of young people the world has known. The last decade has also seen prolonged conflict, and more than eight million children have lost their mothers or both parents as a result of Aids. Any serious new promises made to the world's children must take into account the major constraints of poverty, the demographic crisis, conflict and indeed Aids.

A fundamental change in thinking is required. Everyone needs to consider the impact of their policies and actions on children, and to respond in a more radical and creative way. Very little will be done for Augustin, or for the many others of his generation, unless there is wider acceptance of this imperative.

The role of the state as guarantor that children's rights are met is not just about what the central government itself can do, but also about its role in enabling families, the private sector, local authorities and community organisations to play their part; the resulting "mix" of activities will differ between and even within countries. The strengthening of the structures of governance at national and district and regional level is of especial importance, particularly in the context of decentralisation.

A further, vital partner is the media. They have a responsibility to highlight the issues I have discussed, and in a responsible, non-sensational way. They can also do a great deal to give children themselves a voice, as for example BBC World Service did with its excellent series Children of Conflict.

I began by talking about the problems of a young boy in a faraway country. He almost certainly does not understand most of the reasons these problems assail him. Some of them, but very few, may be to some extent within his control or that of his immediate community. Many of them, but possibly not all that many, can be resolved by his government. Many of them have international causes, and can only be resolved through international effort. And most of them can only be resolved over time - unfortunately, too late to benefit him.

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