Poverty North/South – Two Sides of the Same Coin?

In the new global economy, are our old notions of the ‘rich’ North and the ‘poor’ South past their sell by date?   

As you may have seen, last month Save the Children launched its first ever fundraising campaign targeted at fighting child poverty in the UK.  As a charity best known for tackling poverty in Africa and other parts of the so-called ‘developing’ world, have their got it right? Should international development charities – Save the Children, Oxfam and even Christian Aid be seeking to address poverty and inequality on our own doorstep?

Several years ago now, Church Action on Poverty and Christian Aid jointly hosted a two day consultation on the theme of ‘Poverty North/South – Two Sides of the Same Coin.’  At the time, I remember being challenged by a Brazilian economist and theologian, Marcus Arruda,  that our simplistic ideas of the ‘rich North’ and the ‘poor South’ were outdated.  Instead, he argued, we now have a ‘Global North’ – a rich and powerful global elite of businesses, corporations and the wealthy who can be found in cities across the globe – and who have the power to buy influence with Governments in the North just as much as in the South.

The flipside – he argued – was the ‘Global South’ – the poor and excluded, who struggle to make ends meet in the face of increasing job insecurity, and are increasingly forced to migrate in find of work – and who can be found in the UK now as well as the South – including not just the growing number of economic migrants and refugees, but indigenous communities who have been excluded from the benefits of the global economy.

If the idea that our ‘old’ ideas of ‘Rich North and Poor South’ was outdated back in 1999, how much more so in 2012?

Poverty may not (yet) be as ‘visible’ on the streets of Manchester as on the streets of Manila, but frequently the impact of poverty in our own communities is masked by closed doors, high fences and drawn curtains. People in the UK are less likely to own up to being poor.

For Save the Children, the case for tackling poverty in the UK starts with the bare statistics: The numbers of children living in poverty in the UK (currently 3.5 million) is expected to rise by 400,000 in the coming years, as the economic crisis begins to really bite. And as Save’s own research shows, shows, many UK children living in poverty appear to be going without quite basic items.  Six out of ten parents living in poverty say they have cut back on food and over a quarter have skipped meals in the past year. At the same time, half of children in poverty say that not having enough money makes their parents unhappy or stressed.

A decade ago, it was not always easily to make the connections between this ‘domestic’ face of poverty and the experience of struggling to make ends meet elsewhere. But the credit crunch has changed all of this. Now, more than ever, we can see the power that global economic forces have not just on businesses, or local economies, but on the ability of governments themselves to have the resources to fund health, education or welfare programmes to tackle poverty.

The forces of globalisation are increasingly impacting on the lives of poor communities in both the South and the North.   Within the global economy there are huge inequalities in terms of power, wealth and influence, both within and between countries.

It is therefore no coincidence that Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty have come together for the Tax Justice Bus Tour: Tax Dodging Hurts the Poor in all parts of the world in equal measure. But the challenge does not stop there.  These are fundamental questions for the Church at large.

Putting the needs of the poorest and weakest first is a central challenge of the Christian gospel.   We are ever more conscious of the fact that we are all now members of one world. A global economy, global brands, global tax havens, the world wide web, world trade agreements, and indeed, the emergence of global protest movements are all signs of a rapidly shrinking and changing world.

Is it time we adjusted our own thinking, structures and action to reflect this? Is it time to ditch our old ideas that North and South are separate categories, served by separate and unconnected organisations?  Are we yet truly global in our thinking and action?

More fundamentally, do we need to rethink the way we treat ‘domestic’ and ‘overseas’ as separate and un-connected strands of church life, with their own labels (home mission/overseas mission), separate organisations and separate funding streams?

Not so much Think global, act local, but think and act global and local?

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