We’re not ready for real solutions to inequality

2014-03-31 10:00

I am mulling over my position relative to my fellow country folk as I consider taking the Five Plus Project’s pledge.

Inspired by moral philosopher Peter Singer, the project encourages relatively well-off people to take a public pledge to give at least 5% of their income to organisations and initiatives working to reduce poverty or alleviate its effects.

According to Singer, we have a moral obligation to act to save lives instead of carrying blithely on when we know thousands of children die every day from preventable, poverty-related causes and millions of others are marked for life by its effects.

He says we can and ought to endure the minor inconvenience of forgoing frivolous purchases to redirect these funds to support the life-saving work of organisations that help the poor.

To illustrate this obligation, Singer uses the example of a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. He says there is no conceivable reason for the child to be left to drown.

He is right. It’s a watered-down variation of an argument the poor and working class have been vilified for making for centuries. It seems the argument is now gaining credibility only because small numbers of the wealthy are espousing it too.

Founded by academics, activists and other public figures, many of whom I respect and admire, Five Plus’ appeal is similar. It leaves those of us thinking about taking the pledge to decide if we are well-off compared with others in this country. To help us, the project’s website provides some statistics about income distribution and poverty.

It tells us that less than 15% of the country’s employed population of 13.6?million earns an annual taxable income of R200?000 or more. Presumably, if you earn more than this, you should probably consider yourself well-off relative to the 85% – approximately 11.6?million people – who earn less.

You’re certainly better off than the 4?million unemployed people who are actively looking for work. You’re also better off than the more than 5?million people who in 2008/09 were unable to meet their most basic needs for adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, healthcare and education.

Five Plus provides these statistics and deliberately avoids being prescriptive. It simply agrees with Singer about the existence of a moral duty and suggests the well-off set aside 5% or more of their income for organisations that combat poverty in South Africa.

In assessing my position relative to others in this country and what action is sufficient to meet my obligation, it seems logical to ask an important question: what is my role in benefiting from or tacitly supporting the systems that create, maintain or exacerbate the unequal distribution of income and wealth, and deny people the capacity to provide for their own basic needs?

Without asking this, whatever action I or anybody takes will likely not be good enough.

If, for example, my provident fund is invested in a mining industry that has skimped on developing the poor communities in which it operates while providing me with a good return, am I really fulfilling my obligation by giving to an organisation that helps the poor in mining communities, or am I simply making reparations for the harm I’ve funded and benefited from?

Do these reparations undo the harm, or are they only nursing the fallout, leaving the harm to pass from mother to child for generations to come?

What about the fund manager of my provident fund or the mining executives? Are they fulfilling their obligation in committing at least 5% of their income to ameliorating a social ill they tolerate or exacerbate?

Singer’s illustrative example assumes that we as witnesses to the potential drowning had nothing to do with the pond or how the child wound up in it. But that’s not true of the way poverty is created and operates, as the history of this country illustrates clearly.

Often, those of us who are relatively safe and dry are complicit to varying degrees. Some are accomplices, and others built the pond and threw people in to drown.

I realise Five Plus’ intention was not to say that taking the pledge is all that is needed to discharge the moral obligation. By all means, sign the pledge and do more, if it resonates. But anyone who applies their minds to the question the project poses ought to recognise, too, that our everyday actions in pursuit of wealth and material comfort have a historical and economic interrelatedness to those who create and maintain poverty and inequality.

Once we recognise this incongruence, the things this country and we as individuals are doing in response will rightly appear nowhere near good enough.

Perhaps only then will we be ready for conversations about solutions.

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