One billion children in extreme poverty: a holocaust on a world-scale

UNICEF has just released its annual report that showed that at least one billion children, half of the world's children, suffer from poverty, war and the Aids epidemic. This figure is in itself a shocking condemnation of the kind of system we live in. The system needs to be overthrown.

UNICEF has just released its annual report, which reveals most shocking figures. Almost one billion children all over the world are denied at least one of seven commodities deemed essential: shelter, water, sanitation, schooling, information, healthcare and food. At least 640 million children lack adequate shelter, while 140 million have never been to school. Safe water is something that 400 million children are denied while 500 million live without basic sanitation. No less than 90 million starved.

As pointed out by UNICEF itself, these conditions in effect deny them a childhood. More than one in six children are severely hungry. One in seven has no access to healthcare at all.

“Too many governments are making informed, deliberate choices that actually hurt childhood,” said Carol Bellamy, UNICEF director at the report launch in London. “When half the world’s children are growing up hungry and unhealthy, when schools have become targets and whole villages are being emptied by Aids, we’ve failed to deliver on the promise of childhood.”

War on the people

From the heart of Africa, where sectarian conflicts are raging through one nation after another, to Latin America, where hurricanes have ruined countless families, and Asia, where floods and landslides have swept whole towns away, it is clear that one group of people pays more than any other – the young and the weak. Half a million children under 15 died of Aids last year and 2.1 million children across the world live with HIV. Fifteen million children have lost a parent to Aids – no less than 80 per cent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Perhaps the most shocking figure in the whole report is not on the terrible conditions half of the world’s children have to suffer. It is the simple solution to this horror. Goals set by the UN in 2000 to lift poverty across the globe could be achieved at a cost of just £52 billion. That may seem a big amount of money but it could be raised in a matter of minutes. Last year, globally £712 billion was spent on weapons. Precisely these guns, mortars, mines and shells are maintaining the present catastrophe, with dirty wars all over the globe.

Indeed, the major factor that keeps more than a billion children in a state of poverty is war. And as usual in our “best of possible worlds”, these wars are fought over material interests, i.e. natural resources such as diamonds, oil and coltan. Ever heard of coltan? It is a mineral used in mobile phones, mined in Africa and exported to the West. According to the UNICEF report, about half of the 3.6 million people killed in wars since 1990 were children. Millions more have been displaced by wars and forced to become child soldiers.

Incidentally, today it was also reported that six years of conflict in the Congo have claimed 3.8 million lives – half of them children – with most victims killed by disease and famine. More than 31,000 civilians die each month as a result of the conflict, the International Rescue Committee reported, citing mortality surveys prepared with the aid of on-site medical teams.

As Carol Bellamy from UNICEF pointed out, “Poverty doesn’t come from nowhere; war doesn’t emerge from nothing; Aids doesn’t spread by its own choice. These are our choices... What we are saying in this report is that choices made by political leaders in many cases are very often negative when it comes to children.”

The report further stated that, “bridging the gap between the ‘ideal childhood’ and ‘reality’ experienced by half the world’s children is possible by adopting a human rights based-approach to social and economic development with special emphasis on reaching out to the most vulnerable.” The questions remains, of course, what the vague “human rights based-approach” is supposed to mean. What is certain is that it won’t be the approach of the Bushes and Blairs of this world. They were caught in a scandal involving torture in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. They are the ones who hypocritically talk about combating Aids while squeezing the African continent and the Middle East with their divide and rule policies. Darfur is only one of the latest examples of this game.

As a side note, “The State of the World’s Children 2005” also stated that even children in better off countries were victims of rising poverty rates. In 11 of 15 industrialized nations, the proportion of children living in low-income households over the last decade has risen. This list includes Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland, where children living in poverty rose to 16.6 percent of all children in the late 1990s and early 2000s from the 14.0 percent it had been a decade earlier. The crisis does not only affect the ex-colonial world – it is a global problem.

Charity or structural solutions?

Today’s Independent reports that 21,297 pounds were raised by its readers to help the sick and the poor in the Third World. Similar campaigns are being held all over the world, raising considerable amounts of money. This shows that a great lot of people do care about the current state of affairs in the world. It proves that all the talk about “inherently evil human beings” is nonsense. Human beings don’t live in a vacuum but are social beings. They are embedded in a social context and will act accordingly. Workers may go on strike in solidarity with a sacked workmate; people appalled by the news they see on their TV screens every day may give something to a charity; and most of the people will simply try to survive and “get on with life” thinking it is not in their power to do anything.

On the other hand, terrible living conditions will create atrocious reactions. That is why next to generous donations on the part of well-meaning people (apart from those like Bill Gates who give a tiny fraction of their wealth to brush up their image) and solidarity in general, we see the other side of the coin, i.e. that humans in certain conditions are indeed capable of committing horrible atrocities, not in the least in the proxy wars in the so-called Third World. There we see the ugly face of barbarism that is threatening the whole of the planet.

In that sense, giving money to a particular cause should be seen as a will to change society. Having said that, we must point out that while charity may temporarily alleviate some suffering, in reality this relief is nothing compared to the big needs of the sick and the poor on this planet. It is not enough to do something “concretely here and now”. For every child that is put into a charity programme, many others are dying at the same time from starvation. The tasks are far bigger. For example, can charity prevent the butchery in the Congo? No, it cannot. At most it can alleviate a small part of the mess that has been created after the damage has been done. Rwanda, where a million people were killed in 1994, is a tragic case in point.

Capitalism is the name of the game

First of all we need to start from a clear analysis of the situation. Why is it that 1.2 billion people are living on 1 dollar a day and 3 billion on 2 dollars a day? (World Bank figures) Utter reactionaries claim African people are inherently incapable of developing their countries. This racist argument is just not serious. Other people claim that the poor in the world should be patient and simply need to follow the example of the West. In the West itself, the argument goes, it also took a hundred years to achieve reasonable wages, social security and the welfare state in general.

What they don’t explain is that in the last century for each of these achievements a bitter struggle had to be waged. These reforms were achieved only through class struggle. It was also achieved in a period of world economic boom. The pressure of the revolutionary waves that followed the First and Second World War were decisive factors in this progress. After the First World War there were revolutions in Russia, Germany and other countries, which terrified the capitalists. They were afraid of a general revolt against their oppressive regimes, in which they risked losing everything. With their backs against the wall, they were forced to give concessions to the working class in the industrialised countries.


However, that was not the end of the story. As a compensation for these reforms, the exploitation of the colonies was intensified. After the Second World War this trend was pushed through even more in order to avoid revolution in the West. The capitalist system can only survive by maintaining exploitation, oppression and inequality in a great part of the world. Within the so-called “free market” system Africa cannot reach the living standards of the West. It is clear that the way forward is not the capitalist road. We need to look further than the narrow perspective offered by most Third World organisations.

The tactics of most NGOs and charity organisations won’t ever solve the fundamental contradictions in society. For example, while in Latin America one revolution after another sweeps the continent, most NGOs propose to create yet another small cooperative or install an extra well. While the people try to overthrow the present regimes, they propose to set up Western style trade unions or to “democratise” their governments.

They forget that these governments only serve the rich and survive thanks to the big landowners and American imperialism in particular. They forget that most Western trade unions have long abandoned the struggle for a better world and only adopt policies of softening serious conflicts with the bosses or government. Thereby they neglect the fact that bourgeois democracies and the state are not neutral but are there to serve capital.

In Africa in particular, the comprador bourgeoisie is openly collaborating with Western imperialism and is in effect a significant part of the problem. So it is not a matter of the “rich North” against the “poor South” but a matter of class against class. In all ex-colonial countries a vicious clique is ruling over the people. Hence, the question should be posed in a political way, that is of overthrowing these regimes, organising the people and making them conscious of their own power instead of limiting oneself to doing symptomatic charity work.

The bleak picture in the whole ex-colonial world contrasts sharply with the promises on children’s rights about a healthy and protected life, as laid out in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This latest report on these terrible conditions is only one more condemnation of the present system. It shows how futile the empty words of all bourgeois politicians are. In spite of their hollow promises (Kyoto, Aids, world poverty), they are not interested in solving these burning questions. Instead they continue their imperialist wars under the fig leaf of democracy and the “war on terror”. But what about this war on the people? In a world with an abundance of resources, tens of thousands of people are dying on a daily basis. What else is this than a new, permanent holocaust?

It is important to understand that there is a method in the madness. These kinds of problems won’t simply go away by adding another drop in the ocean. Structural problems demand structural solutions. They require a radical change in the present economic system.

We cannot solve these fundamental problems by adopting temporary, superficial remedies. We can have a charitable approach, but then a new war breaks out. More people are killed, more basic infrastructure is destroyed. The work of a hundred charities can be undone by one small war.

Wars take place under capitalism because they are terribly profitable. To put an end to this nightmare it is necessary to destroy the very system that causes the wars, the hunger, the poverty. That system is called capitalism. It must be overthrown. That is what Marxists fight for systematically in every corner of the labour movement nationally and internationally.

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