by John Sayer
In February, I took part in Oxfam Trailwalker India. We walked the 100km through dozens of south Indian villages to raise money for the work of Oxfam India.
The villages contained the usual mixture of houses ranging from rainbow-painted palaces to huts made of little more than palm leaves and earth.
Along the way, we chatted with our co-walkers. Caring and committed people, willing to do something to help others, they came from India’s cities and included corporate lawyers, army officers, IT and media workers as well as staff from adventure and trekking companies.
The local Trailwalkers were very much like us – the twelve participants in the four teams who journeyed to India from Hong Kong for the event. They were wearing smart sportswear from international brands, and carried all the hi-tech equipment to help them finish the long and grueling walk.
It confirmed the view that there are two worlds in India. Despite the headlines of India’s new silicon valley and world-beating multinational corporations, the country is also home to more of the world’s poor people than any other country in the world, some 35% of those below the World Bank’s international poverty line of US$1.25 a day. China follows with 16% of those below the line. So together, these two countries alone account for the majority of poverty in the world today.
And yet we are watching these two giants, emerging economies with anticipation, predicting a multi polar world and the rise of the Asian Century.
In fact, the rapid growth of emerging economies like India and China has to be attributed at least in part to this very gap between rich and poor people. The army of low-wage migrant workers enables basic services, construction and other essential elements of growth to be carried out more cheaply here than in the more developed economies. The legions of village women working as domestic servants in middle-class households free up an entire generation of educated women to contribute to economic growth.
For all of us committed to doing something about poverty, it seems that more than ever before, the task is one of working for a more even distribution of the fruits of economic growth, and a fairer access to those opportunities that lead to secure and decent livelihoods. So the role for organisations like Oxfam should be more and more related to advocacy which ensures government policies and business practices incentivise the hard work of poor people rather than privilege the rich.
Government budgets in India and China are growing along with the economy. For a fair and stable society, these budgets must be directed towards equal opportunities, effective education and health care for all, action to ensure companies offer living wages and safe working conditions, and fiscal measures which ensure poorer people get a fair return for their hard work.
In addition to Oxfam projects intended to make people more economically productive and self-sufficient, we also strive to increase people’s capacity to organise collectively to market their produce, to articulate their needs to the authorities, to make their views and opinions count in society. We can only really ‘help people to help themselves’ if our work contributes to an increase in people’s self-confidence and social capacity, as well as their productivity.
As we walked through village after village, we saw the farmers walking their cattle out to the fields in the mists of dawn, and then home again at dusk. We saw some children on their way to and from school, and others barefoot in the fields. Many of these people are still waiting to experience the economic miracle of India.
John Sayer is Director General of Oxfam Hong Kong. His service with the agency began in 1991, as Programme Director for Oxfam Hong Kong. He has also served as Executive Director of Oxfam International.