Monday, March 22, 2010

Preventing the Scourge of War

As I've already described, I toured the United Nations a couple of weeks ago. That visit convinced me we are citizens of the world, and not just citizens of a specific country. Not to suggest we do away with our borders or sovereignty, but I believe we are our brother's keeper, and our brothers live all around the world. With that in mind, here is my opinion piece in today's Small Town Newspaper (already, at 6:30 am, there are unpleasant online comments, so I won't be checking them today):

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Preventing another world war is in the best interest of everyone, but working to end extreme poverty is just as essential. Out of hunger and thirst comes anguish, and out of anguish comes desperation and desperate acts rippling into waves that affect us all. This message was impressed upon me after a recent tour of the United Nations headquarters in New York.

I know very little about the United Nations, so I was eager to learn what I could from the tour. The tour guide explained the reason for the founding of the U.N. immediately following World War II, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” And she pointed out the various gifts donated by some of the 192 member nations.

Luxembourg’s gift is a sculpture of a handgun with its barrel twisted into a knot. Spain contributed a looming mural with prison camp imagery melding into images of men and women rebuilding their lives in a time of peace. The United States gave a mosaic of Normal Rockwell’s painting depicting the various religions of the world that honor some version of the Golden Rule, and Norway donated the entire Security Council chamber.

From Brazil came two large paintings displayed in the entryway—one representing war and the other peace. The guide explained that as representatives enter the building, they are confronted by the war panel, a prompt for why the U.N. was established in the first place; and when they leave the building, they pass by the peace panel, a reminder of the big job at hand, one that must be accomplished both inside and outside the U.N. chambers.

Because world leaders have learned the direct correlation between developing social stability and feeding the hungry, the U.N. puts its resources into fighting extreme poverty. And its tour guides recite statistics of need around the world—half of us lives on less than $2.50 a day, and a child dies of hunger every six seconds.

Did you know that nearly one billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water and that tens of thousands die each day from diseases contracted from impure water? And did you know that all the nations combined spend more than $780 billion each year to fund their militaries but only $9 billion on improving water and sanitation?

Near the end of a tour that I expected to be simply interesting, I was moved to tears by the gross need around the world, actual desperation from which I am isolated in my daily life. I would have left the facility completely disheartened had I not also learned of what U.N. programs are doing to help.

Five years ago, the General Assembly established a ten-year program specifically to fight poverty, disease, discrimination, illiteracy and hunger around the world. And now halfway through the decade, participating nations will be meeting today on what has been declared World Water Day to assess their progress—they had originally hoped to cut extreme poverty by half but are falling short of the goal.

Temporary tent cities ease the burden after a massive earthquake, peacekeepers provide security along unstable borders and truckloads of basic supplies feed the hungry in areas where there would be no food otherwise. Programs like School-in-A-Box help provide education for children without schools, and Fill the Cup is a global effort to feed the 59 million hungry children around the world.

While some of these programs may seem like nothing but a temporary bandage, and it may seem that the war on poverty is unwinnable even one battle or skirmish at a time, I take heart in knowing that the international community is at least making an effort. We are at least recognizing that we cannot turn a blind eye or calloused heart toward those who truly suffer.

I’m not sure how all of this new-found knowledge will affect how I live, beyond leading me to contribute money to causes fighting world hunger and being grateful for my bounty. If nothing else, it has drawn me out of my insulating cocoon in one of the richest nations on earth. And it has reminded me that the world, full of need, is far more than what is directly in front of me and within my immediate grasp.

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