That Little Matter of Solving World Poverty, Mr. President

May 28, 2009

Amid the global economic crisis, who stole the spotlight?  The Big Three car makers?  The bigwigs and their bonuses? The big banks that caused all the trouble? That’s where all of the attention has been focused.  But what about the little guys, people whose individual stories we won’t hear, but who will be living in poverty, due to the global financial crisis. Well, according to the World Bank, there will be 53 million more of them because of the economic collapse.

This kind of massive deprivation for basic needs – not luxuries like the Palm Beach condos lost in the Madoff scandal – cannot and will not go unanswered.

Some of the repercussions are already occurring: growing repression, racism and violence.  The Amnesty International Report 2009: State of the World’s Human Rights, released today, labels these brewing problems the “ticking time bomb” underlying the economic crisis.  In Zimbabwe, hundreds of activists protesting economic decline and social conditions were arrested and detained without charge, with police using excessive force to break up protests. Refugees from Zimbabwe in 2008 faced racism and xenophobia in South Africa that led in one instance to 60 deaths and 600 injuries.

While world leaders are focused on attempts to revive the global economy, they are neglecting deadly conflicts that are spawning massive human rights abuses. Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan said that, “Ignoring one crisis to focus on another is a recipe for aggravating both. Economic recovery will be neither sustainable nor equitable if governments fail to tackle human rights abuses that drive and deepen poverty, or armed conflicts that generate new violations.”

Good point. When John McCain tried to duck the first presidential debate, wasn’t it Candidate Obama who said, “Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time”?

So, President Obama. In addition to running GM, appointing a new Supreme Court justice, winding down two wars, gearing up to advance your domestic agenda and closing Guantanamo legally and fairly (come on, you promised “in concert with our core values” ), can’t you do something to help millions of little guys who need food, water, a roof over their heads and a job?

Yep, the United States is expected to exert leadership on every major world crisis. It’s the responsibility that comes with that label we love: “world’s sole superpower.” And U.S. leadership and respect in the world needs a good makeover. Here’s the perfect opportunity.

President Obama could ensure that the United States plays a leadership role in uniting world leaders to give sufficient attention not just to “trickle down” recovery, but to recovery that helps all people. Recovery that would comprehensively address the problems that lead to and keep people in poverty. That must mean addressing the underlying human rights issues that create and exacerbate human rights violations. His chums in the G20 would be a great place to start.

Come on, Mr. President. Yes You Can!

To read Amnesty International’s new report, please visit, for facts and figures, images, graphs, audio and video news releases, and regional and country reports.