Rio+20: Changing the face of development – invisible fingerprints need to be recognised

Achieving an impressive third place in our Rio competition, BA Combined Honours student Claire Chisholm impressed all of the judges with her eloquent, powerful and well thought-out entry.

Many of the judges commented on the fact that Claire’s entry was among a handful to stick in the mind long after being put down, and her entry prompted a great deal of debate during the judging panel.

As a result of this entry, we’re delighted to be able to announce that Claire has also successfully secured funding to enable her to attend the Earth Summit in Rio in June – we’re really looking forward to seeing your reports from Rio, Claire, and we’re sure you’ll find it a life-changing experience!


Changing the face of development – invisible fingerprints need to be recognised

The interconnected world economy and recent intensification of global communication has seen the phenomenon of globalisation accelerate – irreversibly transforming almost every nation on earth and linking our global neighbours to the society we inhabit today.

However, this globalisation process has been enormously uneven in its effects. The asymmetry between the ‘developed’ North and ‘developing’ South is painfully apparent when you consider, for example, that the total income of the bottom 41% of the world’s poorest people is still less than that earned by the richest 200 [1]. Further chilling figures show that 1.4 billion people live on less than $1 per day; almost the same lack access to safe drinking water; nearly a billion are illiterate; and some 840 million people are chronically hungry of malnourished because they lack access to food [2].

This growing magnitude of interconnectedness and deepening awareness that the world is – essentially – becoming a shared social arena has had somewhat conflicting and ironic consequences. On the one hand, the mass media have revolutionised the way we deal with the rest of the world by mediating the means we have of understanding, interpreting and communicating what the world is like. World media, in this respect, has had a significant impact on sustainable development and poverty alleviation, and yet due to the enormous scale of the problem, such efforts have been equated to a mere drop in the ocean.

For example – despite the massive awareness of starvation and widespread disease in Africa raised by the Band Aid project in the 80s, aid in Africa has actually fallen from $33 to $19 per person in the last two decades [3]. As stated by former prime-minister Gordon Brown, “having shocked people in the 1980s, it is harder to re-shock them and re-shock them again”.

Whilst the mass media have has a highly positive effect on third world development, it seems, with so much media coverage, the public is becoming numbed to the problem. As reiterated by the former editor of one British broadsheet, who bluntly stated, “the fact is that stories on poverty do not sell… they are not as good as entertainment” [4]… And yet surely it is much more important?

By all accounts, it would appear that the issue of development is being reduced to yet another product to be sold to an affluent, capitalist public; begging the question – has the globalisation of poverty made it into a commodity itself? It is debatable.

It seems as though poverty has become more about entitlement than availability. As thousands of people still go hungry in our world of plenty, has our material emphasis led to the creation of a “system of production that ravishes nature and a society that mutilates man?” [5] I would argue that it has. We fail to cut the problem of global exploitation off at the source by examining our own lifestyles and question the direct affect our actions have on those living in poverty. How many of us actually spare a though for the cocoa farmer whose beans produced our chocolate? Never mind dwell on the fact that, unbelievably, the average UK family spends more on chocolate than a cocoa farmer earns annually [6]. Far from acting as a catalyst for economic and social change, or using our influence to alleviate poverty, we, in the developed world, typically miss the sad irony of donating to charities combating Third World hunger and buying clothes produced in sweatshops on the same day.

Unquestionably, we have the power to lift millions of people out of poverty. Our daily life depends on global trade; from the 31 billion cups of coffee made in the UK each year, to the £33 billion spent on imported clothing in 2002, or the average 5000 miles your breakfast travelled to reach you [7]. The seemingly insignificant choices we make each day have global ramifications, and each of us has a voice and buying power to make a difference. Indeed, small things have such massive consequences that I am tempted to think there are no small things.

Trade, for example, could be a significant contributor to poverty reduction, yet many companies do not practice social responsibility, making decisions that impact millions of people while they reap the benefits of trade…

“We can read accounts of developing countries and be appalled. Our first though might be that, for example, factory managers of sweatshops are to blame… yet the pressure on the workers to work faster, and for longer hours, starts far from the factory floor. The root of the problem is closer to home. The finger of blame points right back to the source; the companies who place the orders and the consumers who create them” [8]

In the western world, profit is being prioritised above people and simply reinforcing poverty. Whilst others supply the products that make our lives possible, we find it hard enough to remember to smile at the person at the checkout, let alone spare a though for someone on the other side of the world sewing our clothes and picking our fruit.

In our multicultural society, those living in poverty seem to be as invisible as their fingerprints left all over our consumables. What we need is a country that asks ‘why’ and not ‘how much’ [9]; a media who don’t treat human suffering as another brand, simply used to manipulate; and a society that understands that we all play our part in creating poverty and thus all need to play our part in development. What we need is for the face of development to change; for every member of society to play their part and for everyone to be made aware of its importance.

Claire Chisholm, BA Combined Honours


[1] Wilson, Francis (2001) Poverty Reduction: What Role for the State in Today’s Globalised Economy?

[2] UNDP 1999

[3] BBC 2004

[4] Yelland 2004

[5] Schumacher 1973

[6] Westlake and Stansfield 2001

[7] Westlake and Stansfield 2001

[8] Westlake and Stansfield 2001 “Lift the Label” – Tearfund

[9] Anita Roddick – Founder of the Body Shop

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