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THE LIABILITY OF WEALTH


Most people on this planet are poor. Most of us in New Zealand are fortunate by comparison. So what, if anything, is our responsibility given this inherently unfair situation?

Responsibility for the plight of the poor of this world has many dimensions. On one hand are all the debates surrounding the complex issues of causality - the Marxists versus the Neo-liberals e.t.c. Such arguments serve to ascertain, for example, whether our wealth depends upon their poverty, and whether our politic prevents their reform. Yet a much simpler dimension to our assumed responsibility exists beyond the formal politics of inequality. John Isbister, in his book Promises Not Kept, summarises it nicely: "Living in a world of obscene inequality, the privileged have the moral responsibility to do what they can do to improve the lot of the less privileged. This responsibility arises from a common humanity of all people; we are a single species." Such a responsibility to the poor is recognised by most ethical and religious systems. Unless, of course, you happen to promote social Darwinism, walking as you do with your uncomfortably high stepping action.

Despite this intuitively just outlook, most people in the First World remain passively inactive by the tragedy that surrounds them. The mainstream media may be partially to blame, for the few impressions we might have of the Third World come predominantly from this source. Instead of engendering empathy and identity with our fellow beings, select images often foster fear and prejudice. Images often depict irrational acts of terror, human rights abuses, the military dictator strutting and posturing (note how CNN depicted Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War), Islamic fundamentalists extorting their followers to rise up, Communists burning the US flag, armed civilians in a State of chaos, e.t.c. These images are not all entirely fantasies - the Third World has more than its fair share of tyrants. But they are distortions in the way that they work to limit the bounds of discourse away from a much more universal issue at stake in the world. That issue is the existence of inequality, and the existence of poverty, with all its associated fear, hunger, disease, and premature death.

The results of our complacent attitudes towards what we understand about our world is that we, in the First World, do not know (or care) about the desperate situation of our fellow brothers and sisters. In an attempt to sidestep the issue of inequality, we naturally avoid thinking of ourselves as 'rich' or 'privileged', let alone 'oppressors'. Rather, we behave more like the little fish in this world, just minding our business and trying to get by. We carry vague notions of our responsibility, but our complacency ultimately seals our complicity in the crime. Our myopic fish-tank outlook is nonsensical from a global perspective. What would be closer to the truth would be to think of ourselves (mostly) as citizens of a nation of privilege - members of an exclusive First World élite. Such a global worldview may help force us to face, at last, the glaring implications of being so rich amongst so many poor.

Robert Bentz Ashe

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