Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Poor Will Not Be With You Always

Apparently it is Global Blog Action Day today, or something like that, and the theme for this year is poverty. So...

I doubt we will ever remove relative poverty. Certainly all attempts to create a sufficiently egalitarian society for this to be realistic have failed. But I think we can aspire to end absolute poverty. And since that would rank with ending war in the greatest human achievements of all time, it seems to me a pretty worthy goal.

And clearly this is achievable. Human productivity has risen so much over the last couple of centuries that there now certainly is enough for everyone to have adequate food, clean water, decent if spartan housing and basic medical cover. Yes all that and still enough for large sections of the world to live in unimaginable luxury.

Global Warming will make things much, much tougher, but science isn't going to stop. The productivity of the world, from an economic point of view, will slow, but its unlikely to go much backwards, even per head.

So ending poverty is all about willpower. We haven't done it because, collectively speaking, we simply don't care enough. The developed world giving 1% of its wealth to the poor would do it, just as the UN agreed on it back in 1970. (Note the agreed figure is 0.7% government aid, the rest is to come from private individuals. Indeed, the target is a lot easier to reach these days than it was back then. A goodly chunk of the rich world is now in China and India. The money doesn't even have to flow across national boundaries. The traditionally rich world needs to look after Africa and substantial sections of Asia and Latin America, but it no longer has to worry about the whole rest of the world.

It's true that local wars mean that some regions are resistant to anything the wealthy world can do, but that's actually a pretty small proportion of global poverty. The main thing that is needed now is good aid (not the stuff that ends up with the military and in politicians' pockets) and fair trade. And one of the main things stopping that from happening is the lack of belief that it can work. It really is a case of "nothing to fear but fear itself".

I think the most important thing to do is to keep the pressure on governments to increase aid, or at least not cut it in the face of the credit crunch. But private giving is important as well, and the wonders of the Internet mean you can do that without costing anything but your time.

Most famously. But one can do even better with the search engines that send their profits to charity rather than shareholders. Here or here. You can even feed the world by playing games online. It's true these online measures are a bit of a drop in the ocean. And in some cases the sponsors are other aid organisations, so in a sense the money is just going round in circles, unless they succeed in getting you to actually donate (or buy from their online stores). Which is why its important not to lose site of the main game of putting pressure on the politicians. But these websites do make a powerful point. The rich world is now so rich, credit crisis not withstanding, that it only takes a little of that wealth slopping over the sides to end absolute poverty. So little of the wealth in fact, that we wouldn't even miss it if it was gone.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Good Man Died Today, One Of The Country's Best

Last week when Paul Newman died Pavlov's Cat quoted A Prarie Home Companion, "It's never a tragedy when an old man dies. Forgive him for his shortcomings, and thank him for all his love and care."

By that token, Graeme Laver's death a few days before Newman's, but of which we only heard today, wasn't a tragedy either. Nevertheless, its still sad.

I had the honour of speaking with him a few times, and he seemed like a genuinely nice and caring person. However, if there was any sainthood in him, then it was buried from me. As far as I know he never risked his life for his work, or donated most of his worldly wealth to help the poor. Yet in two stunning achievements he dwarfed the good that Newman did the world through decades of joyous acting, long years of activism and $250 million raised for charity.

Laver's first great achievement was so obscure I'd barely heard of it until today. He discovered a better way to break the influenza virus down into constituent parts, without damaging these parts. The second is slightly more famous. He created such large, clear crystals of neuraminidase, (a component of the flu virus) that pharmaceutical companies have been able to design two drugs, Relenza and Tamiflu to lock onto one of the few stable parts of this everchanging virus and make flu treatment drugs that actually work.

Neither Relenza nor Tamiflu are perfect. Relenza is difficult to take, and needs to be given almost as soon as symptoms start to really be effective. Given the difficulties in telling early flu symptoms from the common cold this is pretty hard. Strains of the flu virus are already showing signs of developing resistnace to Tamiflu.

But the fact remains that when you look at things to be really, really scared of an influenza pandemic lies behind Global Warming and Nuclear War, but ahead of pretty much everything else. The Spanish flu killed 20-40 million in a much less populated world. The next one was always going to be worse, unless someone invented a flu drug first (or a way of making vaccines faster than we can at the moment).

The stockpiles of Relenza and Tamiflu built up around the world give us a fighting chance against the next pandemic, even if the odds are still on dead numbered in seven figures. With any luck there'll be another, better drug in a few more years.

And then there's the matter of the thousands who die of ordinary 'flu every year, and the millions who suffer considerably. Tamiflu in particular has made a difference to a lot of them.

Of course we know that if Laver had chosen to wash cars for a living someone would have made his discoveries eventually. But eventually would probably have been decades later. These don't seem to have been discoveries pipping his rivals by weeks. The years Laver gave us could make all the difference.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sex Sells - And Sometimes It Should

We're all familiar with the use of sex to sell, well everything. It keeps happening because it works. And when you have a worthy cause to sell, it can create something of a conundrum: Use the tried and true method, or hold back through ethical concerns.

Declare yourself, a Hollywood campaign to get young people to register to vote in the 2008 elections (with the sometimes explicit acknowledgment that most who do so will be backing Obama) don't seem to have any qualms. I'm pretty sure there will be mixed feelings from supporters about the pneumatic beauties in skimpy bikinis in some of the ads. However, in this one they've found away around the problem: Make the sex relevant to what you're saying. It's also funny, none of which stops it being hot.

And yes, I know, every blogger worth their salt knows how to embed a Youtube. I don't alright. I never claimed to be technologically competent at everything. Perhaps its just as well there's probably no one listening.