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Column: Can one person make a difference in the world?

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that you can challenge inequality, but the truth is that our choices will either help or hurt others – so which will it be?

Ciara Galvin

A COUPLE OF weeks ago I was invited to the launch of the “European Year of Development” in Dublin. As European launches go, it was different to the usual, dull, men-in-suits-making-speeches affair; we were treated to a programme of theatre, singing, bona fide clowns, and a brief appearance by President Michael D. Higgins. All development themed, naturally.

This year, 2015, has been designated the European Year of Development as, in a few months’ time, world leaders will sit down to agree new development targets for 2030. These are a successor of sorts to the Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2000, and will cover a similar range of areas like hunger, health, education, and gender inequality. As part of EYD15, citizens across Europe are being invited to become active on development issues. “One person can make a difference” proclaimed the matching T-shirts of a dozen enthusiastic volunteers on the day.

Can one person make a difference?

Writing something on a T-shirt does not necessarily make it true, but in fairness to the organisers, they did an excellent job of highlighting some of the people in Ireland making a positive difference in the development sphere. Attendees heard from Fashion Revolution, a small NGO set up in response to the Rana Plaza disaster; Down to Basics, a network of immigrant entrepreneurs; and Google Science Fair winners Émer Hickey, Ciara Judge and Sophie Healy-Throw, who recently made a discovery that could increase the production of certain foods by up to 70% and has considerable potential to help alleviate world hunger.

The problem with the premise that one person can make a difference, however, seems to be that these ‘change-making’ individuals are just that – individuals. In the “global north” we don’t tend to mobilise or make decisions on who to vote for based on development issues, which are perceived to be the problems of the “global south”.

Off the hook

In Ireland we like to pat ourselves on the back for filling the kids’ Trocaire box during Lent, thinking that we’ve done our bit for the “leanaí gorm”. We then feel free to give out about our state giving foreign aid, and we turn a blind eye to the dehumanising treatment of asylum seekers in our direct provision centres.

We also completely let ourselves off the hook when it comes to the devastating effects of climate change, despite it altering rain patterns, causing droughts, floods and storms, and seriously threatening the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in the global south. Few people seem willing to hear this however, even though ultimately weather extremes caused by climate change will also threaten our own food security.

The ‘growing south in the north’

It is perhaps not unreasonable to ask, as many people do, every time there is a headline about development aid, if the money Ireland gives in aid could not be better spend at home. However, this is something of a false dichotomy, which presumes the only options are either a) spend the money at home, or b) give it away. There are other, better options than cutting aid, such as perhaps c) stop facilitating tax avoidance or d) bring in an financial transactions tax, and use the additional revenue to address both.

Even if it were an either/or situation, it is still arguably in our interest to support development in the global south. Poverty at home and poverty abroad are surprisingly closely related, with the root causes of the “growing south in the north” – as Michael D dubbed it at the launch – lying largely in the modern mobility of capital across state-borders.

Forcing us to compete with countries and companies which have underdeveloped workers’ rights regimes exerts downwards pressure on our working conditions at home, and will continue to do so for as long as they are underdeveloped. Additionally, global tax avoidance, facilitated by ‘pro-business’ economic policies, undermines the ability of states to maintain decent public services and address the social issues around poverty, both at home and abroad.

As such, it’s in all our interests to ensure that not only are the post-2015 development goals met, but that global capitalism is brought to heel, if we would like to maintain a decent standard of living in the future.

Inevitably, our choices will either help or hurt others – so which will it be?

It is, in all honesty, difficult to know what to do or where to go from here. On one hand, the “one person can make a difference” mantra seems terribly naive and inadequate in the face of global capitalism. You might as well single-handedly attempt to move Everest. On the other hand, the positivity and enthusiasm of the ‘you can make a difference’ message is more likely (than complete demoralisation is, at any rate) to encourage people to work individually or collectively towards resolving social issues and/or reigning in capital.

What is clearer is that it’s less the case that one person “can” make a difference in the world than one person “does” make a difference, whether they intend to or not. We all contribute to the emission of carbon dioxide and to a greater or lesser extent perpetuate the system of capitalism. Perhaps the development of decent living standards in the global north and the south will always have their limitations, but some action is still definitely better than no action and ultimately it’s down to each of us to decide if the difference we inevitably make will mostly help or hurt other people.

As the reverse side of the enthusiastic volunteers’ T-shirts asked, in this the European Year of Development, what will you do?

Ciara Galvin was one of three former ‘Youth Media and the Irish Presidency’ project participants invited to cover the launch of #EYD15. She recently earned a Masters in Public Policy from UCD, and previously worked in the European Parliament.

A list of events on development being hosted by Dochas this year is available on their website.

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Ciara Galvin

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