The world is awash with wealth, and on a scale which has never been seen before in human history. Unlike the opulence of the past, which belonged to a handful of privileged individuals and elites, this wealth is shared by unprecedented numbers of ordinary people across the planet. Growth and globalisation have brought higher living standards to billions of men and women.
Yet it is not a wealth which everyone enjoys. In Africa millions of people live each day in abject poverty and squalor. Children are hungry, their bodies stunted and deformed by malnutrition. They cannot read or write. They are needlessly ill. They have to drink dirty water. Those living in Africa’s mushrooming shanty towns live by stinking rubbish tips and breathe polluted air.
We live in a world where new medicines and medical techniques have eradicated many of the diseases and ailments which plagued the rich world. Yet in Africa some four million children under the age of five die each year, two-thirds of them from illnesses which cost very little to treat : malaria is the biggest single killer of African children, and half those deaths could be avoided if their parents had access to diagnosis and drugs that cost not much more than US$1 a dose.
We live in a world where scientists can map the human genome and have developed the technology even to clone a human being. Yet in Africa we allow more than 250,000 women to die each year from complications in pregnancy or childbirth.
We live in a world where the internet in the blink of an eye can transfer more information than any human brain could hold. Yet in Africa each day some 40 million children are not able to go school.
We live in a world which, faced by one of the most devastating diseases ever seen, AIDS, has developed the anti-retroviral drugs to control its advance. Yet in Africa, where 25 million people are infected, those drugs are not made generally available. That means two million people will die of AIDS this year. In Zambia, by 2010 every third child will be an orphan.
We live in a world where rich nations spend as much as the entire income of all the people in Africa subsidising the unnecessary production of unwanted food – to the tune of almost US$1 billion a day. While in Africa hunger is a key factor in more deaths than all the continent’s infectious diseases put together.
We live in a world where every cow in Europe has received almost US$2 a day in subsidies – double, grotesquely, the average income in Africa. And Japanese cows nearly US$4.
The contrast between the lives led by those who live in rich countries and poor people in Africa is the greatest scandal of our age. To convey the enormity of that injustice we speak in millions – and yet we have to remember that behind each statistic lies a child who is precious and loved. Every day that child, and thousands like her, will struggle for breath – and for life – and tragically and painfully lose that fight.
Globalisation must also mean justice on a global scale. The people of the world have an instinctive urge to help those in distress. The response to the tsunami which devastated the rim of the Indian Ocean showed that. More than 300,000 died when the most devastating earthquake of modern times sent a gigantic wave across the seas, destroying everything in its path when it hit the shore. It was an event of peculiarly dramatic horror and the people of the world reacted with spontaneous donations of cash on a scale which had never before been seen.
There is a tsunami every month in Africa. But its deadly tide of disease and hunger steals silently and secretly across the continent. It is not dramatic, and it rarely makes the television news. Its victims die quietly, out of sight, hidden in their pitiful homes. But they perish in the same numbers.
The eyes of the world may be averted from their routine suffering, but the eyes of history are upon us. In years to come, future generations will look back, and wonder how could our world have known and failed to act?