|We live with the illusion of equality, but we are not equal; with the aspiration of justice, but life is rarely just. We live with the ideal of truth, but we cannot distinguish truth from lies; with the impression of freedom, yet social conventions, national borders, and invisible economic ties confine us. We live with the illusion of helplessness and think that we don’t have the power to change the world, yet we are not helpless. We don’t always have justice, equality or freedom. But we do have Power, the Power to change this.
Since the beginning of time, we’ve known of kings and beggars, of battles for power, of slaves and masters. But kings were overthrown, and instead democracy was installed. Slavery was abolished and we are now free. Colonization of countries and territories no longer happens. Or so we think. We now have diplomatic and economic relations. We believe to live in a free, just world, a world of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Or is it just an illusion?
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
– George Orwell.
If you were lucky enough to be born in a developed country, for instance in Switzerland, you were blessed with a long life expectancy of 82 years. If instead you were born in Afghanistan, you are expected to live only half of that time: 44 years. This difference has increased by 16 years in the last 30 years. If you were born in a poor country, you might end up being one of the 10 million children who die each year from preventable causes. Children born in Afghanistan have a 50 times higher chance of dying when born than those in Switzerland. Mothers in Afghanistan have a 360 times higher chance of dying when giving birth than those in Switzerland.
Inequality in the world is increasing. Resources are not distributed fairly. For example, the income ratio of the one fifth of the world’s population in the wealthiest countries to the one fifth in the poorest went from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 74 to 1 in 1995. While 750 million people worldwide are obese, 925 million suffer of chronic hunger. The gap between poor and rich is increasing not only in the context of different nations, but also between social classes within the same country.
The high discrepancy of quality of life and opportunities in different parts of the world is no longer a consequence of harsh living conditions, lack of resources in certain world regions, but rather is due to unjust distribution of power. In 1998 the United Nations Development Program estimated that it would cost an additional $9 billion above current money spent to provide clean water and sanitation for everyone on earth. It would cost an additional $12 billion to cover reproductive health services for all women worldwide. This is not a lot compared to other costs and profits. In 2009 only, Microsoft and WalMart had a profit of $14 billion each. The budget of the US military for 2010 was $663.8 billion.
The world actually produces enough food to feed all of us. The principal underlying cause of poverty and hunger is in fact not lack of food or money, but the economic and political systems in the world. Political games for power are always played behind the scenes. The world’s resources are used unevenly or unjustly. The most indebted countries have natural resources which are at stake and which represent their last hope for survival. Little by little, they are selling their last assets to stay alive a little longer. Despite billions of dollars in oil revenue, 70% of people in Nigeria live below the poverty line.
To secure more resources, the powerful exploit the powerless. Whether for oil, minerals, exotic fruits or land, political drama unfolds behind the curtains. Essentially control over resources and income is based on military, political and economic power that typically ends up in the hands of a minority who live well, while those at the bottom barely survive, if they do.
In 2000, the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress found a failure rate of 55-60% for all World Bank-sponsored projects, mostly meant to help nations boost their economic future and improve their prosperity. In Africa -- the continent with probably the most resources in the world -- the failure rate reached 73%. While developed countries and organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are set to help developing countries boost their economies and fight poverty, from some regards, serial failures seem to suggest deep games for power that go beyond humanitarian and altruistic concerns.
Today, corporations have taken control over much of the production and commerce in developing countries. A handful of oil and other resource extractive companies control not only the markets, but also the governments of countries that possess the resources. According to a wikileaked US diplomatic cable, the oil giant Shell claimed it had inserted staff into all the main ministries of the Nigerian government, giving it access to politicians' every move in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Today, there is a dire need for more transparency and accountability in the world, within organizations, businesses and governments alike. Countless activists around the world show that changes are possible, that we have the power to demand truth and take our freedom. To achieve justice, we should strive for a society based more on cooperation than on greed and competition for resources. Openness and transparency are the only way to ensure that power abuses do not happen.
No, we are not born equal, and no, those with power do not always treat us justly. But we can topple the balance of power and rise above our conditions, above the limitations that life and others seem to have decided for us. We are told we can’t every single day. We are confined by our limitations, by social rules, fear of rulers. We complacently accept that the power of decision and change is in the hands of politicians and bosses, but this is a mere excuse for our lack of action. We spend our lives waiting for justice and freedom from those who are said to have the power to give it: from our kings, bosses, judges and magistrates, and ultimately from God. But we forget that “Freedoms are not given. They are taken.” (Peter Kropotkin)
Freedom is the most important asset we have in life. Unlike gold, oil, iPods, and stock market shares, it is worth dying for freedom. Freedom is not always something we are born with, but it is something we all can take. Whether digging up our way out of the prison as an Alexandre Dumas hero, or taking the power to stand up for equal rights in front of a husband, power is here, in our hands. Power is the one thing we do have.
We should not compromise our principles and sell our freedom: not for a peace of bread, not for the illusion of security, not for the comfort of luxury. As Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Every time we give up our freedom, we accept and foster an unjust distribution of power.
Icons from the past, incredible revolutions and moments of change in time stand as witnesses and incontestable proof of the greatness we can achieve, of the power we have to make justice and obtain our freedom.
Written over 100 years before the communist revolutions, Peter Kropotkin’s words stand as relevant today as ever.
“Do you want to have freedom to speak and write whatever seems right to you? Do you want to have the liberty to meet and organize? It is not from a parliament that we seekers of freedom should ask permission, nor must we beg a law from the Senate. We must become an organized force, capable of showing our teeth every time anyone sets about restraining our rights of speech and meeting; we must be strong, and then we may be sure that nobody will dare dispute our right to speak, to write, to print what we write, and meet together.
Freedoms are not given, they are taken.”
Peter Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, Chapter 5: Political Rights
Freedom, like any thing worth fighting for, does not come easy. It is rarely a gift, a given. But perseverance is the key to success. We have one life, and it is up to us to decide how to live it. We all have the power to rise above our conditions and take the freedoms we deserve. As I write this essay, in a not to remote part of the world, people are out in the streets, risking their lives for their freedom and for a better future for their children. A revolution is happening, as it happened in Romania when I was a child. From time to time, I think of how different my life would be, had that not happened. I think of the Romanians who went out on the streets in December 1989, over a few days that changed the lives of 23 million people, of their children and grandchildren. Back then, I was even too young to begin to understand the importance of the moment. I think about all the freedoms I experience now, of all the possibilities I have, things that I otherwise would not have even known are possible.
One way or another, we all live in a jail, and it is up to us to break the walls, to dig the ditches, and see the light outside. We cannot let those with power tell us we cannot. We have a responsibility to act when we see injustice. We have a responsibility to our children not only to leave them a fairer world, but also to set an example on how to stand up. Incredible power arises from the simplest words and ideas, from courageous, selfless acts of justice and freedom. The simple idea of freedom and justice enables great change.
We don’t always have justice, equality or freedom. But we have Power. The Power to decide our destiny, to take our freedom and tell the truth. That is all we need: Power. Just Power.
Black, Robert, Saul Morris, Jennifer Bryce, “Where and why are 10 million children dying every year?”, The Lancet, Volume 361, Issue 9376, Pages 2226 - 2234, 28 June 2003.
Among children born in Switzerland, only five in a thousand die at birth. In Afghanistan, 257 do; among those that survive, 500 more will die before they turn 5. Based on "World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision". New York: Department for Economic and Social Affairs. http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/indicators/69206.html
UNICEF estimates that the maternal mortality ratio to 5 in 100,000 in Switzerland and 1,800 in 100,000 in Afghanistan. Maternal mortality is defined as death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days after terminating a pregnancy (UNICEF, 2010).
United Nations, Human Development Report, New York, United Nations, 1999.
Child Obesity Statistics: http://www.annecollins.com/obesity/child-obesity-stats.htm
Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations. “925 million in chronic hunger worldwide”. 14 September 2010. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/45210/icode/.
White House, Updated Summary Tables, Budget of the United States Government Fiscal Year 2010 (Table S.12). http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy10/browse.html.
David Smith, “WikiLeaks cables: Shell's grip on Nigerian state revealed”, The Guardian, 8 December 2010, http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/IMF_WB/IMF_WB_Facts.html
Benjamin Franklin, William Temple Franklin. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin. London: H. Colburn, page 270, 1818. http://books.google.ca/books?id=W2MFAAAAQAAJ