Why Some People Are Poor

There are some things you can't unsee.

There are images that rewrite the world around you at a fundamental level. They can be massive life-changing things or they can be throwaway moments. What links them is the certainty that things will never be the same again.

When I was 15, I saw my first dead body. He had jumped from a block of flats in my neighbourhood. I was just riding my bike past the high rises on my way to my friend's house. It wasn't an incident scene yet. The circus of flashing blue lights and yellow tape was presumably still en route. There was just a solitary policeman attending, standing several paces away from the body, awkwardly mumbling into his radio as he looked around uncomfortably. It was just him, me and the thing on the pavement.

And it was a thing. It didn't feel like a human being. It was swaddled in layers of clothes that hid anything gory or horrific. It didn't seem broken. Just still. An inanimate object. I close my eyes now and I can still see it.

That's when the world changed for me. I couldn't run from a universal truth anymore. Lives end. A he becomes an it. More than that - I understood that sometimes lives got so bad that stepping from the rail of your balcony into empty space became a viable alternative to another sunrise. I had always understood that intellectually. Now I understood it viscerally.

There are some things you can't unsee.

When you first see one of you parents crying and realise that they're just as scared as you are. When someone you love walks out the door and they're not coming back and they look more beautiful than you can ever remember. Or the opposite of that - when you hear a song that speaks of a truth you'd never been able to verbalise before. Or you hold a new born baby - a new sibling, a godchild - and you know that this tiny person is going to be an important part of everything you are for the rest of your life. The world shifts on its axis, the shadows creep across the floor - everything looks the same but it's ever so slightly different.

That was how I felt when I realised I was rich BECAUSE other people were poor.

I'd always known that there were people in desperate poverty in the world. But it wasn't until I went to Bangladesh with Christian Aid that I realised you could draw a straight line between my life and theirs. It wasn't just bad luck on their part.

I had plenty BECAUSE they had too little. I had choices BECAUSE theirs had been taken away. I was free to travel and experience everything BECAUSE they were trapped where they were.

I hadn't taken these things from them directly. But lifetimes of oppression and extraction and appropriation had moved us from a world where there was enough for everyone to a world of haves and have-nots. Every one of us in the Western world is consuming far more than our fair share. To quote Charlotte McDonald on the BBC website:

The world's seven billion people consume varying amounts of the planet's resources. Compare the lifestyle of a subsistence farmer with that of a wealthy city-dweller in a developed country. More land is required to grow the city dweller's food, more materials are used to build the city dweller's home and workplace, more energy is required for transport, heating and cooling.

And if we're taking more of those finite resources, then someone, somewhere is left with less. There's no denying it.

I can't unsee the impact my lifestyle has on my brothers and sisters around the world. I can't claim I don't understand the consequences of my actions. Once the scales fall from your eyes you can never go back.

But please don't misunderstand me, if you're in the same position, I don't want you to beat yourself up about this. I don't want you to become immobile with embarrassment and guilt.

I want you to get organised. I want you to mobilise. I want you to speak out and make a difference because it's going to take A LOT of us to tip the balance.

Thank God there are some things you can't unsee.