Kate Thick: As a species we are jolly good at putting our head in the sand

Journal columnist Kate Thick on why she wants to slap David Cameron and his cronies across the face

Syrian refugee boy Heval, with a bady injured leg suffered in bombing attack, mum Nuseiba at the Qushtapa refugee camp near Erbil in Kurdish Iraq
Syrian refugee boy Heval, with a bady injured leg suffered in bombing attack, mum Nuseiba at the Qushtapa refugee camp near Erbil in Kurdish Iraq

Out of sight, easily out of mind. Watching a couple playing hide and seek with their daughter in a clothes stall at Hexham market on Saturday morning, the following statistics from my morning read over coffee felt as though they came from another planet.

Globally, nearly 1 billion children live in countries affected by armed conflict. Every morning, around 2.5 million British children wake up in a home scarred by poverty. Reports of child rape to police in England and Wales have risen by 37% over the last five years. In Northumbria, 47% of child rape cases reached court in 2013/14, a better conviction rate than most of the rest of the UK so a wee cheer.

I was contemplating what these children’s lives must be like while walking back to the car. Over coffee, I had shown a friend a report, The Society We Want, by the Webb Memorial Trust, a charity in Newcastle. The report says, with regard to poverty in the UK, the qualities people polled most treasure are social ones such as fairness, security, freedom, compassion and tolerance. Economic indicators matter far less.

The World Bank in Washington only thinks in dollars. Rightly, the Bank does not want anyone living on less than $1.25 a day, its definition of poverty. Nearly half the world’s population lives on $2.5 a day, the cost of my cup of coffee. It will take ever-increasing amounts of ‘growth’, as economists call it, to lift them out of penury.

Are dignity, love, safety and equality quantifiable? People who don’t feel in control of their life are hugely stressed. Early childhood experiences can produce lifelong abnormalities in the brain that affect learning, decision-making, memory and mental health. The consequences of poverty begin a cycle of ill-health, deprivation and alienation that goes down the generations. There are a lot of traumatised people on the planet. A tough but moving book I highly recommend is The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma by Bessel van der Kolk.

The importance of investment in early childhood cannot be overstated.

As you have so often read in this newspaper, the government has been warned it must curtail its austerity measures because of the human cost it is having in poorer areas such as the North East. Money is the root of all politics. How about accountability rather than accountancy?

The Webb Memorial Trust report asks “what does a society without poverty look like?” Answers are drawn from population studies, a manifesto created by children and young people, and research projects.

The youngsters identified six key principles to tackle poverty: a minimum standard of income, an equal school experience for all, affordable decent homes for everyone, access to three healthy meals a day, a feeling of safety at home and in communities, and affordable transport. Achievable methinks.

The report suggests we need new perspective and agency if we are to make progress in tackling poverty. Will the government listen?

As a species we are jolly good at putting our head in the sand. I’m an optimist but I fear climate change, water shortage and inequality, which are all man-made, could put the brakes on growth and pose existential threats to humanity. Hard to think what to do while wandering the streets of Hexham when all around you looks so normal.

So far, we are the only species capable of bucking the trend of extinction. Academics disagree whether human beings are becoming less violent and more altruistic.

Most agree however that a ‘civilising process’ came about largely as a result of the increasing power of the state. Perhaps then two steps forward and one back when it comes to evolution. Poverty and war can both be state sponsored. Violence can be outsourced. Civilisation remains inherently fragile. The human spirit can prevail, we are resilient, but we are going to have to strive hard.

I doubt survival rests on turning the world into an unfettered marketplace. There is a L’Oréal ad with the tag line, “Because I’m worth it”. It makes me grit my teeth. I think of it whenever I see Cameron and his cronies and I want to slap them across the face.

Is it too much to expect to have a government founded on rational and moral principles?

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