01.02.2009

A Sense of Proportion

Adrian Glamorgan learns that the resources to address humanity's most urgent problems are well within reach.

Adrian Glamorgan learns that the resources to address humanity's most urgent problems are well within reach.

Recycling is important, no question, but don't be dazzled by the changing of light globes. Our world is in environmental trouble, and we need a broader vision than holding individuals solely responsible. Finding out ways first to understand and then to make nation states accountable is vital. How we allocate our accumulated planetary wealth matters, for keeps.

This is the message of Felicity Hill, VP for Geneva based Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a remarkable organisation with offices around the world. WILPF started way back in 1915 and, still going strong, envisions a world free from violence, poverty, pollution and dominance.

"Recycled toilet paper is important," Felicity says, "but every time a B52 bomber goes into the air it has to be cleaned, and the substances that are used to clean the plane have CFCs [that destroy the ozone layer] equivalent to a family of five standing with their fingers on two aerosol cans for their entire 70 year life span. Every time a B52 goes into the air. It's routine. It's like pouring acid on the steel coating of our environment."

Felicity Hill speaks with poise, care and purpose, as someone who has worked as Peace and Security Adviser for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, a consultant to Greenpeace International, and who helped found I-CAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Facts are at her fingertips, and she's not afraid to use them.

"The annual global military budget is $1,339 billion a year," she explains. "That's the equivalent of 600 years of United Nations budget, the UN with all its large salaries and ambitious programs. To achieve the Millennium Development Goals [to take care of the world's poor by 2015] we need only about $135 billion per year. People say about the Millennium Development Goals, 'Oh, it's impossible, it will never happen,' but they're so achievable, so graspable. The $135 billion is what will be spent on just occupying Iraq in 2009."

One country stands out in terms of military expenditure. It spends a colossal 45 per cent of the world's military budget. Meet the United States. The next biggest military big spenders, Britain, China, France and Japan, spend only 4-5 per cent each of the world's total. In other words, America's military spending towers over the rest of the world. And the world gets hungry. And the environmental problems are not addressed.

When we hear these big numbers, we need to hear what they mean, to put them in proportion, to see what is being spent on and what isn't. So I started thinking. President George Bush Jnr offered a mammoth $700 billion rescue plan to keep Wall Street afloat. The money was there when Wall Street needed it. The next president, Barack Obama, has rightly been concerned about American Main Street.

But the Rest of the World could have had the Millennium Development Goals paid for, cashed up and carried, well ahead of the 2015 target date. We would have dealt with starvation, and dirty water, and poor women's health, and child mortality and a lack of human rights processes, and environmental degradation. All answered. If the Americans had found the money for that, they would have lost their military budget for the year, or their Wall Street bailout, but they would have brought about a great deal of good that would be remembered for centuries.

Getting a sense of proportion doesn't just come from crunching the numbers, though. WILPF's international vice president has a vision that the possibility of change is ready to come.

"The United Nations is an epic place, where miracles can happen, so many speakers can speak into a microphone, you can see people reaching out across languages and time, reaching each other, the 'Aha' moments even though much is contrived, and there are prepared notes, and diplomats don't seem to have the agency to be creative. But sometimes governments and individuals take the chance."

Felicity speaks movingly of the time at the United Nations when ordinary women came to speak there about the impact of war. "Women experienced in war found a voice to speak, to demand change not because they suffered, but because they existed. They made the impact of war on women a peace and security issue not a "tsk tsk horror" that happens to one side of war, but what happens to women is war.

"Women told stories of what happened to them, and other people, and there was courage in telling the story. But there was also courage in listening to them. It was an historic moment, a shift. It took 55 years of the Security Council meeting daily, before they understood the way that war affects women differently."

In 1998 some diplomats came to Geneva and established the "New Agenda Coalition": seven middle power countries keen to bring about nuclear disarmament. "Australia should have been a member, but wasn't," laments Felicity, who spent 12 years around the UN with diplomats from everyway shaking their heads about Australia's stance on issues.

But she returns to the theme: "The New Agenda Coalition pushed the envelope on nuclear weapons, and it took courage and they were in some ways punished, but they forced the nuclear weapon states, because of their sheer reasonableness, and the nuclear states own rhetorical self entrapment, to accept a 13 point plan for irreversibly getting rid of nuclear weapons, including 'an unequivocal undertaking' to eliminate their own nuclear arsenals. People like David Atwood from QUNO were able to turn the key for an international ban on landmines. Humanity is evolving," she says with certainty.

During global opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Felicity Hill recollects how while working at the UN, "I first saw the direct link between what was going on in the street and how it affected countries. It gave backbone, inserted vertebrae into the French and German foreign ministers who spoke against the invasion. They stood up against the mores inside the UN, they were able to challenge the undermining of their masculinity and pride in their state identity, and defied it to stand with the people who saying peace, because of such a massive outpouring of 'No!'"

Making the Earth Century sustainable is an enormous task, but people like Felicity Hill and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom help show us how much is achievable. Their sense of proportion brings peace and environmental change within reach. The healing humanity needs is well within our gentle grasp. WILFP's message makes for a safer world; these women who care so passionately, act so patiently, to help us collectively reach our critical will. And yes, there is a place for us beside them.

Your choice?

$30 billion: providing universal access to water and sanitation around the world, or fulfilling half of the US Air Force's acquisition program for the new stealth jet fighter F-22 Raptor?$42 billion: 20 of malaria prevention, or 20 of NATO's missile defence system?$135 billion: Implementing all of the Millenium Development Goals, or occupying Iraq in 2009?

Source: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

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