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We should all be pursuing a lasting victory over world want

By James Cumes - posted Friday, 15 February 2002

In his famous Four Freedoms speech in 1941, President Roosevelt called for Freedom from Want. Sixty years later - just one month ago - his successor, President Clinton, in his BBC Dimbleby Lecture, reminded us that billions, including many in the richest countries on earth, still live in dire poverty, are homeless or poorly housed, are educated far below their potential, and lack adequate medical care. He told us that one and a half billion people - a quarter of the world's population - never get to drink a glass of clean water.

Isn't it time we determined to remedy this tragic situation, to strive to reach the 60-year-old goal and to free the world from want?

If governments won't do it, should not the people, in the exercise of direct democracy, take the matter into their own hands?


That is the essential concept behind "A Democratic Initiative for Victory Over Want (VOW)."

To realise worldwide victory over want is a sufficient challenge in itself. It is a sufficient reason for us to bend all our efforts to achieve it.

However, there are other, compelling reasons why we must accept the challenge.

The war in Afghanistan will not bring an end to terrorism or deliver us the peaceful change we need. Nothing can justify the monstrous acts of September the Eleventh; but we must be positive in our response. We need to show vision in acknowledging the extent of human poverty and deprivation. We must acknowledge our failure to respect human aspirations and ensure that people are not, in Roosevelt's words, "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."

We are right now in the paradoxically "fortunate" position that we can be both hard-headed and humanitarian. We can help ourselves while we help others. For once, we can "globalise" in our own self-interest while we lift up the lives of billions of our fellow human beings.

We can do that especially now because the world's three largest economies - the United States, Japan and Germany - are already in a recession that, in the coming months, could deepen and spread.


Only the elderly now have personal memories of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The entire economic, social and political systems of old, proud and powerful societies seemed then to be crumbling. Many had up to a quarter of their workers idle. From the Okies who trudged to California to the tramps on the dusty roads of the Australian outback, the story was of people who had little left except courage and a will to endure.

We sought desperate remedies. Communism and other left-wing ideologies gained support and authority. Fascism, nazism and militarism took over in several of the most powerful countries. By the end of the 1930s, countries still crippled by economic distress and insecurity stumbled into the most widespread, destructive and murderous war the world has ever known.

Only the elderly remember; but none of us should ever forget.

Nothing we did to solve the long economic crisis really worked – or not enough. Some expedients – balancing budgets and cutting public expenditures, for example – served only to dig the depression deeper.

However, some policies did lighten the dark clouds. They were projects of public investment mostly forced on unwilling governments in order to give some relief, however inadequate, to the armies of unemployed.

Britain had its public housing projects. In the United States, the famous Tennessee Valley Authority showed what public enterprise could do to help private enterprise get back on its feet. In Australia, parts of our cities were sewered for the first time by relief workers toiling with pick and shovel for a day or two each week, earning 75 cents a day.

In the last twenty years, public investment has gone out of fashion, but we must be clear that it is not the enemy of private investment and enterprise. On the contrary, and especially when times are tough, public investment is, for the private sector, a close, stalwart and indispensable friend.

So we have a need to re-launch the world economy back to prosperity and a simultaneous long-term, global need to lift the quality of life and meet the aspirations of billions of our fellow human beings.

Those are the imperatives that Victory Over Want is designed to meet. Can we meet them? Do we have the resources?

President Clinton was confident last month that we do. For the cost of the "cheap war" in Afghanistan, costing $12 billion a year, the United States can meet its share of the cost of abolishing poverty, he said, and still have "money left over."

Even more recently, on 30 January 2002, he told an international audience in Dubai that "technology can accelerate by a generation" victory over want everywhere.

Our crime is that we waste our resources. We throw them away. It has been estimated that, between September and November last year alone, the rise in unemployment from about four to nearly six per cent cost the American economy about $350 billion. Just consider how that cost compares with the total Australian gross national product. Consider the contribution elimination of this waste could make to the abolition of poverty, homelessness, disease, environmental pollution and the rest, not only in the United States but around the world.

We must bear in mind that the rise in unemployment in the major economies might be far from over. We might be only at the start. The recent dip in the United States workless rate might be only a return to the downward trend intensified by the shock of September the Eleventh. Will the United States rate reach 8 or even 10 per cent? In Germany, the workless now number more than 4 million. In Japan, unemployment is at record post-war highs and threatens to go higher still.

If governments won't act to stop this waste and turn our resources into productive channels, then private individuals – exercising their right to direct democracy - must act or force them to act in ways that they, the people, direct. That is what VOW proposes.

VOW envisages a process whereby people of all races, religions and secular beliefs will work together for the common good – to accelerate, as President Clinton suggested, our reaching the goal of freedom from want "by a generation" – and perhaps more.

The process involves, first, a gathering of moral support from all around the world. Then Commissions will be convened on a wide range of issues.

We will have Commissions on, for example, Economic Growth and Employment; Wealth, Income and Inequality; Mobilising Financial Resources for the War against Want; Financial and Other Pledges for the War against Want; Priority Destinations for Public Investment; Housing the Homeless; Free, Universal Education; Free, Universal Health Care; Water Resources; Transport and Communications; Rights of Economic Migrants and Asylum Seekers and Regulation of Economic, Social and Political Migration; Logistics for the World Conference; and Conference Participation and Issue of Invitations.

People sitting around the tables at these Commissions will be from India and Ireland, China and Peru, Nigeria and Nicaragua. They will be Moslems and Methodists, Brahmins and Buddhists, Catholics and Jews.

Some will be poor, others rich. The disadvantaged will sit alongside the "elites."

Their common quality will be their determination to promote the common "global" good, to reconcile differences, to abolish want and, through it all, to achieve peaceful, continuing change for the betterment of all.

The Commissions will report to a World Conference which will decide on ways to implement agreed measures.

It is crucial that, within this process, voices of dissent be heard and the content of dissent thoroughly debated. They must not be shut out as they have been from intergovernmental gatherings from Seattle to Genoa, Montreal to Melbourne; and from the World Economic Forum, in Davos and New York, where agenda and guests were acceptable to the world's 1000 foremost corporations and their smaller governing group.

That exclusion of other voices, other ideas must stop.

Governments and their mainstream advisers have failed. They have failed even to listen. Participants in the VOW process must therefore help us make a fresh start, with fresh ideas and fresh policies. Governments of goodwill and their equivalent in the economic, social and political mainstream are welcome but they must not be allowed to dominate the process.

We must have a real globalisation of ideas, not a globalisation of formulae devised to serve the self-interest of particular countries or particular economic, social or other groups.

The process will draw on the expertise of those who know both the immensity of the task and the means by which it can be successfully accomplished. We have, for example, the support of the Institute for Creditary Economics, with headquarters in Norway and Members in several countries, whose guidance will be invaluable in setting the financial framework within which VOW can reach its goals more surely and speedily. The Institute also has Members with creative expertise in urban and other transport systems which can be used, for example, in the Commission on Transport and Communications.

Finance for the VOW process and national and international infrastructure projects will come eventually, we hope, from most or all governments but especially in the preparatory stages and in stimulating governments to act, funds from private associations, foundations and individuals will be vital. Over many years, George Soros has given a magnificent lead, with generous contributions to many causes in many countries and regions. Recently, Australian Richard Pratt has donated $A100 million to use, conserve and develop water resources. This visionary initiative depends on political support, already forthcoming in significant measure. This demonstrates the way in which private and official efforts can be brought together. Private initiative supplies the vision and initial funding while governments are called upon to respond with public resources to be applied both nationally and internationally to meet worldwide needs, in this case for more, better-managed, cleaner water.

Some people see VOW as a new incarnation of the famous Charter 77 whose purpose, twenty-five years ago, was to win freedom from the tyranny of communism. VOW's incarnation as Charter 2002 is seen as a way of completing, for everyone, a victory won for the oppressed by such visionaries as Czech President Vaclav Havel.

Jozef Imrich, who courageously swam the Morava River from Czechoslovakia to freedom in Austria in 1980, has told the story of his escape in a thrilling and moving book called The Cold River. Two of his friends died. His faithful dog, Bessie, miraculously survived. The Cold River will appear next month, March 2002. Its author is one of those who see VOW as a completion of Charter 77. As a token of that conviction, he has generously donated half the earnings of The Cold River to the campaign for victory over want. With support of this kind, VOW is – humbly and gratefully – assured of success. In freeing people from want everywhere, VOW opens horizons for peaceful change we have scarcely even glimpsed before and, in the new millennium, leads us forward, not only with hopes high but, above all, with newfound assurance that we know the road we must travel by. It is a road we can and must all travel together - hands clasped, as in the VOW logo - living together, working together, prospering together.

This is not an impossible dream. It is a realistic vision. All we need is to accept the challenge and feel again the fire in our bellies that we knew at great moments in the past. In 1969, Man walked on the Moon. Now is the time to make another "giant leap for mankind" – this time right here on Earth.

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About the Author

James Cumes is a former Australian ambassador and author of America's Suicidal Statecraft: The Self-Destruction of a Superpower (2006).

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