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Tackling poverty should be a burning issue

It is a great shame that advocates for almost 1.3 billion of the world’s population suffering from extreme poverty often meet with deaf ears. There is much ado about terrorism, and rightly so, but the fact is that poverty-related factors claim many more lives.

Half the world’s population lives under the poverty line, which varies from country to country. The worst affected are developing countries in Africa and Asia, but 40 million Americans, 7 million Britons and almost a quarter of all European Union (EU) nationals are also classed as being poor.

“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest,” said the late South African President Nelson Mandela. Sadly, the poor have become the invisible and voiceless, seen but disregarded as a mere nuisance cluttering the landscape or as a burden on taxpayers.

Governments would rather spend on military hardware than on ways to lift their citizens, deprived of decent housing, nutritious food, electricity and clean water, out of their misery.

Such attitudes on the part of authorities are not only immoral but also wrong-headed and shortsighted. As we have witnessed in many countries over the decades, sooner or later the forgotten coalesce on the streets to overturn leaderships.

Let us not forget that the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor deprived of his wares sparked the wave of Arab uprisings, the effects of which are still being felt today in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Moreover, poverty has many other side effects apart from starvation and disease; it is known to fuel violence in the home, child abandonment, child labor, slavery, criminal gangs, substance abuse and, according to some experts, terrorism.

So what can be done about this?

The Millennium Goals have had some success, but the pace is far too slow to bring relief to people struggling to keep their heads above water now. UN agencies and charities do their best, but are underfunded due to donor fatigue. The World Food Program (WFP) was forced to slash food allowances to Syrian refugees and, more recently, cut food rations to 200,000 refugees in Uganda by 50 percent.

The poor have become the invisible and voiceless, seen but disregarded as a mere nuisance cluttering the landscape or as a burden on taxpayers.

Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor

The problem of dire poverty is solvable provided there is a collective will and a willingness to think out of the box. When just eight of the world’s richest people own as much combined wealth as half of the human race, aiding the underprivileged should be seen as a moral and religious duty. To quote Pope Francis, “We cannot wait any longer to deal with the structural causes of poverty, in order to heal our society from an illness that can only lead to new crises.”

One answer is the global implementation of a faith-based Poverty Eradication Tax, requiring close cooperation between governments and religious authorities under the auspices of the UN. Reports issued by the EU, the United Nations University and the World Institute for Development and Economic Research have all concluded that global taxation is not only technically feasible but also desirable.

Tithing, whereby the faithful are obliged to give a percentage of their income to the poor, is the third pillar of the Islamic faith and one of the bedrocks of both Judaism and Christianity. 

 It is my belief that permitting religious principles to underpin our efforts will bear fruit if the following methodology is used:

An independent organization (the ‘Organization’) should be formed and supervised by a rotating committee made up of representatives from member states, tasked with pinpointing areas of need in coordination with the various organs of the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and various NGOs, charities, philanthropic individuals and governments.

The Organization would be the recipient of revenues generated by a global property tax based on a percentage of member states’ respective GDPs, greatly bolstered by a faith-based poverty-alleviation tax.

Oxfam asserts that a tax on just half of the $32tn hidden in tax havens would be sufficient to end extreme poverty worldwide twice over.

A mere 2 percent annual tax on the GDP of the planet’s four largest economies — the US ($16.77tn), China ($9.24tn), Japan ($4.92tn) and Germany ($3.73tn) would yield almost one trillion dollars annually.

Participating secular states would be obliged to launch media campaigns in partnership with Islamic, Christian, Jewish and other authorities to stress the importance and the advantages of an additional taxation dedicated to the poor.

Banks, multinational corporations, philanthropic trusts, religious authorities and wealthy individuals should be encouraged to donate and to use their best endeavours to promote this international effort.

It is my sincere hope that the prominent decision makers from both the public and private sectors attending the World Government Summit in Dubai will take the above steps under serious consideration. Like the threat of climate change, which galvanized 190 nations to sign up to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, battling poverty together can smash the virtual walls keeping us apart.

Another point to be considered are the very real benefits to economies that education and improving skill sets can deliver in terms of a reduction in state welfare and an increase in tax payers/consumers.

Showing our belief in the Creator with prayer and fasting is important but if we continue to ignore His command for the strong to help the weak, we are guilty of cherry-picking the ordinance of our faiths. With open hearts and pockets we can work wonders. Let us do it.

• Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor is the founder of the Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor Foundation (KAHF) and chairman of the Al-Habtoor Group.