Our van pulled over to the side of the road and came to a stop. We were travelling along a coastal highway between the cities of Recife and Maceio in Northeastern Brazil. It was day six of a 16-day tour a tour that would expose us to some of the worst poverty in the country.
Our group of 10 exited the van in order to get a closer look at the thatch huts that lined both sides of the pavement. A man was working the ground with a hoe in front of one of the nearby shacks; inside two women sat on a bench, presumably taking refuge from the heat of the Brazilian sun. We walked over and began to speak with them. This is their story: They had been living in the roadside camp for 10 months. They work in the sugarcane fields when they can, but employment is sporadic. Even when there is work the wages are at starvation levels, only one or two dollars a day. They are day labourers with no land, no money and nothing to show for the years of backbreaking toil in the cane fields. Many of the adults are illiterate and the children have no access to formal education. They have been driven off the land by the plantation owner either because of a lack of work due to mechanization or maybe because they asked for an increase in wages. So without a single square foot of land they are forced to exist along the narrow strips of public road allowance, fenced in by the pavement on one side and private property on the other.
These people are not stupid and they are not lazy. They are hard working, bright, intelligent people who are innocent victims of corrupt politicians and an unjust economic system that has enslaved them to a life of poverty. This is the plight of millions of people in Brazil, and it is wrong. No matter which end of the political spectrum you come from and no matter what economic philosophy you subscribe to, it is simply wrong!
After we got back into the van and drove away, I found myself overwhelmed with questions. How can a country be so broken, so screwed up and so unjust? What are the causes of these injustices? Who is to blame? Is there a solution? What is the solution? As a consumer and an investor, do I contribute to the problem? What obligation do I have to help? How can I continue to live in relative luxury after seeing first-hand the extreme poverty that exists for so many? Is poverty inevitable? Is world poverty getting better or worse? Is it permanent or merely a temporary side effect of globalization? Is capitalism the problem and if so what is the alternative?
Throughout history greater people than I have asked these same questions and have come up with vastly different answers. I think it is critical that we continue to ask these questions and that we continue to work toward a remedy. Henry George, the 19th century political philosopher, called it the "great enigma of our times" referring to the persistence of poverty amid advancing wealth. "It is the riddle that the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, which not to answer is to be destroyed. So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the house of have and the house of want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent" (Henry George, Progress and Poverty).