Wake Up Call

As I grow older I am becoming more and more like my late father. I am a creature of habit and share a passion for the radio, albeit he was rigidly wedded to Radio 4. From spring through summer his radio would accompany him in the garden as he planted, weeded and pruned. As a teenager this was really annoying because his forays into the garden always started early on Saturday and invariably woke myself, my two brothers and sister at a time when we all felt we had just gone to bed.

Although I have a more eclectic taste in radio listening than my father, Saturday morning on Radio 4 is a real gem. On a recent Saturday returning from a shopping trip, I turned the radio on and listened to From our own Correspondent. As usual, this was fascinating, with one of the journalists talking about a visit to an ice cream parlour which holds the world record for the number of flavours. If you are interested, the world record is 860 flavours and the record is held by a place in Venezuela[i]. The flavours range from the more usual traditional fruit and chocolate flavours to chilli ice cream and to my mind the worst of all flavours – macaroni cheese ice cream.

Haiti – Immediate and Long-Term Problems

The media provide us with a window to the world, albeit this picture is often sanitised and subjective. The recent disaster in Haiti has been given huge prominence, and rightly so. It pricks our consciences and we all feel appalled and powerless to respond to a place that few of us know much about, though we now know it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and one of the unluckiest countries on the planet. The devastation inflicted on the island of Haiti will effect the population for years to come and will leave lasting scars, scars that are not merely physical but emotional and psychological; problems that build on a political history of colonial occupation, dictatorship, floods and grinding poverty for the majority of the population.

We look on with horror at the current catastrophe but forget that most significantly its problems are more intractable, stemming from its relationships with many western countries (including France, the United States and the United Kingdom) and the loans and trade regulations we put in place, because, as the sociologist A.G Frank once said, “…contemporary underdevelopment is in large part the historical product of past and continuing …”[ii] relationships with western industrial countries. As the crisis dies down, the journalists will pack their bags and move on to another country. The media then move their collective lens onto another disaster. Yet we know that the problems remain because short-term disaster relief is not the same as long-term development.

And in our Back yard too

If we return to these shores, we can see a country which is struggling to come out of recession, leading many to question both the make-up and the balance of the U.K. economy.  Although one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there remain significant levels of poverty and high rates of inequality in wealth, education and health, inequalities that have long-term consequences for our collective well-being and particularly for our young people.

Despite the fact that the economy may be recovering, we know this is going to be a long slow process and it is the young people who are being hit the hardest, with growing numbers of them not in employment, education or training. In a recent report published by the Princes Trust they found that the latter group “…are less happy and confident in all aspects of life than those in work, education or training”. As Professor David G. Blanchflower says in the Foreword, “Joblessness has a knock-on effect on a young person’s self-esteem, their emotional stability and overall wellbeing. The longer the period they are unemployed for, the more likely they are to experience this psychological scarring. And more often than not, these are permanent scars – not temporary blemishes”[iii].

Poverty, unemployment and inequality need to be attacked on a number of different levels; if they aren’t, we can potentially lose a generation.  In a number of communities there are people whose problems can be traced back to the recession of the 1980s and whose life chances are much worse than those of the majority. As the bankers salivate about their bonuses and the majority of us who are in work get on with our lives, we are in danger of ignoring some significant problems that are developing.

Wake up. Action Needed.

The recession in my view has been a wake-up call that provides us with an opportunity to develop our communities in a more sustainable and equitable way, involving young people both in the development of their own careers and their communities. All political parties emphasise localism, so what will this mean in practice? And what of significance are they going to do? Rhetoric is one thing; action is quite another.

[i] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/8460094.stm (accessed 22/1/2010)[ii] http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/depend.htm (accessed 22/1/2010)[iii] The Prince’s Trust YouGov Youth Index 2010 http://www.princes-trust.org.uk/news/100104_youth_index_2010.aspx (accessed 22/1/2010)

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