White bracelets little more than shallow activism

A Queen’s graduate reflects on the Make Poverty History campaign from an NGO in Ethiopia

Moneeza Walji, ArtSci '05
Moneeza Walji, ArtSci '05

At the outset of the Make Poverty History campaign I was happy to jump on board. First hearing Erin Simpson from the Canadian Council for International Cooperation promote the campaign at Queen’s University, I couldn’t help but get excited about a movement which gave young people a voice, made us united, made us strong.

Then slowly I heard again the rumbling in the media—the campaign began to become more public. Spokespeople like Sarah McLachlan, Brad Pitt and Colin Firth participated in the widespread advertising campaign. Masses began to join.

I went from being the only one who sported a white wristband at work, to passing people at the mall, at Tim Hortons, on the street whose white wristbands were catching my eye. And I started to wonder, to think maybe this was working. Maybe we were finally onto something. Maybe this was how the modern day mobility of the masses occurred.

After all, a free concert for a good cause made you feel good. Bono telling you that by coming to a concert you were doing something about poverty was easy. You felt like all that money you dished out on overpriced concert tickets, CDs, autographed pencils and tabloid magazines actually amounted to something. You were supporting the people who were now going to fight injustice in the world. And just like with those yellow Livestrong plastic bands, you weren’t going to be caught not wearing an “MPH,” “ONE” or “makepovertyhistory.ca” bracelet. And maybe I should stop using the term “you,” as I, too, ran to friends who were in bands beginning to make it big and asked them to sport the white band while they were on tour.

But did all our efforts amount to something? We all knew that Africa is hit with 90 per cent of worldwide malaria cases, a disease that makes the poor poorer. We all could have read the 2004 UNAIDS Report which estimated 38 million people worldwide were infected with HIV. Most of us knew the statistic that half the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day, or if we couldn’t cite the exact numbers, we did know the situation was dire. Did we need a rock star to tell us that this was no longer acceptable? Did we need pop culture to tell us it was time to care about the rest of this world?

Writing this from a little NGO in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I am still wearing my Make Poverty History canvas bracelet—mind you, with all the dust here it looks a little more grey than white. And I look at it every morning and wonder “why am I still wearing this?” Because here, we haven’t made poverty history. You can ask me what poverty looks like and the picture changes nearly every day. Last week it was a little girl with a ratty school uniform selling me Kleenex on Bole Road. Three days ago, while I was walking to the bank on Debrezeit Road, it was the man I saw with elephantiasis, a disease that swells your legs and feet to a painful size. Yesterday, while I was on my way to dinner, it was an old man who nearly walked in front of my contract taxi at night because he was blind.

So why am I still wearing this? I wear it because it reminds me of where I come from. Of a place so privileged, so disconnected from the bottom line of a country stricken by poverty, that we needed someone famous to tell us that we were allowed to speak out against it. It reminds me that this couldn’t be further from the truth, that we all have the right to make poverty our issue. It reminds me to tell people back home something Stephen Lewis once said to me: “Go out there and get your boots dirty.” And it reminds me that if each of us did this, our little white bands would stand for so much more, and probably turn grey.

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