Speaking truth to prosperity

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Prosperity is one of the great destroyers of purpose. By enabling people to
indulge in new experiences, wealth can gradually eclipse purpose in life
and replace it with a penchant for lifestyles, as it has for growing
numbers of Americans. At that point it is no wonder we can't get beyond the
"big lie" school of leadership.

No wonder a president can tell us one day we're going to war on what proves
to be a pretext, and the next insist the war is all about a purpose.
Prosperous people are often foggy on purpose because they've lost any real
feel for it. They will agree to anything that promises to preserve the
lifestyle of prosperity.

Indians are beginning to drift in that direction, and we see it best in the
failure of prosperous casino tribes to unite on how to help less fortunate
tribes. Of course there are scattered exceptions - in California and
elsewhere - of wealthy casino tribes who've spread their riches to other
impoverished tribal nations. But still, these efforts are charity, not
philanthropy in the sense of systemic change that breaks the cycle of
poverty and need across a critical mass of people.

One tribe, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, has given a great deal of
thought to galvanizing the development of poorer tribes through pan-Indian
inter-tribal trade and investment initiatives. These efforts are ongoing
and admirable, but how many other tribes are truly on board?

To date, Indian country simply has not been able to dedicate a coordinated
effort to ending poverty among all tribes. But we could, you know; we
really could, by forsaking the return-on-investment imperative of market
value in order to spread a little less a little further among our people.
Our deeper traditions would help us here.

Unfortunately, forsaking market value may have gotten beyond us. While
preserving the more obvious features of Indian culture, we may have learned
too much from corporate America while some of us have moved from poverty to
wealth.

That is my thought as I contemplate the statistics on global poverty.
According to a report issued in mid-January by a large cadre of development
experts: "1 billion people live on a dollar a day or less, many of them
going to bed hungry every night; life expectancy in the poorest countries
is half that of people in high-income countries. And every month, for
example, 150,000 African children die of malaria because they don't have
bed nets to keep out mosquitoes ..."

Tens of millions of people worldwide face certain death from extreme
poverty in the next decade. Yet extreme poverty can be halved in that time
and substantially eliminated by 2025, given proper investment in a
philanthropic development strategy that focuses on (among other things)
improved health care, "schools, clinics, safe water and sanitation ...
fertilizer, roads, electricity and transport to get goods to market."

But most of the wealthy nations that have agreed to investment targets
toward this end have not made their targets. Only five have done so, with
another six on target to do so by 2015. The other 11 of these 22 rich
nations have not come close. The United States would have to more than
double its aid pledge of $22.3 billion in 2005 to $54.5 billion in 2006 -
not likely.

"The system is not working right now - let's be clear," said the lead
author of the report. "There's a tremendous imbalance of focus on the
issues of war and peace, and less on the dying and suffering of the poor
who have no voice."

Part of the imbalance is the planet's $900 billion annual military
spending. Certainly the United States won't be doubling its foreign aid
budget with the care and feeding of war on its plate, and in this it is not
alone.

Now, reports of the kind I'm quoting do come with a grain of salt.
Development specialists, a group with a built-in bias, wrote it up for the
United Nations, another party with a stake in the outcome. The investment
pledge cited in the report is weak authority, dating all the way back to
1970 and confirmed in a non-binding U.N. forum in 2002. Any goal 20 years
out with bundles of money required to underwrite it has all the limitations
of utopianism. And the main beneficiaries of poverty eradication will be
brown-skinned peoples, meaning wealthy nations with their fair-skinned
majorities will be well-armored with civilized reasons not to go the extra
mile. But have no doubt, millions of people will suffer avoidable deaths
because of poverty.

One thing hasn't changed in Indian country: we forever insist that we have
better traditional ways of doing things than the white majority, ways they
could learn from. But we must ultimately move beyond stylized statements of
tradition and give purpose to that conviction - universal purpose for all
to see. We can stop talking and start teaching right now, by getting
wealthy tribes together on a down-to-earth Indian philanthropic plan to
eliminate poverty among our own people.

Rebecca Adamson is the president of First Nations Development Institute and
a columnist for Indian Country Today.