Official data released yesterday by the United Nations Children’s Fund, showing that nearly 18 million children are living in poverty in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, strikingly confirm the fact that the states that shook off communism are still a far cry from the anticipated level of prosperity. Poverty is just one aspect of the lingering misfortune of these countries, despite the fact that over a decade has passed since they abandoned communism. Another aspect mentioned by UNICEF is an increase in the mortality rate, especially for adult men, which has resulted in 3.2 million deaths that would not have occurred if mortality rates had remained at 1989 levels. These states may have achieved political freedom but the goal of prosperity has to be reaffirmed, as UNICEF put it. This disappointing situation, which is also manifested in a sense of tragic disillusionment on the part of Eastern European citizens, is not due to the new social system that has amply proved its effectiveness in the production of wealth in the West. Rather, it mainly reflects the problems that beset the transitional period and the pathological symptoms that accompanied it. Whether one refers to the dominant role of the socialist nomenklatura that subsequently gave rise to mafia groups, to the objective problems of societal adaptation, or to the responsibilities of the West, which prioritized the exploitation of these countries’ economic resources over the consolidation of their institutions, the symptoms have to be cured so that the wretched masses can tread the path toward economic development and a more just distribution of wealth. However, imperatives, wishes and hopes do not alone bring a better future. Pessimists point out that the heavy mantle of poverty casts its shadow not only over Eastern Europe but also over much of the Third World, where the chasm dividing it from the wealthy North is constantly widening. These alarming symptoms should raise serious concerns in the developed world – and not only for moral reasons. Starvation among large population groups in a world of wealth is not only morally unacceptable. It could well spark explosive waves of economic migration and cause political instability in impoverished countries. Fighting poverty is not only an act of charity but, above all, an act of political self-defense.

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