Last weekend's Tunis La Presse reported that only 4% of Tunisians are below the poverty line and that over 80% of the population can be considered as "middle class". The Tunisian authorities operate a Solidarity Fund to help the poorest families and there are health and social security schemes too. Tunisia has already achieved all the Millenium Development Goals. So is in many ways it is a model for the region and for Africa. Yet this success carries a price-tag; freedom of expression and association is limited. But for most Tunisians the trade-off is a good one and poverty no longer an issue.
How different from my last overseas posting in Sudan where poverty is an immediate threat to millions. Lillian and I remember in 1998 meeting an emaciated woman in Southern Sudan holding a baby - barely skin and bones - to her withered breast. With difficulty she squeezed out a tiny drop of milk. "Cok, cok" she said in Dinka, "hungry". She stumbled off in search of something, anything, to eat. After our visit the late Derek Fatchett, a great FCO Minister of State for the Middle East, spent two days in Nairobi and Khartoum and patched up a limited humanitarian cease-fire between the Sudanese government and the rebel SPLA, which lasted for two precious years. After a great deal more effort Britain helped achieve a peace agreement in south Sudan in 2005 and a Darfur peace agreement, which was not signed by all the rebel groups, the following year. But the former is fragile and the latter needs reinforcement and/or renegotiation. Millions of people remian displaced and in desperate need.
The international community is of course doing what it can to help. But why is peace so elusive? Why do governments and warlords indulge their appetites and economic interests at the expense of the poorest among their own peoples? Listen to two Sudanese women: "Men want power: women want peace." And, "We tell the men to make peace for the sake of our children. They say that we can have more children. And we say that we do not want more children; we want to bring up those we have already."
Peace - or at least a cessation of fighting - is of course a precondition for a serious effort to eradicate poverty. So is empowerment of women and the provision of opportunities for education, health and employment. We can all play a part in this however modest our means. As I write Lillian is in Darfur - her 21st visit to Sudan since her expulsion in the wake of the breach in relations occasioned by the ill-starred US bombing of the Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum North in August 1998. (The Sudanese know how to forgive). She directs an English charity, Together for Sudan, which provides university scholarships for over 200 disadvantaged Sudanese women, pays for schooling for HIV-AIDS orphans, organises women's literacy classes including in Darfur, conducts AIDS outreaches in displaced camps around Khartoum and provides eye-care to thousands of needy Sudanese, both the displaced and in the Nuba Mountains, with no access to medical services.
All this and more is but a drop in the ocean of need. But if we work together, each giving what we can of funds or our own time, I believe we can make a difference. After 40 years of diplomatic service I am convinced that our very modest contribution in Sudan is more significant than anything else we have attempted. We retire from government service next month and frankly should like a rest. But how can one rest from attempting to relieve poverty, not only in Sudan, but across the globe?'