Keeping Poverty on the Global Agenda

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall It’s the season of large international meetings. The General Assembly of the United Nations … Continued

FAITH IN ACTION

By Katherine Marshall

It’s the season of large international meetings. The General Assembly of the United Nations is in full swing in New York, the G20 is about to meet in Pittsburgh, and the ritual gathering of financial souls, the IMF and World Bank annual meeting, takes place in Istanbul in early October. So what’s on the global agenda? And what grabs the most attention?

Hillary Clinton’s September 18 speech at the Brookings Institution gives a glimpse. She traced a broad strategic framework, starting with Iran (the hottest topic these days) and traversing a wide terrain of geography and issues. The speech did not cover everything: climate got two words, religion zero. But she devoted two substantial, eloquent sections to development and women, stressing that both are central national strategic priorities.

The questions from the audience were all about Iran, Russia, the Middle East, corruption in Afghanistan, the domestic health agenda. Not a whisper about poverty or gender.

Similarly, so far the coverage of the General Assembly and lead-up to the G20 have focused on Ahmadinejad’s hotel accommodations and classic geopolitics. Climate change is coming in for discussion–a heartening change–but it’s hard to discern a burning passion to end world poverty.

Maybe that’s not a fair screen, but it underscores how very hard it is to keep issues of social justice on the agenda when world affairs are discussed. And this is despite the colossal efforts that have gone into the Millennium Development Goals, with their detailed accountability structures and deadlines, all designed to ensure that promises made to end world poverty will be kept. And despite the huge efforts of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (whose book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide was just released) how hard it is to keep the spotlight on women’s issues.

This bitter year of painful economic news has translated into billions of stories of disappointment and misery. The world’s poorest people and societies have felt the impact most harshly. With hopes rising for recovery, there is a real danger that the challenge of poverty will be neglected in the scramble to put the crisis behind us.

Yet there’s a powerful case to be made that peace and poverty, rights and justice, are tightly linked: we won’t ever be safe in a deeply divided world. And the moral case is compelling: we can and should care that each human being has the chance to live life in dignity, developing their full potential. Ending poverty is a central spiritual quest for mankind. That is true in good times but still more in times of crisis.

I’m always frustrated that we know so much about financial and market transactions, down to the most intricate detail, but know so little about the human indicators that are the barometers of social welfare. The best indicator of a society’s changing circumstances may be infant birth weights, but they are not reported in newspapers. We have no reliable data about how many children are living on the street. We rely on fragmentary reports and surveys to tell us about the impact of economic changes. We learn from the witness from faith communities how life is changing and where the sore points are, but that evidence is too scrappy to use very effectively.

But even without solid data we know that the impact of the economic crisis on the poor has been devastating. The first sign was a sharp increase in the price of food. Governments cut spending, and social programs are often the first to go. As families struggle to cope, children are pulled out of school and medical care is postponed. Tensions in families force children into the street, and spill over into violence. Women and children feel the brunt. Philanthropy is threatened and the promises of development assistance, always fragile and falling short, are at great risk.

I have four hopes for the global agendas as they emerge during these weeks.

Leaders can breathe new spirit and energy into the Millennium Development Goals. Caricatured or set aside as lofty or minimalist, abstract or mind-numbing in detail, the MDGs are a sacred covenant of all nations to keep their promises. They are an important scaffold for action.

The world leaders attending the meetings can demand hard information and use it. Unless we appreciate the difficulties and complexities of fighting poverty we cannot think clearly about solutions. For a start we need better information about what faith-inspired organizations are doing, how well and with what resources.

We need to face tough development issues like gender relations and corruption. Differing notions about what works, in markets and welfare programs, conflicting conceptions of what “rights” means in practice, and dueling concepts of gender roles get in the way of social action.

And there are topics where we know that action can enhance welfare: get girls into school, oppose the marriage of young children; speak with outrage against violence in the home and in institutions; fight passionately against stigma, especially for people living with HIV/AIDS, and stop trafficking in people.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.

By Katherine Marshall | 
September 20, 2009; 11:42 PM ET

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Faith in Action


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  • usapdx

    G20 must require that thoes that trade with G20 that their currancy floats. Also the numer of people in a nation for their given nation in relation to their econmics and the world enviorment must be debated for the good of all. We all must be open to what is best for the world and man.

  • ccnl1

    Hmmm, the US taxpayers is now paying billions of dollars to keep the terror of Islam holed up in places like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan?? If only these Islamic crazies could see the idiocy of their religion!!!When and if they ever do, the savings would be huge and could be used for universal health care and all the other items listed by the author:get girls into school, oppose the marriage of young children; speak with outrage against violence in the home and in institutions; fight passionately against stigma, especially for people living with HIV/AIDS, and stop trafficking in people.

  • ccnl1

    Hmmm, the US taxpayers are now paying billions of dollars to keep the terror of Islam holed up in places like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan?? If only these Islamic crazies could see the idiocy of their religion!!!When and if they ever do, the savings would be huge and could be used for universal health care and all the other items listed by the author:

  • adrienne_najjar

    Screw poverty. Whenever we shore them up they respond by producing more kids, who then turn against us. Let them starve.

  • DoTheRightThing

    To help the poor in a material manner, one has to be alive and of means. I would suspect that’s the reason why international leaders are talking about security and economic issues.

  • elliottwl

    On your subject, here’s the most hopeful book:

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