Climbing Up to the Light

By Katherine Marshall

We are living today through an unprecedented world transformation that shatters expectations of what citizenship means. Our new world has seen distances shrink, human potential expand, and national borders fade in significance.

In this media world of instantaneous images, we cannot hide from a disturbing contemporary reality: vast gulfs separate the enormous, avoidable poverty of billions of people from achievable living standards, decent healthcare, and basic nutrition that could ease their suffering. We face an unmistakable gap between what is and what should be.

It’s still an intimidating idea to regard poverty as something that can and must be eliminated from our midst.

Because we live in an unavoidably interconnected world, everyone who is blessed with a decent life must today ask three questions: Why should I care about global poverty? What is our responsibility to act? And what can we do?

It is easily forgotten that the vast majority of people, through most of human history, lived short and difficult lives. Until rather recently, a quarter of all children died before they were five, hunger was a constant, slavery was commonplace, and education was the privilege of a tiny minority. This situation was, for the most part, viewed as humankind’s accepted fate: the poor would always be with us. Charity was a duty; it could ease suffering, but would not solve the underlying fact of inevitable poverty.

The past fifty years have given birth to a very different reality, one whose full dimensions have yet to insinuate themselves completely into the way we look at the world. Revolutions of healthcare, global communications, manufacturing, and transport have produced a demographic transformation, stretching normal lifespans so that now we contemplate a time when our children may well live routinely to 100. In such a globalized world, the life of work and families themselves take different shapes. Business, travel, and identities move across hemispheres and cultures. In the global village, everyone is our neighbor.

By far the most exciting piece of this new reality is that a decent life is truly within the reach of almost every child born on this earth. This is a first in human history: we have the resources and the knowledge to end poverty. But we confront a world that is deeply divided between rich and poor, making true fairness a dream that is still far from reality.

Ascending the Ladder

So why should we care? There are many reasons, but I propose a “priority ladder” to help order the responses of our minds, our hearts, our souls, and our hands to this new and demanding challenge. The principles behind each rung can be found in the teachings of the great religions, epitomized espe- cially in the Golden Rule – to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They are captured in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other wise calls to action and justice. Yet it’s still a fresh, even intimidating idea to regard poverty as something that can and must be eliminated from our midst.

We should first care about poverty because working to eradicate it is fair and just. Human dignity, the divine spark in human life, underlies a global ethic that mandates giving each person a fair chance. That ideal of human dignity and equality, however distorted throughout history by unequal relationships between men and women, between races, and between rich and poor, underlies our modern focus on rights.

Addressing the unfairness of inequality, we talk today about a right to development, a right to education, a right to food, a right to freedom. We should not forget that rights come with responsibilities. And once you accept that human beings are equal, endowed by the creator with unalienable rights, then surely there is a common obligation to translate that into something real. Thus working for universal education, making it available to all children no matter where they are born, is not driven alone by the goodness of our hearts but by a common human obligation. The MDGs are above all about this common responsibility to right the imbalances of opportunity.

Neighbors in Distress

The second rung is compassion and charity. We should never cease from caring in the face of suffering, from following our desire to respond when we know about neighbors in distress. The outpourings of citizens eager to help Haitians devastated by an earthquake or orphans without anyone to care for them show caring humanity at its best. There are pitfalls in such impulses – they can feed paternalistic and patronizing behaviors – but they cannot efface the nobility of wanting to help.

A third important theme is gaining force: giving poor people the chance to prosper is good for everyone. People who get access to resources spark production and innovation and contribute to the global economy in countless ways. So helping people at the “bottom of the pyramid” to prosper, for example with microloans to start a tiny business or access to appropriate pharmaceutical products, is a third rung on the ladder: we should work to end poverty because it is good business.

Fourth, today’s mobile world sees movements of people on a new scale: migration is a dynamic reality. Those who would block migration are the delusional modern-day King Canutes who cannot see that the human drive to seek a better life won’t be stopped. The real solution is therefore not to build high and ultimately futile barriers but to recognize the interconnectedness of markets and to work to give people a chance to prosper in their own lands so that their migration is not driven by desperation and lack of opportunity.

Fifth and finally, we must recognize the contemporary element of fear as another reason to care and to act: the harsh truth is that an unequal and unfair world is dangerous for all. The anger that is fueled by the lethal combination of perceived unfairness, lack of opportunities, and a sense that others lack respect takes many forms, and many of them are violent. If we want our children to be safe we need to address the root causes of justifiable anger and create a fairer world.

Each of these arguments points us to an urgent obligation to care about poverty and seek new ways of fulfilling our duties to our neighbors. We need to revamp our thinking and our theologies in order to make central the new promise of equity in a coming world where every child has a fair chance.

Arguably it is harder for tyrants to be tyrants in this 24/7 media climate of internet, blogs, and Youtube.

It also means new dilemmas. The ethics of caring about poverty seem quite straightforward, but we must accept that the practicalities of doing something about it are immensely complex. And there are plenty of sages and pundits who would paralyze us with these complexities. We need to respect the different sides of the debates as we navigate towards sensible solutions. But necessary debate and dialogue cannot be allowed to block action. Caring about poverty demands the best of human commitment and cooperation. We must live with complexities and learn from experience as we proceed.

Progress and Panaceas

In the thickets of debate, five have particular importance.

The first turns on aid versus trade: is it more important to increase financial aid to fight poverty or to focus on bringing down barriers to trade that stymie national efforts to grow their way towards prosperity? The question these days is part of a broader discussion of macroeconomic forces and priorities. The good news is that the ideological posturing that stunted progress toward attracting private investment has quieted. But the evils that many see in the unbridled power of huge multinational companies are not figments of the imagination. Economic growth is a means, not a panacea. This challenge is plainly about “both/and,” not “either/or.” Economic management is too important to leave to the economists alone; theologians need to equip themselves to enter the fray in intelligent ways.

A second set of debates turns on governance, a catch-all term that evokes ancient skirmishing over the roles of states and private actors. Today it points to fears that corruption leaches most international aid. A dose of good sense here helps to make clear that there are no simple answers as to how large a government is the “right” size; each society has to sort that out for itself, whether the United States or Great Britain or Mali or Malaysia. Legitimate fear of corruption should never be the excuse for failure to act; we know so much more than we did a decade ago about how to stop it. The refreshing power of information, the potency of transparency in determining how and where money is spent, can work wonders in ferreting out hidden transfers of funds and sheer waste and incompetence. Arguably it is harder for tyrants to be tyrants in this 24/7 media climate of internet, blogs, and YouTube. Many bodies, public and private, have practical, even inspiring tools that can advance integrity, above all through the “sunshine principle” of shedding light on what is done. There will no doubt always be some corruption, but a wiser, more vigilant citizenry, using the tools that law and administration can offer, whatever the nation, can turn the tide against it.

Harmonizing Chaos

A third debate pits aid coordination and harmonization against local initiative. The large and growing numbers of development actors do indeed complicate aid programs; sensible efforts to corral programs, led by local actors, are essential. It makes far more sense, say, for Tanzania to have a single national health program that works toward common goals rather than a hodge-podge of scattered though admirable individual clinics. An international effort to harmonize aid is slowly making a dent against a chaos of good if often misguided intentions. Translating these tools into practice in ways that don’t produce a stultifying bureaucracy but also respect the innovation and leadership of local initiative are twin challenges for the future. We can all contribute by sensible behavior that neither puts all faith into a coordination committee nor allows the blinkers of a local miracle to obscure how it fits into a larger whole.

A fourth debate focuses on how to help the most difficult cases: the Haitis, Burmas, and Somalias of the world – the countries of the “bottom billion.” We can neither wait for perfect conditions nor pour in money without accountability and sensible controls.

Addressing the poorest and most fragile societies needs the best and brightest minds and our most courageous souls. That means confronting the conflicts that plague them and the poor political accountability that above all sets them apart.

Finally, the most complex and important debate is about the very ends of development: what kind of global society do we want to build? What common values should and could it be founded on? How to do this while respecting and encouraging the rich diversity of human cultures and their faiths? That’s something for UN leaders to ponder as they prepare their speeches about what lies ahead for the Millennium Development Goals.

These ten challenges can frame a thoughtful exploration of where the world stands on the noble MDG commitment its leaders made in 2000 to end the outrage of dehumanizing poverty. At the United Nations in September there will be plenty of well-merited complaints of shortfalls in action and reminders of broken promises. But the great hope that ending poverty is a reachable dream and, therefore, an imperative, must be kept front and center.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Georgetown visiting professor, and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. She has nearly four decades of experience in development issues, including a career with the World Bank (1971-2006). She led the World Bank’s faith and ethics work from 2000-2009. Her books include Development and Faith: Where Mind, Heart, and Soul Work Together (World Bank, 2007).