Dare to Dream: A World Without Poverty

By Lesley-Anne Knight

I recently took some visiting friends to see St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and in preparation for the visit I looked up some interesting facts about its history. One in particular made me stop and think: “Construction of the basilica began in 1506 and was completed in 1626.”

In other words, it took 120 years to build. No one alive when the building was started would have been around to see it completed. It ranks among the world’s Grand Projects: those endeavours that transcend the ambitions of individuals, producing something of lasting value for posterity.

Quick-Fix Failures

This started me wondering whether we would ever embark on such a venture in the twenty-first century. We live today in a world where we expect immediate gratification. A world of fast food, rapid transit, TV on demand, instant access, fast tracks and quick fixes.

Any slight delay in getting what we want, any minor hitch, and we’re apt to become disillusioned, to give up and move on to some other distraction. Take the movement to tackle climate change. We knew this was always going to be a long battle. Yet following the failure of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at Copenhagen, a debilitating air of despondency has all but brought the process to a halt.

Any slight delay in getting what we want, any minor hitch, and we’re apt to become disillusioned, to give up and move on to some other distraction.

A similar defeatism now threatens the Millennium Development Goals – which with their fifteen-year time frame represent the closest we have come to real long-term planning in recent years. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2008, I witnessed an enthusiastic endorsement of the MDGs and renewed commitment to meeting them. Then came the global financial crisis. And at this year’s Davos Forum, the one session on the MDGs, featuring a panel of top humanitarian activists, attracted an embarrassingly small audience.

Thinking Big Again

As our civilization’s capabilities have matured, it seems that the scale of our ambitions, the scope of our vision, and our staying power have all diminished. It feels now like an overwhelming undertaking to embark on any project that is likely to take more than a decade – let alone more than a century.

But if we could dare to imagine a modern equivalent to a project on the scale of St Peter’s, what would it be? Given the enormous technological advances we have made in the 500 years since St. Peter’s was begun, it could surely be something to marvel at.

I don’t think we need a new St Peter’s, but could we not create something even more impressive – a better world perhaps?

Of course, that sounds somewhat trite, so let me be more specific: a world without poverty. That may sound hopelessly idealistic. But don’t forget, we are talking about a Grand Project, not something to be completed by the end of this decade, or maybe not even within our lifetimes. Like St. Peter’s, it could take a hundred years. But what an achievement it would be.

I would hope we could reach that goal in less than a hundred years, but the important thing is not to be deterred by the scale of the task. It requires us to have the courage and conviction to begin something that we may not have the satisfaction of completing ourselves. It requires a selfless spirit, far-sighted vision and, above all, faith.

Where can we find such qualities in today’s world? Contemporary institutions are largely ephemeral entities focused on short-term goals. Governments come and go, rarely looking far beyond the next election. Private corporations are intent on delivering short-term shareholder value. Even in international development, with the notable exception of the MDGs, we seldom plan more than five years ahead.

Ancient Dreams

But faith-based humanitarian organizations like Caritas are supported by some of the most long-lived institutions in human history – the great world religions, which have histories stretching back 2,000 years; beyond, in the case of Buddhism and Judaism.

It is reasonable to suppose that the world’s major religions will still be around in one hundred years’ time. In fact the signs show religious faith growing in importance. The proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism – rose from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 2005 and may reach 80 percent by 2050.

Given this dramatic trend, faith-based development organizations are uniquely placed to take a visionary, far-sighted view of their work; to plan a Grand Project; and to lead a steady process of construction that will be continued by successive generations, until the job is done.

Like St. Peter’s, any Grand Project has to be built on solid foundations. And if we are talking about changing our world, those foundations must be the shared values of humanity. Here again, the great religions can help us. Yes, they have all developed their own sets of values, but they hold many in common. These shared values could be the basis for an unprecedented and powerful interfaith collaboration.

How Firm A Foundation

As a Catholic humanitarian organization, Caritas grounds its work on the social values of the Roman Catholic Church, so I would like to look briefly at how these values might contribute towards our Grand Project.

We only need look at the recent global financial crisis to see what happens when international systems stray from human values. What was clearly lacking in the strategies and decisions that led to the crisis was any concept of respect for the human person.

That respect is central to Catholic values. It recognizes the essential dignity of all human beings, and the basic rights they should enjoy as a result. Rights, however, are linked to duties and responsibilities – towards our families, communities, and humanity as a whole.

These duties are based on the value of solidarity, a sense of responsibility of everyone for everyone else.1 It recognises the interdependence of human beings and helps us to see the “other” – whether individuals, peoples, or nations – not just as some-thing to be exploited at low cost and discarded, but as our neighbor, a helper, a sharer in the banquet of life.2

Solidarity demands that we work towards the common good – towards the creation of communities, where all people can flourish and achieve fulfilment. In the new century’s global context, the common good must be seen as the good of all humanity.

In seeking to help others, we should not, however, negate the ability of individuals and communities to help themselves and to develop their own solutions. Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger overarching entities should not take on what people and groups can achieve through their own initiative and enterprise. This principle places a duty on communities and institutions to ensure the participation of all of their stakeholders, particularly those who are weaker or disadvantaged. It implies a duty on those stakeholders to take up their rights to participate.

Someone will likely point out that Jesus said the poor would always be with us. He did not mean we should accept that 50,000 people die every day from the effects of extreme poverty, or that around a billion people are on the brink of starvation.

The morality of a society can be judged on the basis of how it treats its most vulnerable members. Catholic social values promote a preferential option for the poor, prioritizing the hungry, the weak, the marginalized, and persecuted.3 Charity – caritas – is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine, but it is inseparable from the concept of justice. You cannot make a gift of something that justice demands a person should already have.4

Working from values such as these, we could begin to draw up a blueprint, a grand design, for our Grand Project.

Taking “A world without poverty” as our Grand Project, we could begin by examining what we mean by poverty – and what we mean by a world freed from it.

Whenever we talk about ridding the world of poverty, someone will likely point out that Jesus said the poor would always be with us. So let me deal with this point now. When I say “a world without poverty,” I don’t mean a world in which no one is poorer than I am. There will always be someone poorer than us, someone who needs our compassion and our help. This, I believe, is what Jesus meant. He did not mean that we should accept that 50,000 people die every day from the effects of extreme poverty, or that around a billion people are on the brink of starvation.

What would a world without poverty look like? Whole books have been written on theories of poverty; we don’t have space to consider them here. One often-quoted definition says poverty means living on less than one dollar a day. But solutions need to address far more than income levels.

Consider the problem of poverty as having three key interlinked characteristics that could shape a thematic approach to our plan: vulnerability, deprivation, and marginalization.

Poverty makes people more vulnerable to natural disasters, to conflict, to disease, and to the effects of climate change. Poor people live and work in buildings that are swept away by floods and collapse in earthquakes. This was graphically illustrated by the Haiti earthquake earlier this year. When I visited Port au Prince shortly after the quake, I stayed in the Caritas Haiti headquarters – a quality building that remained intact. But as we toured the devastated city, it was evident that many other buildings had been little more than death traps.

Like st. Peter’s basilica, it could take a hundred years or more. But what an achievement it would be.

You only need to compare the death toll in Haiti with the damage done by the major recent earth-quake in Chile. There were more than 230,000 deaths in the Haiti earthquake, and yet Chile’s much more powerful earthquake killed fewer than 500. It is not the earthquakes that kill people – it is buildings that kill people. We have a duty to speak out about the real story behind tragedies like Haiti – the fact that so many people die needlessly in natural disasters as a result of infrastructure poverty.

Violent conflict is both a cause and consequence of poverty. Poor people are especially vulnerable because weak governments are unable to protect them, as we have seen recently in Nigeria. They are often used as pawns in conflicts in which they have no real stake.

Deadly Vulnerabilities

Poor people are prone to disease as a result of malnutrition and lack access to preventative healthcare and medicines. Worldwide, more than two million children with HIV/AIDS have no access to lifesaving drugs, and most will die before they reach the age of two.

The poor are vulnerable to the disruptions and dangers of climate change. They live in drought and flood-prone areas and their livelihoods are threat- ened by changing weather patterns. If not managed justly, measures to combat climate change could hinder the development of poor countries.

Deprivation manifests itself in many ways – for instance, poor people’s efforts to build sustainable livelihoods are hampered by poor infrastructure and lack of access to credit facilities. But hunger and lack of access to clean water must be regarded as the worst forms of deprivation. Food security is an increasingly urgent issue with global food demand set to double by 2050. It is estimated that by 2025 more than three billion people will be living in water-stressed countries. Lack of access to water looms as a source of future conflict.

Discrimination – because of race, religion or gender – keeps poor people on the margins of development. They are often denied basic human rights. Girls and women are subjected to sexual violence with absolute impunity in many parts of the world; their property and rights go unprotected.

Lack of access to education, particularly for girls, might be the single biggest barrier to development. Education is also key to building sustainable peace.

Sustainable Compassion

It is clear that the task ahead is immensely complex and will require enormous resources. But this is characteristic of Grand Projects. They challenge us and push us towards innovative solutions.

Who will be the agents of change in this project? Who will be the craftsmen, stonemasons, and laborers who will build this new world?

Religious leaders will have a central role to play. Many are strongly identified with the cause of the poor and oppressed. Often they are free to speak out when politicians are silenced by expediency.

People can become agents of development, active citizens who find a voice, men and women together, shaping decisions that affect their lives, joining in collective action.

We should demand that our governments and institutions be responsible and accountable to the poorest among us and fair to all. Our leaders should create conditions for sustainable economic growth, provide security, and uphold rule of law. They should raise revenue effectively and fairly to provide essential services while encouraging a responsible private sector.

Grand Projects are never completed without setbacks, and we must continue to be prepared to respond to natural disasters and other humanitarian crises that will occur along the way and temporarily hamper our efforts. The challenge is to keep the ultimate goal always in sight and not to be discouraged or diverted.

The international community has shown great generosity in response to major disasters like the Asia tsunami in 2004 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. We have not been so good at maintaining a consistent commitment to ending chronic global poverty. We will need to develop a sustainable compassion to maintain our momentum.

It will be important to measure and celebrate our progress – to see our new construction rising stone by stone on the horizon. The Millennium Development Goals have shown us how this can be done. Even if the MDGs are not achieved by 2015, they will have galvanized our imaginations and fulfilled a useful purpose.

But now we need a much more ambitious project. One that is truly inspirational. A project not undertaken for personal glory, or for the glory of any nation, race, or religion, but for the glory of God and all humanity.

Lesley-Anne Knight is Chief Executive Officer of Caritas Internationalis. A British citizen, born in Zimbabwe, Ms. Knight has some thirty years of experience in international development. Based in Vatican City, Caritas is a global confederation of 165 Catholic humanitarian and development organizations that work with and support people (based on need not creed) in more than 200 countries and territories.


  1. Caritas in Veritate, Encyclical Letter of Pope Benedict XVI, 2009, paragraph 38.

  2. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II, 1987, paragraph 39.

  3. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004, paragraph 182.

  4. Caritas in Veritate, paragraph 6.