Poverty has been in the headlines a lot this year. Beginning with the sudden tragedy and hopelessness amid the ruin of the southern Asian tsunami and its accompanying outpouring of generosity, the year has seen the Live8 concerts and a more empathetic G8 leaders summit in July focusing on global poverty. In September, Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans raised the plight of the poor in the world's richest country, and the summit of world leaders hosted by the United Nations in New York attracted criticism from anti-poverty campaigners for the continuing lack of progress in helping the poorest people in the world.
The tsunami and the hurricane received more media coverage than many of the ongoing tragedies in our world. A spectacular event is much easier for television news services to cover, but when examined closely even these disasters demonstrate their inordinate impact on those who are poorest. Yet the biggest impacts of poverty are often less visually dramatic.
In January, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair made the comment that a tsunami-sized and largely man-made disaster happens in Africa every week. Overlapping with this is the figure quoted by economist Jeffrey Sachs in The End of Poverty of eight million people each year—more than 150,000 per week—who die simply “because they are too poor to survive.”1 Putting it another way, a billion people are so poor, their lives are in peril.
It isn't that there are too many people competing for too few resources. The world has sufficient for everyone to live adequately. The real issue is the distribution of those resources. That reality should be a profound challenge to our sense of justice.
In the lead-up to the September UN summit of world leaders, representatives of 36 Christian denominations met to urge greater attention be given to the issues of global poverty, both inside and outside their respective churches. At the conclusion of their two-day meeting, the church leaders issued a communique calling for a greater effort by churches, and for partnerships with governments to work toward meeting the UN's goal of halving global poverty by 2015 and eradication of extreme poverty by 2025.
Among those endorsing this statement was Rajmund Dabrowski, communication director for the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church [publishers of Signs of the Times]. "This is an urgent call and one that respond to the cry of the least among us - the voiceless," he says, "Its a distribution and accountability for the wealth the wold has. As Christians, we know this cry, but we also know that much more must be done and that intentions must turn into actions."
"Managing the world in which we live, a world of so many needs, is what Christians can contribute through their faith and actions," comments Dabrowski. "In the context of the abysmal presence of poverty, as Christian, I'm compelled to consider generosity, solidarity and human justice and place it at the forefront of my Christian witness and presence, where ever I live. The Christian's response to a world of needs is driven by the gospel commission. Our response to God's call is a response to partner with Him."
Among the concluding statements of the "Call to partnership" communique is a call for faith communities to actively participate across a broad spectrum in development work: "As Christian leaders we challenge our own churches to pursue partnerships with governments, international organisations civil society and across confessional lines," it says.2
High-profile musician and humanitarian campaigner Bono told the crows at U2's Live8 performance in London in July, "We're not asking you to put your hand in your pockets, but we are asking people to put their fist in the air." Bono, Sachs and others are not accepting donations. Instead, they argue, we have already given out contributions to our respective governments and people everywhere should apply political pressure to question governments' spending priorities in the face of global poverty.
The UN development goals regarding poverty reduction call for Western nations to increase foreign aid to developing countries to 0.7 per cent of gross national income. Sadly, most countries fall far short and have continued to reduce their aid contributions in recent decades. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development figures, just five of the world's 22 richest nations currently meet this standard. Australia (16th on the list with 0.25 per cent), New Zealand (19th at 0.23 per cent) and the US (21st at just 0.16 per cent) are among the worst contributors.
While enjoying the highest living standards in history, Australia and New Zealand do relatively little to relieve the suffering of the greater world. And much of the aid given by our governments is provided in such a way as to directly benefit the donor nation, often never leaving the country at all, or is used as a lever to ensure control of the economic, political and strategic interests. Of course, aid should be carefully directed so as to be employed for the greatest good, avoiding corruption and misuse. But we are not about to be accused of profligate generosity by our poorer neighbours.
Poverty sounds like—and is—a huge problem. It is perhaps the most pressing issue of our time, with close links to many of the other big news items such as terrorism and environmental degradation. As nations, we must do better in this regard.
But how? As individuals we can become voices for those whose voice will never be heard in or public debates. Poverty is not so big as to be beyond our contribution. As Sachs suggests, "It all comes back to us. Individuals, working in unison, form and shape societies."
And whether or not you are a Bono fan, you can still put your fist in the air. That is, make your voice heard. Making poverty history—as the slogan goes—is a choice that is ours to make as members of the world's richer societies. We can choose to do nothing or take active steps toward a solution. How we make that choice says much about our priorities our morality and even out faith. As the Bible puts it, "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who help the poor honour him" (Proverbs 14:31, NLT).