Catholic Social Ministry Gathering International Plenary Speech by Caritas Internationalis Secretary General
Monday, February 25th, 2008
Hyatt Regency Hotel, Capitol Hill, WashingtonDC
Campaigning Against Global Poverty
Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Reverend Monsignori, fathers and Religious, ladies and gentlemen:
It is a great pleasure for me to be here today, and I am grateful for this opportunity to share with you some thoughts and concerns on the subject of global poverty, in the context of the ‘Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty’.
And where better to be talking about issues such as poverty and development than in Washington, D.C.? This is, after all, where the modern era of international development is said to have begun. Heralded by the Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Europe after World War II and the landmark address of President Harry Truman in 1949, in which he outlined why governments should provide development aid for poor countries.
Truman summed up the argument with these simple and powerful words:
“Only by helping the least fortunate of its members to help themselves can the human family achieve the decent satisfying life that is the right of all people.”
Truman may well have provided the impetus for a new era of development, but I suspect there will be many of you here today who will agree that the roots of our efforts to combat poverty go back somewhat further, and have their origins in words spoken about two thousand years earlier, and some six thousand miles due east of here.
I refer, of course, to these words of Jesus:
“I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Jesus’ words, echoed by Truman, remind us of a universal truth: that whatever our race or religion, we are all part of one humanity. And to ignore the suffering of the poor is to ignore the suffering of our brothers and sisters.
Sadly, the fact that we have still not eliminated extreme poverty from the world, two thousand years after Jesus spoke those words, suggests that it is perhaps all too easy to ignore.
This was graphically illustrated in a shocking picture that appeared in many European newspapers a while ago. It showed a young couple sunbathing on a sandy beach. At first sight, it appears like any other summer holiday snap. Then you notice a dark shape in the sand beyond the couple. It is the body of an African migrant. He has drowned trying to cross to Europe, like many others, desperately seeking to provide a better life for his family.
The couple seem unconcerned about the body. Whether they were aware of the dead African we can’t say for sure. But the image remains a powerful symbol of our ability to carry on enjoying the good life while our brothers and sisters die in their thousands every day as a result of extreme poverty.
I was personally reminded of this tragedy in September last year when I attended a forum on migration organised by Caritas Europe in a coastal town in Portugal. One evening we gathered on the beach for a special service to remember those thousands of migrants who have drowned off the coast of Spain and Portugal.
One particular group had recently ended their days off the shores of Costa de Caparica after their boat capsized. We stood around the fragile craft that had so cruelly failed them, while their names were read out and then we cast flowers into the ocean in their memory.
The reality of global poverty is getting closer. And we cannot continue to ignore it.
Sadly, the very nature of global poverty, its sheer persistence, means it can all too easily slip from our consciousness. Major natural disasters or humanitarian crises will grab the headlines, but the daily reality of global poverty is not news.
Most donations to international development and relief organisations like Caritas are made in response to emergency appeals, even though far more people die from the effects of extreme poverty than from natural disasters and quick-onset emergencies.
Two hundred and thirty thousand people died as a result of the Asian tsunami that struck in December 2004. A record sum of more than seven billion dollars was donated by the general public to various appeals, and yet, the same number of people die every five days from the effects of extreme poverty.
Let’s try to put that figure into perspective:
There must be many people here in Washington who still recall the tragic events of January 1982, when a passenger plane crashed into the FourteenthStreetBridge during a snowstorm, with the loss of 78 lives. Imagine had that plane been a fully-loaded jumbo jet with 500 passengers on board…
Now imagine a hundred jumbo jets crashing in a single day, with no survivors.
And now imagine that happening every single day of the year.
That is the scale of the problem. According to UN estimates, around 18 million people die every year from hunger and preventable diseases related to poverty.
Poverty, however, is not just about people dying. It is about people living… Living from day to day with inadequate nutrition, living with disease, living without proper housing, without education, clean water, and security.
I could give you all sorts of statistics to illustrate the effects of global poverty, but for me, the reality of poverty is the stories of individual people. It’s talking to a woman in a refugee camp in Darfur whose home was burnt to the ground, who witnessed her husband and son being shot, who was raped and beaten. It’s talking to a child in Zimbabwe who has lost both parents to Aids, who is HIV positive herself, and caring for her younger brothers and sisters.
Statistics often paint a bleak picture of reality. Sometimes this is necessary. But statistics don’t show the full picture. They don’t reveal the resilience of the human spirit. They don’t reveal that in the midst of such suffering, there is hope.
This is important, because the sheer immensity of the problem of global poverty can be overwhelming. We have to overcome that feeling of helplessness, the feeling that there is nothing that can be done.
There is of course much that can be done, and the ‘Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty’ highlights three key areas where the actions of our governments can make a huge difference: aid, trade and debt. I would like to say a few words about each of these, starting with Aid.
The first problem in any campaign to increase development aid is overcoming that pernicious perception that it just does not work.
Too often we hear the complaint that billions of dollars have been given in overseas aid during the last 50 years, and all to no effect.
Poor governance and corruption in developing countries is often blamed for the failure of development aid to eradicate poverty. But this is far too simplistic an argument.We need to question the actions of donor governments who have supported corrupt dictatorships when it has suited them, and of companies that have encouraged corrupt practices to further their business interests in developing countries.
And we need to closely examine how our aid has been delivered, and learn from our mistakes.
Have we directed our aid to where it can be most effective and, more importantly, where it is most needed? Or are we primarily supporting our own national self-interests?
Has our aid been tied to too many conditions that have meant developing countries have not been able to manage their own development programmes?
As Catholics, our preferential option for the poor demands that we call on our governments to target the poorest, particularly those who are sidelined from the economic growth associated with globalisation.
And the principle of subsidiarity means that we call for aid delivery that is a true partnership between donor and recipient governments, in which recipients take leadership of the development process.
It is important to highlight the success stories. It is not all bad news, and there are some good examples of real progress in lifting people out of poverty.
In 1990, more than 1.2 billion people – 28 per cent of the developing world’s population – lived in extreme poverty. By 2002, that proportion had decreased to 19 per cent. During that period, rates of extreme poverty fell rapidly in much of Asia, where the number of people living on less than a dollar a day dropped by nearly a quarter of a billion.
The second perception that we need to overcome is that ‘charity begins at home’ and we simply can’t afford to increase overseas development aid.
Let’s look at some of the costs involved…
Basic schooling for every child would cost around ten billion dollars a year – that’s less than the USA spends on ice cream.
Basic healthcare and nutrition would cost 13 billion dollars a year. That’s around two thirds of what Europe and the US spend on pet food. Making childbirth safer for all women would cost around 12 billion dollars a year. That’s what we currently spend on perfume in Europe and the US.
At the end of the 1960s, the rich nations of the world got together to decide what would be a reasonable percentage of their incomes to devote to overseas development aid. They decided on the figure of 0.7 per cent.
Now, more than 30 years later, only five countries have met that target: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The United States is the world’s largest single official aid donor. Americans are known for their generosity and opinion polls show a high degree of support for overseas aid . But when surveys ask what percentage of US gross national income is devoted to aid, most people think the figure is 20 times higher than it really is . In one survey, only five per cent correctly stated that it is less than one per cent. Many people would no doubt be shocked to learn that the true figure only just crept over 0.2 per cent briefly in 2005  and in 2006 it stood at 0.17 per cent. This is why the ‘Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty’ is so important – both in terms of awareness-raising among the public and in translating the goodwill that clearly exists among the American people into real action on the part of their government. The 0.7 per cent target for development aid was renewed at the UN International Conference on Financing Development in Monterrey, Mexico in 2002 .
The head of the Holy See delegation at this conference, Cardinal Martino, made an urgent plea for governments to honour this commitment, saying: … the Family of Nations cannot allow one more day to pass wherein a real attempt to meet goals and make measurable progress toward the eradication of poverty is not pursued with all of the energy and resolve that [it] can muster .
Sadly, many governments still have a long way to go to go. They must have the courage, especially now at a time of slowing economic growth in their own economies, to put their aid budgets back on track. An increase in development aid is clearly urgently needed, but aid alone is not enough. It must go hand-in-hand with coherent and just policies on trade and debt. International trade has the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty. But trade rules are stacked in favour of rich countries and multinational companies. It is estimated that poor countries lose out on more than two billion dollars a day as a result of unfair trade – 14 times what they receive in aid .
World trade rules have a huge financial impact on individual people in the world’s poorest countries, most of whom make their living from agriculture. Global poverty can only be ended if trade rules let the poor earn an honest wage, for an honest day’s work. Subsidies, tariffs and dumping currently prevent this from happening.
Significant progress has been made on debt cancellation since the Jubilee Debt Campaign, but many of the poorest African countries are still saddled with heavy debt burdens. We must ensure that the remaining debts of these countries are cancelled so that the money they would have spent on debt repayments can be redirected to health, education and poverty reduction.
Together, action on aid, trade and debt provide a coherent and clear focus for the ‘Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty’. I would like, however, to also say a few words about two other pressing issues on the 21st century agenda that are inextricably linked, both with each other and with global poverty.
I am talking about climate change and violent conflict.
Climate change is now a reality. Last year, Mexico had the worst floods for 50 years, and huge swathes of Africa, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Indian Ocean, were under water. Out of the 40 humanitarian emergency appeals that we launched last year from Caritas Internationalis, 28 were climate-related.
Rising sea levels, violent storms, floods, drought, encroaching deserts, diminishing supplies of glacier water and erratic weather patterns will have the greatest impacts on people living in poverty in developing countries who are least able to adapt. In countries with high poverty rates and weak capacities of adaptation, climate change is increasing their vulnerability – and the poorest are the first victims of floods, droughts and famines. The links between climate change and violent conflict are particularly worrying. Increasing pressures on natural resources – in particular, water – coupled with food shortages and crop failures as a result of floods, droughts and shorter growing seasons, are putting additional strain on fragile social and political systems.
For example, drought has been identified as one of the factors contributing towards the conflict in Darfur, where fighting broke out between farmers and herders after the rains failed and water became scarce. In the ensuing conflict, 200,000 people have died and several million have fled their homes.
Water stress already affects 20 per cent of the world’s population and according to projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this figure will rise. Conflict reduces peoples’ capacity to adapt to climate change, producing a vicious circle that worsens poverty and hampers development efforts. Campaigns to tackle climate change must therefore be linked to development, and to emergency humanitarian work. International cooperation on mitigating the effects of climate change, through reducing carbon emissions, need to be accompanied by funding and assistance to enable vulnerable states to adapt to these effects.
It is estimated that adaptation to climate change in developing countries will cost at least 50 billion dollars each year . Calculated on ability to pay, and by their historic contribution to climate change, the USA, European Union, Japan, Canada, and Australia should contribute over 95 per cent of the finance needed . This money must, however, be in addition to existing commitments to development aid.
The link between conflict and poverty has been widely recognised, but efforts to address the problem tend to be mainly in the context of the fight against global terrorism. There are many conflicts that may not directly threaten Western security, but that also need our attention.
More than 30 armed conflicts are raging in the world today and in Sub-Saharan Africa more than a third of the population lives under some form of armed conflict.
More needs to be done to prevent conflict and build sustainable peace in developing countries. As Pope Paul VI said, there is no peace without justice. Conflicts can flare up again when the root causes have not been addressed and there has been no sustained development effort following on from the cessation of hostilities. Sustainable peace means more than the absence of violence – it means a continued commitment to long-term development.
Violent conflict undermines development and can set it back decades. More than a trillion dollars every year goes on military spending – money that could otherwise be spent on health, education and other poverty alleviation programmes.
The foreign policies of the world’s most powerful country clearly have huge implications for issues such as global poverty, conflict and climate change. The ‘Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty’ is playing a vital role in influencing policies in three key areas in the battle against global poverty.
Global problems, however, often require global solutions and I would like, therefore, to take a brief look at the role of the international community as a whole, and the specific role that international faith-based organisations, such as Caritas, have to play.
When you look at the complex inter-relations between globalisation, poverty and climate change, it is hard to see how one country, however powerful, can tackle these problems alone. A concerted, coordinated, multi-lateral effort seems to be the only solution.
The Millennium Development Goals, in my view, represent an important step in this direction. Indeed, the 8th and sometimes most overlooked goal, is Global Partnership for Development.
The MDGs provide a common framework for the international development community, to guide policies and programmes, and to assess effectiveness. They set clearly identifiable objectives and a timetable. And they give us the means by which we can hold governments to account against the commitments they have made.
They are not, however, without their critics. The MDGs have been criticised both for being too ambitious and for not going far enough. Some people have even suggested that they should have been called the ‘Minimum Development Goals’.
Recently, they were criticised for being “too generic”, in a report presented at the Brookings Institution . The argument, as I understand it, was that the MDGs do not take account of the lack of a level playing field, and therefore to judge the progress of individual countries against global targets is unfair and risks labelling African countries as ‘failures’.
I think this argument misses the point. If an African country fails to meet the Millennium Development Goals, it is not a failure for that country – it is a failure for the entire international community. The MDGs are not a set of goals that individual countries have to strive to achieve on their own – they are goals for the whole global family of humanity. It is our job to level that playing field and provide aid to where it is most needed.
The overall picture provided by the Millennium Development Goals Report for 2006 provided some encouraging signs:
But a considerable challenge remains:
The gap between Africa and other regions of the developing world is large and challenging but it does not have to be discouraging. There are success stories, and these show that the combination of resources and commitment on the part of African governments and African peoples and their leaders, can make a huge difference.
I was in Davos, Switzerland, last month for the World Economic Forum, when world leaders called for a renewed commitment to the MDGs, proposing some milestones for the year 2010 to mark progress towards the 2015 goals. These include:
It remains to be seen whether these good intentions will be translated into action, but what is certain is that if the MDGs are to be met, cooperation between governments, the private sector, NGOs and civil society is essential.
Documents Secretary General's Annual Report (June 2008) Caritas Europa 5th Migration Forum UNHCR High-Level Side Event on the Mexico Plan of Action Caritas Internationalis 18th General Assembly Catholic-inspired NGOs Forum Rome, 30 November 2 December 2007 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering International Plenary Speech by Caritas Internationalis Secretary General Deus Caritas Est The Church's Charitable Work and the Active Helpers