Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, USA
Community of Sant’Egidio, Prayer for Peace, Cracow, Poland, September 6-8, 2009
Humankind’s Spiritual Quest in a Time of Economic Crisis
And Poverty? Crises, Poverty, and the Roles of Faith
Katherine Marshall, Berkley Center, Georgetown University
This bitter year of painful news about economic life has translated into billions of stories of disappointment (at best) and misery (at worst). However, as always happens, the impact has been felt most severely by those least able to respond: the world’s poorest people and societies. And that dimension has received far too little attention. Now that there is hope for recovery, despite foggy prospects, there is a new and still greater danger: that the challenge of poverty will be neglected in the scramble to recover and to put crisis behind us.
One of the most powerful ideas of the “Spirit of Sant’Egidio” is that peace and poverty, rights and justice, are so tightly linked that in seeking solutions they cannot be seen in isolation. And it is well to recall what Andrea Riccardi has called the “modern miracles” – the reality that poverty and avoidable misery are NOT inevitable. The world has the resources and the experience to change the ancient curse, that poverty is always with us as part of the human condition/ We can truly work and hope for something very different from past and present realities, for a reality where each human being can live their life in dignity, developing their full potential, and savoring the rich diversity of our newly interconnected world. Ending poverty is a central spiritual quest for mankind. That is true in good times but still more in times of crisis.
The Crisis: Impact on the poor
It is a subject of constant frustration to me that we know so much about financial and market transactions, down to the most intricate detail, and so little about the human indicators that are the barometers of social welfare. For example, the best indicator of changing circumstances in a society may be infant birth weights. But there is no daily report of these indicators in newspapers or even in obscure reports. We have no tangible number to tell us 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 also rely – and should be able to do so far more – on the witness and reports from the faith communities that are so present to tell us how life is changing and where the sore points are situated.
But even without solid data we know well that the impact on the poor of the current crisis has been devastating, and that its effects in many areas are only beginning to be felt.
The first sign of crisis, felt across the world but with particular acuteness in Africa, was the sharp increase in food prices. Since most poor households spend large parts of their incomes on food, this shock has wide effects. And it continues, and is part of a major change in the global situation: food scarcity is an important new reality and challenge.
Jobs are critical for human dignity. The United States today celebrates Labor Day, and the focus in the recent Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, on Decent Work is a just reminder that work is central to human fulfillment, to human dignity. Hundreds of millions have lost jobs and struggle to find even temporary employment. Migrants send less money home. Tourists cancel trips and jobs are lost. The ripple effects of the interconnected economy are swift and wide. Just as one example, the International Labor Office (ILO) estimates that the economic crisis is expected to increase the number of unemployed women by up to 22 million over the period 2007- 2009
Governments feel the economic pain and seek ways to cut spending. Often social programs are the first to go – despite earnest efforts to defend social spending.
Families must struggle to cope. That often means pulling children out of school or postponing medical care. Tensions in families, we hear from countless anecdotes, force children into the street, and spill over into violence. Women and children feel the brunt of crisis in ways we only begin to measure and report. But it is a reality that is blindingly clear.
And the generosity of philanthropy – foundations, personal gifts, and companies’ “venture philanthropy” holds up at first when crisis strikes, but it also is declining and worthy, important programs everywhere are facing sharp reductions in funding. The promises of development assistance, always fragile and always falling somehow short, are at great risk. The exciting progress made in extending treatment for HIV and AIDS to the millions who need it is threatened by budget cuts far away.
Earnest efforts to learn lessons of past crises, to meet problems head on, and to respond to the new needs are having an impact. However, the stark reality is that policies and programs reach only a fraction of those who are in need.
Looking to the Future?
Amidst the gloomy news and glum prognoses, we should recall that crisis always offers opportunities for real change. We can hope that this crisis will indeed awaken consciences and lead to the kind of rekindled focus on working for the more just global society that our common ethical principles suggest.
My suggestions fall in four baskets.
First, revitalize the MDGs. At a global level, and with so many meetings – UN General Assembly, G20, World Bank and IMF – coming soon, leaders can breathe new spirit and energy into the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs, so easily caricatured or set aside as lofty or minimalist, abstract or mind-numbing in detail, in fact represent a sacred covenant, a commitment of all nations to fulfill the promises they have made for action: children in school, ending hunger, halting HIV/AIDS and malaria, ending most maternal and infant mortality. There are important and quite revolutionary ideas behind the MDGs: they ask not what countries are willing to give, but what resources are needed to achieve the goals, with a promise then to mobilize them. Public accountability for action is at the core. We can all, from our different vantage points, contribute to making the MDGs work as the inspiration and guide that is the intention. They are an important scaffold for action.
Second, demand better information. We can work together to know more, more quickly, and better the true picture of poverty so that we can better address it. Poverty has many faces. Its root causes are as complex as any conflict. Sadly, there are no easy solutions. Unless we appreciate the difficulties and complexities we cannot think clearly about solutions. Demanding better data about poverty is a first step. A second is contributing to it – assembling and communicating the realities that we all see so that the picture can guide action in more meaningful ways. Public and private institutions, action and academic, need to be more demanding in their understanding of poverty and trends. We know, for example, far too little about what faith-inspired organizations are doing, how well and with what resources. The Berkley Center where I work, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue, which I lead, are committed to deepening our understanding about this important work, on topics as different as malaria, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, and agriculture. With better knowledge we can do far better in advancing our goals and dreams.
Third, focus on dialogue about tough development issues like gender relations and corruption. The Cracow meeting focuses on interfaith dialogue among religions, but there is also a crying need for an “interfaith” dialogue involving social and economic actors, development institutions, and those in faith worlds who care so deeply about human welfare and justice. The issues include differing notions about what works, in markets and welfare programs, and conflicting conceptions of what “rights” means in practice. Questions around gender roles and proper functions of the state in contemporary society are leading questions. Dialogue might take several forms including quiet working groups to define issues, understand differences, and hopefully build more common ground. Some of these are small fires that nonetheless need attention, others the subject of deep tension and lost energy.
Another topic where dialogue and common action are needed is corruption, a nasty, widespread and corrosive phenomenon. Faith leaders have yet to be full partners in emerging global, regional, and national alliances to work for better governance. I see much promise in a disciplined effort to look to wisdom from theology and from experience of “living religion”, to help foster action to fight this special cancer.
And fourth, action on priority topics could work miracles. There are topics where we know that action can enhance welfare. It would be wonderful to see each leader here committed to pursue five problems relentlessly: pressing for each and every girl to go to school, to stay there, and to have help to succeed; to oppose the marriage of young children; to speak with outrage against violence in the home and in institutions; to fight passionately against stigma especially for people living with HIV/AIDS, and to look for every way to stop trafficking in people.
At Cyprus last year, prophetic voices were raised about the crisis of values that the emerging economic crisis reflects. In the intervening months, I have heard the term “bubble” used time and time again and see little evidence that indeed the world will take the opportunity of the painful crisis to rethink and reform. It was inspiring to hear Michel Camdessus, in the true prophetic style, point again to the need to turn the principles of a global ethic into lived reality. Nowhere is this more important than in the fight against global poverty.
Quotation from a recent speech by Tony Blair: “This is surely the role of Faith in modern times. To do what it alone can do. To achieve what neither a person, nor a state, nor a community, on their own or even together, can achieve. To represent God’s Truth, not limited by human frailty, or by the interests of the state or by the transient mores of a community, however well intentioned; but to let that Truth bestow on us humility, love of neighbour, and the true knowledge that indeed passes all understanding.
“This is Faith, not as superstition, not as an insurance against life’s pitfalls, but Faith as the salvation of the human condition.”