Collette Kayakez sells dried fish in her urban neighborhood in Lubumbashi, the second-largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not long ago, her business was failing. It is hard to keep track of prices and sales if you do not know how to read and write. Ms. Kayakez, her husband, Ibert, and their children are no strangers to hunger. Like the economy of their country, their family fortunes have gone up and down. Despite its wealth in minerals and other natural resources, Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country suffered through colonization, dictatorship and the superpower rivalry of the cold war. An ongoing civil war has taken three million lives. It has also halted Congo’s mining, which cost Ibert his job.
“In my life, there have been times when food was hard to come by,” she said. “For 10 years it was really, really difficult. I would have to walk a long way just to find some work. Then I’d get a little food and bring it home to my children.” In poor countries like Congo, most families spend the bulk of their income on food. That does not leave much for housing, health care, school, transportation and other needs.
But Ms. Kayakez’s life has changed. Last year, she joined Worth, a development project focused on women that teaches basic literacy, banking and business skills. The local group includes 20 women dedicated to saving money and building stronger businesses together. The women run the group themselves and contribute all financial resources. Worth provides training and is run by a U.S.-based charity and funded by the U.S. government.
Since learning to read and keep records at Worth, Ms. Kayakez has doubled her family’s income. Her son has been able to stay in high school, and she has used some profits to buy a secondhand bicycle for the 10-mile trip to her plot of land outside the city. Now that she does not have a three-hour walk each way, she can grow more food.
An Exodus From Poverty
Ms. Kayakez’s family is one of hundreds of millions of families who have escaped from poverty and hunger over the last several decades. The prevalence of hunger and poverty has, in fact, declined in recent decades. When Bread for the World was founded in 1974, one in three people in the world was chronically hungry. Now that number has dropped to one in six. Even in some of the low-income countries that have not achieved economic growth, fewer children are dying and more children are in school.
In the year 2000 the nations of the world agreed that it is feasible to reduce hunger, poverty and disease dramatically by 2015. They adopted the Millennium Development Goals—eight specific goals, with agreed indicators for measurement of progress. The first goal is to cut hunger and extreme poverty in half by 2015, with progress to be evaluated by such data as how many young children are underweight and the proportion of people living on less than $1 per day.
When the Millennium Goals were adopted, skeptics pointed to all the bad news coming out of Africa and to the devastation being caused by H.I.V./AIDS. But more than two-thirds of sub-Saharan African countries have held democratic elections since 2000, and many African countries are experiencing economic growth. In this decade, the worldwide prevalence of H.I.V. has begun to level off, and more people with H.I.V./AIDS have access to life-saving drugs. This progress that is being made against poverty in the world is like a great exodus, an experience of the living God in our time. Christians in the United States can be part of it by insisting that the U.S. government pursue aid, trade and diplomatic policies that make it easier for poor people around the world to provide for their families.
Poverty-Focused Development Assistance
The most direct way for the United States to support progress against global poverty is to increase funding for poverty-focused development assistance—programs like Worth that help people escape from poverty. In 2006 the United States provided nearly $20 billion in aid to countries around the world, but only about $10 billion of this was poverty-focused development assistance. The remainder of U.S. foreign aid is given mainly for political, commercial and national security purposes.
Bread for the World’s list of agencies focused on reducing poverty includes: bilateral programs, like the child health, development assistance and disaster relief accounts of the U.S. Agency for International Development; the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief; the Millennium Challenge Account; U.S. contributions to multilateral initiatives like the Global Fund for H.I.V./AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; the International Fund for Agricultural Development; and the World Bank’s near-grant program for low-income countries.
Modest amounts of funding aimed at reducing poverty can make a huge difference—15 cents for a child’s polio vaccination, $25 for fees and materials for a year of elementary education or $5,000 to construct a well that provides safe water for a village. Poverty-focused development assistance helps farmers improve their crops and upgrade family nutrition. It pays for the oral rehydration therapy, vitamin A supplements and immunization programs that helped cut child mortality in half between 1960 and 2000.
Development assistance has been strengthened in recent years as policy makers have learned from experience and as the political commitment to reduce global poverty has become more serious. Successful poverty-reduction programs are usually driven by local people. The Millennium Challenge Account, for example, picks low-income countries with effective, democratic governments and then lets those governments decide how the funding can be most helpfully used. The M.C.A. also works to give local communities, including poor people themselves, a chance to participate in planning projects.
Development projects should be designed for sustainability. That requires the development of local sources of funding and training for local people. Church and nonprofit groups that administer a significant amount of U.S. government funding often focus on training local people and building community skills and confidence. The most important hallmark of effective assistance is clarity of purpose. Much of U.S. foreign aid has multiple goals. Often a U.S. strategic or commercial goal is primary, and the program is also supposed to help local people. It should not be surprising that aid with mixed purposes often fails to help poor people.
Bread for the World
As a Christian grass-roots advocacy group for more than 30 years, Bread for the World has urged Congress and the president to make policy changes that address the root causes of hunger and poverty, both in the United States and overseas. Its 57,000 members form an ecumenical tapestry of Christians from across the theological and political spectrums, united in their response to the calling to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, and defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov 31:8-9).
Bread for the World and its church partners—including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Relief Services and the leaders of many orders of men and women religious—have been pushing for years to increase U.S. funding for poverty-focused development assistance. The jubilee year debt campaign of 1999-2000 was a turning point. Who would have guessed that help would be forthcoming from Bono and other celebrities or from Bill Gates and other philanthropists? In fact, Congress and the president have increased poverty-focused development assistance from $4 billion in 1999 to $10 billion in 2006.
Bread for the World’s current legislative campaign, called One Spirit, One Will, Zero Poverty, urges Congress and the president to make further increases in poverty-focused development assistance. Congress is currently on track to approve a $1 billion increase for 2007, but President Bush has requested a $2 billion increase. So grass-roots pressure on Congress is needed right now and could have a big impact.
We are calling for annual increases of $5 billion. The U.N. Millennium Project estimates that reaching the Millennium Development Goals depends in part on an additional $75 billion a year in development assistance. The U.S. share of that would be about $25 billion, so we are trying to get political leaders here to raise their sights.
Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, God Is Love (Deus Caritas Est), called for participation in public life:
The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.
In a recent interview in Washington, D.C., Archbishop Medardo Mazombwe of the Diocese of Lusaka, Zambia, echoed the Vatican’s support for improvements in public policy. The archbishop told the Bread for the World staff: “I think we should, as much as possible, motivate dialogue with governments. This is very, very important: to look at poverty reduction as everybody’s responsibility. And political leaders should be involved in this program. The possibility is here now, and if the opportunity is offered us, if we are serious about development and liberating people, we should be able to persuade political leaders to come forward.”
Archbishop Mazombwe discussed the importance of the Millennium Development Goals and strategies to overcome hunger and poverty in Zambia. Prior to the summit meeting of the G-8 in Scotland in 2005, Archbishop Mazombwe, along with Catholic leaders from India, Honduras, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Guatemala, met with the president of the European Commission and political leaders from Britain and Germany. The Catholic leaders from the developing world encouraged European officials to cancel the unsustainable debt of poor countries like Zambia.
In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has established the Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty, whose holistic strategy is to increase poverty-focused development aid, reduce debt and reform trade practices. In April 2006 the U.S.C.C.B. released a position paper that states:
Fighting poverty, hunger and disease by adequately funding foreign assistance is not simply an optional commitment. This action invests in solidarity with poor nations, creates the prosperity that improves our own national security, and promotes the human dignity of the poorest in the world.
The Impact of Development Assistance
Collette Kayakez and her family have found a new measure of that dignity thanks to Worth. “I feel like before I was in the dark and now, it’s like I woke up,” said Ms. Kayakez of the transformation of her life since joining the project. She hopes that in the future she and her husband will be able to rent a tractor to till their soil. Another goal is to buy a house so that they no longer have to rent. But their highest priority is to make sure that their children go to school.
God is answering her prayers and those of many other mothers around the world who struggle even to feed their children, partly by moving people of faith in the United States to urge our government to fund adequately and administer effectively poverty-focused development assistance programs.