Fighting Poverty to Build Peace: Pope Benedict's challenge to the world
How will the world most effectively achieve peace? By fighting poverty. This central insight of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 World Day of Peace message has powerful implications for the current challenges facing the United States. Our nation’s internal economic struggles threaten to turn our focus inward rather than internationally. Pope Benedict’s focus on poverty around the world proposes a much more global vision, because difficult times demand a complex and comprehensive response. He points out a different way forward, a way inspired by the Prince of Peace. Humanity, Pope Benedict reminds us, is one family in God.
Where do we find solutions to our problems here at home? Candidates in the recent U.S. presidential election focused heavily on the domestic economic crisis and the beleaguered American middle class. Both are valid, critically important areas of focus. But the solutions for such problems, Pope Benedict suggests, also lie in the struggle against poverty abroad. Ultimately, there is no competition between domestic and international needs, nor between poor persons and the middle class. It is self-defeating to demand choices between help for those who suffer in the United States and those who suffer overseas, or between aid for poor persons and those in the middle class. Reiterating Pope John Paul II’s warning that “the gap between rich and poor has become more marked, even in the most economically developed nations,” Pope Benedict notes that we are dealing with a family matter. Concern for poor persons, both here and abroad, flows from the reality that humanity is one family in God.
Pope Benedict argues persuasively that assisting poor persons, especially in developing countries like Ethiopia, Haiti and Bangladesh, will help create “a world that is more just and prosperous for all.” He makes his point with a vivid image: “It is utterly foolish to build a luxury home in the midst of desert and decay.” He emphasizes that concern for the welfare of poor persons strengthens the common good of all and that addressing the needs of the most vulnerable improves the health of all. In the face of seemingly “either/or” choices, Catholic social teaching proposes “both/and” solutions.
Before exploring the global focus of the pope’s message of Jan. 1, 2009, it is important to examine domestic poverty. In 2007 the official poverty rate in the United States was 12.5 percent, or over 37 million people. The rate for children was 18 percent, almost one in five. These rates will surely climb in the current recession.
The official U.S. definition of poverty is about $21,000 a year for a family of four. In urban areas with higher costs of living, the effective poverty rate is much higher than the official estimate. Many low-income families living near or just above this income level see themselves as working class or middle class, not poor. But the church’s “preferential love for the poor” embraces them as well. This special concern for the poor does not diminish concern for the welfare of those who are middle class or wealthy. Everyone benefits when society more fully promotes the well-being of all, especially those who are poor.
Pope Benedict highlights the importance of building “participatory institutions” and a “civil society” internationally that enables nations to invest in people, fight crime, strengthen the rule of law and reduce poverty. As the former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, I have seen C.C.H.D. projects help poor people help themselves through the support of community-empowered, self-help organizations throughout the United States. This is a U.S. example of what is being done internationally to empower poor people to improve their communities.
Reducing domestic poverty will help to reduce global poverty because U.S. foreign policy can be only as strong as the nation is economically. Our country needs a solid domestic economy if it is to have the resources to help reduce global poverty. Paradoxically, in this age of globalization, the United States cannot improve its domestic economy unless it simultaneously invests in reducing global poverty. These investments unleash the potential of poor nations to contribute through fair trade to a robust global economy that benefits the common good of all peoples.
Poverty is widespread across the globe. An estimated 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.25 a day. Such poverty assaults human dignity and robs people of their human potential. Fortunately, poverty is a disease with a cure. There are countless stories of poor persons and communities rising above crushing poverty. The mission of Catholics and others of good will is to work with the poor to achieve greater economic opportunity.
Time and again, the world has seen that poverty contributes to conflict and violent conflict contributes to poverty. This vicious circle is true within nations and between nations.
Headlines testify daily to the fact that desperate situations of poverty lead some people to do desperate things. There is vivid evidence of this in the crime rates of poor neighborhoods, and in civil wars and international conflicts. For example, the genocidal conflict in Darfur, Sudan is exacerbated by a competition over scarce resources, such as arable land and clean water; these resources have been diminished by desertification of the land as a result of human carelessness and global climate change. Similarly, the violence and division of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are made worse by the increasingly dire humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian Territories.
Violent conflict destroys lives and property and can reverse years of human progress. War is development in reverse; it deepens poverty. Poverty destroys human potential, breeds despair and violence and undermines human security.
Pope Benedict warns that “immense military expenditures” divert resources “from development projects for peoples, especially the poorest.” Excessive military expenditures create “pockets of underdevelopment and desperation” and “paradoxically” become “a cause of instability, tension and conflict.” This warning has profound implications for U.S. foreign policy. As the world’s leading arms producer, the United States should assume leadership to promote international disarmament and to reduce the arms trade, which the Second Vatican Council called an “utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which ensnares the poor.”
The Mandate for Development
“The new name for peace is development,” Pope Benedict states, alluding to the words of Pope Paul VI. The pope then outlines steps in a comprehensive global development strategy to reduce poverty: improve solidarity between rich and poor countries; redirect military expenditures to human development; address pandemic diseases and the food crisis; and reform international trade and finance to reduce marginalization of low-income countries. He notes that children constitute almost half of those living in deep poverty worldwide, and asks that nations give priority to supporting mothers and families, education, access to vaccines, medical care, clean drinking water and initiatives to protect the environment.
In recent years there has been a debate over the role of development, defense and diplomacy (the three Ds) in U.S. foreign policy. The United States must give development a structure and capacity that raises it together with diplomacy and defense as the “third leg” of U.S. foreign policy.
What specific strategies can help the United States incorporate development as this third leg of foreign policy? First, development with a focus on poverty reduction must become the fundamental goal of foreign aid, including the participation of poor people and the involvement of local governments and civil society. Second, an emphasis not only on immediate humanitarian aid but also on investments in agriculture, health care, education and micro-credit programs will make a global development strategy more comprehensive and effective in the long run, as will the inclusion of strategies to combat climate change and reform international trade policies. Third, such strategies will be bolstered by a gradual increase in foreign aid, to reach the international commitment by wealthier nations to allocate 0.7 percent of national income to global development.
Material and Moral Poverty
Most significantly, Pope Benedict highlights the relationship between material poverty and moral poverty, noting that “every form of externally imposed poverty has at its root a lack of respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person.” Moral poverty that fails to respect human dignity contributes to material poverty. Greed, corruption and materialism undermine the common good of all. Material poverty demands concrete economic, social and political actions; but these actions will be effective only if they are shaped by people committed to what the Holy Father calls “profound solidarity.”
Morality matters in economic policy. The current national and global financial crisis has made this patently clear. Pope Benedict observes that too many economic actors were making decisions “based on very short-term thinking.” They lacked a commitment to “long-term consideration of the common good,” and by pursuing short-term gain in financial markets, they undermined the market itself. For this reason, markets, and financial institutions must be appropriately regulated for the common good.
Morality also matters in developing public policies that too often can be driven by ideology. Some countries promote anti-life population-control policies, although the world has reduced poverty even as its population has grown. Indeed, Pope Benedict says, developed countries “with higher birth-rates enjoy better opportunities for development.” The United States would do well to preserve the Kemp-Kasten Amendment that prohibits giving U.S. “population assistance” funds to any group that supports a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization, and should also reinstate the “Mexico City policy” that denies U.S. funds to organizations that perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning.
Morality also matters in designing effective responses to the AIDS pandemic. The recently reauthorized President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar) increased resources for AIDS prevention and treatment, training health care workers and nutrition programs. The bill also provided balanced funding for abstinence and behavior- change programs that research has shown are highly effective in reducing infection rates in countries with epidemics. A bipartisan consensus rejected adding unrelated family planning and reproductive health services that would divert resources from life-saving interventions. Sadly, some advocacy organizations are seeking to overturn that carefully constructed bipartisan consensus. Our nation’s leaders should not go down this divisive path.
A Call to Further Action
In response to the pope’s call “to fight poverty to build peace,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services will reinvigorate the Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty soon. An initiative called “Catholics Confront Global Poverty” will be launched on Feb. 23 (www.usccb.org/globalpoverty) with a goal of helping to educate and mobilize U.S. Catholics to defend the life and dignity of people living in poverty throughout the world.
The initiative will offer six specific policy recommendations: first, an increase in poverty-focused foreign assistance to meet humanitarian needs and invest in long-term development; second, the promotion of foreign assistance reform that emphasizes poverty reduction, government accountability and the participation of civil society; third, a new approach to global climate change that focuses on protecting the poor; fourth, reform of trade and agricultural policies to stimulate sustainable development and protect small farmers; fifth, financial and political support of U.N. peacekeeping missions to reduce the violence that impoverishes many nations; and sixth, the application of significant resources for peacebuilding and diplomacy to areas where existing conflicts threaten to turn violent.
Together with the domestic poverty initiatives of the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and the Campaign to Reduce Poverty of Catholic Charities USA, this new initiative represents a “both/and” approach to poverty at home and abroad. In the words of Pope Benedict, it is important that “people everywhere feel personally outraged by the injustices in the world. ” Only then can people work together to “redress the marginalization of the world’s poor” and “fight poverty to build peace. ”