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Michael O’BrienNovember 22, 2023
Flies cover a malnourished child's face at a camp for internally displaced people outside Baradere, Somalia, March 13, 2022. In a Sept. 29 message to Qu Dongyu, general director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Pope Francis said the international community can no longer ignore the cries of the poor and the hungry who fall victim to food loss and waste. (CNS photo/Feisal Omar, Reuters)

Fordham University unveiled its annual Pope Francis Global Poverty Index on Nov. 17. Student researchers at Fordham’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy and Development found a slight improvement overall from the 2022 report, tracking a rebound from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. They observed some limited improvements in people’s access to water, housing and religious freedom but a decline in access to education and in gender equity.

According to the report’s authors, ​​57 percent of the world reside in countries where religious freedom is severely restricted. That means close to 4.5 billion people live in societies “that face severe government restrictions such as banning particular faiths, prohibiting conversion, or giving preferential treatment to one or more religious groups.”

Just over 9 percent of the world’s population were unable to obtain minimal nutritional needs, according to the report, leaving about 726 million people undernourished. Approximately 790 million workers—22 percent of the global labor force—were unemployed or underpaid with a poverty wage below $3.20 a day.

Pope Francis first laid out the categories used by the index in an address to the United Nations in 2015, when he implored new multilateral efforts to “enable real men and women to escape from extreme poverty,” while ensuring that they remain “dignified agents of their own destiny.” The pope urged government leaders to do “everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity.”

“In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labor and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and other civil rights,” the pope continued.

To Henry Schwalbenberg’s ears, that sounded like a worthy assessment of global well-being. Mr. Schwalbenberg is the director of the graduate program. His students and researchers translated the pope’s categories into the Fordham index, and since 2015 the team has kept its finger on the pulse of Francis’ guidelines for a more equitable world.

“The thing that’s different about Francis is that he does have a different view of what developments to end poverty entail.”

Mr. Schwalbenberg recalls the excitement in the air during Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States. “It was the pope coming to the United Nations and delivering that speech,” he said. “That included sustainable development goals that he thought would be good indicators of progress, and I thought: ‘Oh, we could do this.’”

Global high-priority needs extrapolated from the pope’s speech fall under the report’s two main categories: material well-being and spiritual well-being. Material well-being is measured by the percentage of the people in a given nation using an “improved drinking water source,” the prevalence of undernourishment, access to adequate housing and a country’s “distressed labor” rate. The latter is the percentage of the labor force that is either unemployed or receiving a poverty wage. Spiritual well-being is measured by a country’s adult literacy rate, gender equity and religious freedom.

Pope Francis’ address continued his fruitful relationship with the U.N. Francis has promoted other humanitarian efforts with the organization, such as drawing awareness to the hunger crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the threat of famine in Lesotho, the jailing of Iranian protestors and several other crises. 

But while he promotes the U.N.’s work, he also challenges some of its assumptions, according to Mr. Schwalbenberg. “The thing that’s different about Francis,” he said, “is that he does have a different view of what developments to end poverty entail.” To Pope Francis, authentic development “goes beyond just [addressing] the physical needs of people.”

“We’re social beings who have to worry about our families; we’re spiritual beings who have to worry about our intellect, our freedoms, our different rights. We are transcendent,” Mr. Schwalbenberg said. The pope “challenges us to seek a more complete, holistic definition of what these developments should include.”

The need to address the health of women globally “was really critical at this point in history,” Mr. Schwalbenberg said.

The role of women in the church and world at large is one of the significant questions at the center of the Synod on Synodality. The index includes “gender equity” among the subsections that make up spiritual well-being.

Mr. Schwalbenberg noted that while many other aspects of gender equity, like access to education and employment are also important, the Fordham “Francis Index” primarily focuses on the health and survival of women.

The goal of this section of the report was to appeal to a wide Catholic audience, Mr. Schwalbenberg explained. The need to address the health of women globally “was really critical at this point in history,” he said.

According to the index, 54 percent of women and girls in the world in 2022 resided in societies that severely discriminate against them, leaving 2.1 billion women and girls living in counties where their health and survival are threatened.

Mr. Schwalbenberg noted that something that stood out in this year’s index was how the subsiding impact of the pandemic led to improved scores on previously disheartening results in categories like employment and education. But one area that did not show improvement was access to food.

The Fordham researchers found that 9.3 percent of the world’s population endures inadequate nourishment, but in some countries, like Somalia and the Central African Republic, figures are as high as 50 percent. 

Global religious freedom was another standard measured by the index team. “We had this big increase in government restrictions on religious freedom, and a lot of that is coming from China,” Mr. Schwalbenberg said.

“There’s been a rise of global authoritarianism in general, and so there are concerns about this political atmosphere and civil religious liberties. We have some places in the world that believe in that stuff and some places that don’t.”

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