Making poverty history—and putting a whole new set of problems in its place

The Economist recently had a lengthy take on the state of global poverty—and the news seems to be good!

In 1990, 43% of the population of developing countries lived in extreme poverty (then defined as subsisting on $1 a day); the absolute number was 1.9 billion people. By 2000 the proportion was down to a third. By 2010 it was 21% (or 1.2 billion; the poverty line was then $1.25, the average of the 15 poorest countries’ own poverty lines in 2005 prices, adjusted for differences in purchasing power). The global poverty rate had been cut in half in 20 years.

That raised an obvious question. If extreme poverty could be halved in the past two decades, why should the other half not be got rid of in the next two? If 21% was possible in 2010, why not 1% in 2030?

The potential exists, it seems, to make extreme poverty history. Hallelujah!

The whole article is worth a read, but three points in particular stood out to me.

First, the Millenium Development Goals—the so-called Eight Commandments that were agreed to by world leaders in 2000 as a framework for reducing poverty—appear to have had almost no impact.

The leads to the second point. Poverty reduction happens because of economic growth. Economies in the poor world have been performing better, lifting many poor people out of extreme poverty.

News such as this should give Episcopalians pause. For much of the last decade, the MDGs have been the framework for much of the Episcopal Church’s global mission efforts. One result has been congregations and dioceses funnelling money to a host of causes around the world. Those of you who read my writing back when I was one of the church’s global missionaries will know that I’ve never put much stock in the MDGs. But I also want the Episcopal Church to be involved in global mission in a meaningful way. If the MDGs aren’t it, then what is?

That leads to the third point we might notice about the Economist‘s coverage: there is plenty of mention of the benefits of economic growth, but no mention of its costs—environmental, social, psychological. But it is clear that economic growth does have such costs: global warming is a genuine danger, the rapid urbanization of the world is creating a whole host of new issues, and the drive for consumption in a place like China is creating new feelings of isolation and anomie.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that there is a tremendous role for the church to play—but it’s not the role it has been playing to date. Rather than writing checks and transferring funds to limited impact, it seems the church can be the single organization that uses its unique network of transnational and intercultural relationships to advocate for those who lose out in the rush to economic growth, stand with those who suffer, and—most of all—articulates a vision of a world that is so much richer than being just a place where economic growth takes precedence over everything else. The church wants to make not only poverty history, but so too the host of issues that rush to take its place.

The MDGs “expire” in 2015 and one wonders what the Episcopal Church will do when that happens. The argument here is that the church needs to refocus itself on being nothing more and nothing less than what it is called to be: a global network of mutual relationships that advocates for a rich and integrated vision of a reconciled world. If we succeeded in doing that we might finally be worthy of being called what we really are: the body of Christ.

One thought on “Making poverty history—and putting a whole new set of problems in its place

  1. Last night I was watching Girl Rising, and I thought about your efforts in Umtata to keep the girls in school.
    Years ago, when Jenny described that the children at the dump couldn’t go to school because they had no uniforms, one of the members asked how much the uniforms cost; it was a pittance in American terms. That started the St. Peter’s scholarship fund.
    Last night, I had the same thoughts. Just how much does it cost to send a girl from developing countries to school? Where can we send that money?
    I agree with you about the Millenium Goals. It is not unlike the Decade of Evangelism in the 90s. It’s s if we put a catchy name of a project, and expect that to accomplish the goals.
    Thanks for publishing this today. The timing is perfect.
    Beth Ashby Mitchell

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