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.

The Power of Establishment

On Monday, I did something I rarely do: I read The Daily Mail, one of England’s leading newspapers (by sales). It’s a tabloid that makes it money by plastering screaming (and arguably distorting) headlines across its pages.

I read the paper because a) it was in a waiting-room I was in and b) the front-page headline was about Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, and a letter he (and about 40 other bishops) signed opposing the government’s proposed changes to welfare. The article (and the accompanying op-ed column) was not positive about the archbishop’s move. Welby himself thoughtfully responded on his blog.

Leaving aside the merits of the dispute (which, as a non-voter in this country, I don’t entirely understand but on the surface it seems Welby et al. have a point), let’s talk about the media coverage. England is supposed to be an ever-increasingly secularized country, with fewer and fewer people attending church and fewer and fewer people believing in God. So why all the attention for a letter the archbishop signed?

For me, it’s a reminder of the power of Establishment: no matter what people might think about religion in England, the Church of England still has a privileged role. When its leaders speak, they get attention. Not always, and not as much as they would like, I am sure, but attention nonetheless. As I read about this debate, I am reminded of bishops in some African countries I’ve visited, whose public utterances are closely watched. When I was in Nigeria, bishops (of a number of different denominations) regularly featured in news reports. Ditto for South Sudan.

At the same time as this flare-up over the bishops’ poverty letter in England, the American House of Bishops released a letter about gun violence. Also this week, some faith leaders—including Episcopalians—have spoken out against the proposed Republican budget. I will be stunned if any of these statements makes the cover of any major newspaper in the United States, or is even mentioned. That’s not how the media market works in the United States. Katharine Jefferts Schori and American Episcopal bishops are not media figures in the way English bishops are. (A few have succeeded in getting into the news cycle with statements about same-sex marriage, but these are exceptions that prove the rule.)

All of which is to say what I’ve said many times on this blog in one way or another: context matters. Anglicans around the world minister in a huge variety of contexts that shapes their actions and statements. We do well to remember that.