Thursday, October 31, 2013

A moral imperative with a deadline

by Jim Yong Kim / Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Redes Cristianas
October 31, 2013

We now know that it is possible to end poverty in a single generation. In today's world, a historic change is coming about, unnoticed by most and unthinkable decades ago. In just one generation, we can end extreme poverty. This is revolutionary. For centuries, many religious leaders thought that poverty was inevitable, part of the order established by God. Few dared to suggest that it could have originated in man and that the latter could eliminate it.

The assumption that there would always be poor people was an excuse for inaction. Today we have new responsibilities. We must be aware of the possibility of ending poverty, largely the result of policies and structures created by men. To deal with this task decisively, we need the active participation of the world's religious communities.

In recent months, several leaders have endorsed the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030. US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, among others, have expressed their support. Recently, the 188 member countries of the World Bank Group joined this goal and the one of promoting shared prosperity, measured by the increase in income of the poorest 40% in developing countries.

Between 1990 and 2010, the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day (the line measuring extreme poverty in the world) was reduced to less than half. With this impressive progress, the end of poverty is at hand. Despite the impact of the financial crisis, the World Bank Group economists believe that with policies aimed at ending poverty and promoting economic prosperity, we can reach this milestone by 2030.

For the Catholic Church, commitment to the poor is based on two values that have been in force since the days of St. Paul -- charity and hope. Charity is to help meet the immediate needs of the poor. With more than 1 billion people living below the basic conditions for survival, this is an urgent task. And hope means addressing the root causes of poverty.

Some theologians have advocated the preferential option for the poor. This is actually an old idea contained in the Scriptures: "The last shall be first."

The living conditions of the most vulnerable is a basic moral test for everyone. In a society marked by deep divisions between rich and poor, the Gospel according to Matthew commands Christians to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. It is a call to social justice as a way to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth.

This goal requires the wisdom and strength offered by religions around the world.

All religions have warned us about the moral challenge that poverty represents.

Islam teaches giving excess wealth to the needy. Muslims fulfill this precept throughout the year through the so-called kherat and by the annual donation of a percentage of their wealth to the poor, known as zakat. A fundamental principle of Judaism is that those who have much should share with the less fortunate. And, according to Buddhism, poverty must be addressed through compassionate action as a way of freeing people from dukkha, roughly translated as "suffering."

The road to ending poverty will be difficult. But economists and political leaders believe it can be achieved. It is time for religious leaders to actively adhere to this goal and rekindle hope. Beyond the economic and political arguments, religious communities must work to end poverty because we care about every one of the poor as individuals. Religious traditions recognize our duty to love one another, and love is the core of justice.

Leaders of developing countries, the World Bank Group and other international organizations are considering steps to end extreme poverty. Moving forward implies boosting economic growth in a socially and environmentally sustainable way, investing in health, education and social protection to achieve a fairer distribution of opportunities, improving infrastructure and increasing competitiveness in order to promote fair wages through the private sector.

If economists focus on growth as a means to eliminate poverty, the religious community has an additional argument. Having the intention to end poverty by 2030, the world has defined an area of moral clarity that can unite religious communities and secular organizations. The strength of this goal comes from its moral basis.

The scandal of extreme economic poverty is a stain on our collective conscience. Ending it will require investment, technical and innovative capability on the part of governments, the private sector, development organizations and communities. Putting an end to poverty is, above all, giving the poor the tools to shape their own destiny. To achieve this goal, we need the wisdom and moral strength offered by religions around the world.

Jim Yong Kim is president of the World Bank Group and Father Gustavo Gutierrez is the author of numerous books, including the historical work A Theology of Liberation.

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