First published in Majellan magazine, April-June 2006 The Australian Religious Press Association gave this article an award as the best story on social justice 2007.
By Bruce Duncan, C.Ss.R.
For the first time in history, humans have the opportunity to eliminate hunger and the worst forms of poverty everywhere in the world. Leading economic experts have shown how this can be done, and 189 nations in 2001 committed themselves to support this global effort, through the Millennium Development Goals. Pope John Paul II called for a great mobilization of conscience to rouse the political will to achieve them.
Here is a message of astounding good news: that we could end global hunger and the worst forms of poverty in a matter of decades, if we seriously set our minds to it. Not only that, but we could do it relatively easily, by dedicating less than one percent of our growing economic wealth to the task.
This may sound too good to be true, and we might suspect that such claims were merely pious hopes or the utopian dreams of some wild-eyed do-gooders. But these are the views of leading development economists, and form the basis of the global plan coordinated under the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
To save the life of a child, many people would go to great lengths, perhaps even to risking their own lives. Yet we perhaps feel powerless to save the lives of children in developing countries. Estimates vary, but leading agencies estimate perhaps 1200 children are dying every hour from poverty-related causes, certainly more than 20,000 a day.
The shocking truth, though, is that these deaths are unnecessary, since the world has abundant resources to feed the approximately 850 million people in chronic hunger, and to lift about 1.2 billion people out of the most severe forms of poverty - existing on less than US$1 a day. What has been lacking is the political will to marshal the expertise and resources to eradicate global hunger.
Development experts have been saying this for years, yet the message is still not getting through to many people. The leading expert, Paul Streeten wrote in 1995: ‘It is the fact that hunger today is unnecessary that makes its continued existence so shocking.’
More recently, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen wrote: ‘What makes this widespread hunger even more of a tragedy is the way we have come to accept and tolerate it as an integral part of the modern world, as if it is essentially unpreventable’. Sen is a world expert on famines, and has insisted that they are ‘so easy to prevent that it is amazing that they are allowed to occur at all.’
The world has the opportunity to save the lives of not just hundreds of thousands of children in the next ten years, but up to 30 million children from cruel and unnecessary deaths. In addition, the UN plan aims to deliver 250 million people out of chronic hunger, and lift 500 million out of the most acute deprivation.
Never before in history has the human race been offered such an opportunity and faced with such a clear moral responsibility. Pope John Paul II constantly appealed for urgent action, declaring that eradicating the poverty of billions of people is ‘the one issue that most challenges our human and Christian consciences.’
In January 2005, John Paul went so far as to call the toleration of mass hunger as a ‘war of the powerful against the weak’. He called for a great mobilisation of human consciences: ‘How can we keep silent when confronted by the enduring drama of hunger and extreme poverty’, when we have such a ‘capacity for a just sharing of resources?’
And what could be closer to the heart of the Gospel than exerting ourselves strenuously on behalf of the most afflicted: ‘When did we see you hungry, homeless, sick or in prison…?’
Coordinating the UN campaign is the eminent economist, Jeffrey D Sachs, of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He has outlined his views in a landmark Penguin book in 2005, The End of Poverty: how we can make it happen in our lifetime.
The UN plan revolves around eight central ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs), which 189 countries in September 2000 solemnly agreed to support and implement. The goals are not just vague aspirations, but aim at specific outcomes, with progressive targets and strategies to achieve them.
The many aspects of this great global effort are summarised under the headings of these eight key goals:
In response to the objection that the task was too difficult or ambitious, Sachs replies that the world has already performed similar transformations in various parts of the world, notably in Europe, South-East Asia and East Asia and many other places. The process needs now to include areas that have so far missed out, particularly in Africa, parts of Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia.
Many countries have made great progress in cutting child and maternal mortality, controlling infectious diseases and expanding education and basic health care. The policies were well known, and can be rapidly extended elsewhere if the comparatively modest resources are available. For instance the cost of vaccine to immunise against the six leading child-killing diseases in poor countries is ludicrously cheap at about US$1 per person.
The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations estimates it saved the lives of one million children in the five years after 2000 and, with expanded funding from a number of governments and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, hopes to save another five million lives by 2015. This is readily do-able, with political will and comparatively modest financing.
Currently the world spends 20 times more on arms than on development aid. Is this not incomprehensible? Transferring a mere five percent of military spending would fund the immediate doubling of aid needed to reach the MDG targets.
Australia’s support for the MDGs has to date been grudging, despite 14 years of economic expansion. Our overseas aid languished in recent years at about 0.26% of our gross national income (GNI), about half the percentage of 30 years ago. Recently the Howard government has declared it will lift our aid to 0.4% of GNI by 2010, but this is still a long way short of the UN target of 0.7% GNI that Australia committed to 35 years ago.
What of the objection of some politicians and commentators that it is ‘trade not aid’ that is needed? Sachs replies that the argument is ‘absolutely wrong. It’s a slogan, not a reality. It’s aid and trade’, not either-or. Trade is certainly crucial for many countries, but the most impoverished countries are too poor to enter the circle of fair trade. They are often crushed by impossible debt repayments, lack roads, rail, electricity or ports to move produce to markets, while many of their people suffer appalling health and nutrition.
One suspects that some countries use the ‘trade not aid’ argument to confuse public opinion and as camouflage to avoid increasing foreign aid. In other words, it is a ploy to avoid honouring the commitments they made to support the Millennium Development Goals. To endorse such a slogan would mean turning a blind eye to the millions of people that we could lift out of hunger and the most severe poverty. The ‘trade not aid’ argument is simply ‘spin-doctoring’ to wash our hands of moral responsibility.
It is true that much development aid has been lost through corruption, but the MDGs insist on much greater transparency and anti-corruption measures before countries can receive fresh aid. Jeffrey Sachs gives a more detailed response to this objection in his book, The End of Poverty.
In the past foreign aid was given to governments for geopolitical reasons, and western governments, organisations and banks colluded in the transfer of funds with dictators like Mobutu in Zaire. It has proved very difficult to trace or recover these funds pilfered from impoverished peoples who have often been cruelly forced to repay these debts. Some major organisations and banks have profited enormously from this pillage, and have hidden the loot. This corruption is not confined to the developing countries.
• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.