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Charity or Justice

January 25, 2014

As I wrote in my previous post, I have again flipped to the A-side of my life—Haiti.  I have walked from the freezer into the oven, the -25°C of a Manitoba winter to the 35°C of the tail end of the Artibonite dry season.   Again I doff the affluence of Canada and don my paradoxical pauperdom in Pierre Payen—what would be distressing privation to most Canadians but is enviable affluence to most Haitians.

After 3 years of living among the people of Haiti I have become somewhat inured to the poverty here.  It’s not that I have become blasé about it; it’s just that it has become “normal” to me.  As Bruce Hornsby sang back in ‘86, “That’s just the way it is.”  And sometimes it does seem that, “Some things’ll never change.”  But as the chorus ends, “Ha, but don’t you believe them.”  Still, more and more the spectre of poverty and hunger, here or elsewhere, makes my blood boil.  

To me, poverty says far more about Western society than it does about the poor.  It speaks to a sense of entitlement, a selfishly uncaring attitude, or more simply, greed.  In Christian terms, poverty stems from sinful attitudes and behaviour.  It exists because people in the developed world are unwilling to change the way they live, like addicts remaining in denial—refusing to see the extent and severity of poverty, minimizing the staggering impact of their excessive consumption, or refusing to admit personal or societal responsibility, blaming any number of factors for the problem.  But it is only when we are aware of poverty’s true causes that we are no longer helpless against it.

The World Food Programme says, “The poor are hungry and their hunger traps them in poverty.”  Hunger is the king of the Grim Reapers; his scythe cuts a swath wider than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined, claiming more than seven and a half million lives this year alone, most of them children.

With all the obligatory pomp and circumstance The World Bank has announced its goals to end extreme and chronic poverty and to promote shared prosperity in the world by 2030.  The United Nations has endorsed the project.  But efforts to rein in poverty are almost always based upon fallacies and/or rooted in machinations.  The economic reform programs devised by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have often triggered rising unemployment, higher prices and cuts in vital social services in the countries targeted.  Having the World Bank find solutions to poverty is like leaving a fox to guard the henhouse.

There is no scarcity of speculations as to why fully one third of the world’s people are starving.  The world’s powerbrokers—the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the World Food Program, the Millennium Challenge, The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with industrial giants like Yara Fertilizer, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Syngenta, DuPont, and Monsanto—paint themselves as knights in shining armour, crusaders for the poor.  But stripping starvation of its urgency by euphemistically calling it food insecurity, they carefully avoid addressing the root causes of the hunger, for like many of the original Crusaders, their primary motivation is self-interest, the economic swords they wield wantonly cutting the legs out from under the poor for profit, their “solutions” rooted in the same policies and technologies that created the problem in the first place. Meanwhile they go to great lengths to obscure or obfuscate their culpability in the human devastation they wreak. 

The contention that there is food scarcity in the world is a myth perpetuated by those who profit by the illusion of scarcity. As Gandhi said, “There’s enough on this planet for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.”   Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world’s food supply.  The world now produces enough cereal grains to provide every person on the planet with 3500 calories each day.  Total food production is almost 2 kilograms per person per day worldwide—more than a kilogram of grain, beans and nuts, about half a kilogram of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another half a kilogram of meat, milk and eggs.  Food is always available for those who can afford it—starvation hits only the poorest.  It is human institutions and policies that, acting with all the malignancy of the third horseman, determine who eats and who does not.

Neither does population density explain hunger.  There are those who assert that it is rapid population growth that “overburdens already strained financial and natural resources,” greatly impeding efforts to raise incomes and reduce food shortages.  It is true that in societies where land ownership, jobs, education, health care, and old age security are beyond the reach of most people, rapid population growth and hunger seem to go hand in hand.  But a closer look reveals that hunger results from underlying inequities that deprive people, especially poor women, of economic opportunity and security.  It is poverty that leads to overpopulation, not the inverse.  The plight of the poor, especially poor women, must improve before they can choose to have fewer children.

It is not efforts to feed the hungry that are causing environmental problems. Large corporations are mainly responsible for deforestation—creating and profiting from developed-country consumer demand for tropical hardwoods and exotic or out-of-season food items. Most pesticides used in the Third World are applied to export crops, playing little role in feeding the hungry, but ensuring that the developed world can enjoy blemish-free produce, with no improvement in nutritional value.

Alternatives exist now and many more are possible. Cuba’s recent success in overcoming a food crisis through self-reliance and sustainable, virtually pesticide-free agriculture is a good example. As any organic farmer will tell you, environmentally sound agricultural alternatives can be more productive than environmentally destructive ones.

The Green Revolution has unquestionably had its successes, increasing grain production by millions of tons a year.  But focusing narrowly on increasing production did little to alleviate hunger because production is not the problem.  It is the concentrated distribution of economic power that determines who can buy the additional food.  The Green Revolution was simply not sustainable.  Tragically, the intensive farming practices the revolutionists advocated degraded the long-term productive capacity of the soil. Now we are faced with a ‘New Green Revolution’ based on biotechnology, which threatens to further accentuate inequality.

Agribusinesses that now control most of the best land often leave much of it idle. Unjust farming systems leave farmland in the hands of the most inefficient producers. By contrast, small farmers typically achieve at least four to five times greater output per acre, working hard to develop sustainable production systems, diversify their crops, protect their soil, conserve their water and forests, and establish local gardens, markets, businesses, and community-based food arrangements.

While many in the corporate world would have us believe that the free market is the answer to everything, the “market-is-good, government-is-bad” formula can never help address the causes of hunger.  It is only when purchasing power is widely dispersed that the market’s marvelous efficiencies can work to eliminate hunger.  As Henry Ford maintained, the health of our economies depends not so much on promoting the well-being market itself, but on enhancing the well-being of consumers.

In this task, government has a vital role to play in putting an end to the wolfish right to unlimited accumulation of wealth-producing property and the right to use that property however one sees fit.  Government must counter the tendency toward economic concentration through genuine tax, credit, and land reforms to disperse buying power toward the poor. Recent trends toward privatization and de-regulation are most definitely not the answer.

Despite the claims of its promoters, free trade is not the answer, as it has proven not to alleviate hunger but rather to exacerbate it.  It is estimated that under free trade agreements developing countries are being denied $500 billion of market opportunities every year, as compared with the $50 billion they receive in aid. Where the majority of people have been made so impoverished they cannot buy domestically grown food, those who control productive resources will, not surprisingly, look to more lucrative markets abroad, squeezing out basic food production in the process.  Trade promotion agreements pit working people in different countries against each other in a ‘race to the bottom,’ where the basis of competition is who will work for less, without adequate workplace safety, health coverage or minimum environmental standards. The inevitable result is increase poverty and hunger in all participating nations, including the wealthy ones.

The media, and especially the promotional campaigns of aid organizations, have bombarded us with images of poverty that obscure the truth.  The poor of the world are not helpless.  They are resourceful and work incredibly hard.  If they did not, they would not survive.  They could feed themselves if obstacles were not put in their paths by large corporations, foreign governments, as well as World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies.

An increasing number of developing countries are experiencing debt overhang, a debt burden so large that a country cannot take on additional debt to finance future projects, even those that are profitable enough to enable it to reduce its indebtedness over time.  For some, debt repayments greatly exceed the aid they receive, making it impossible for the governments of those countries to provide basic health, education and anti-poverty programs to their people, much less do anything toward development.  Debt reduction will do little to help.  What is needed is for wealthy countries and international financial institutions to forgive the debts of the struggling nations.  The world is in desperate need of a Jubilee year.

As is all too apparent in Haiti and elsewhere, foreign aid does little to relieve hunger, in many cases adding fuel to the flames.  It is often used to impose free trade and free market policies, to promote exports at the expense of food production, and to provide armaments that repressive governments use to stay in power.  As I mentioned earlier, aid often comes at a horrific price, over the last several years that being the loss of the market opportunities that could go a long way toward lifting developing countries out of poverty, those losses amounting to ten times the aid received.  It was aid that led to the collapse of the Haitian agricultural sector that once fed the nation.  Even emergency food aid often fails to reach the hungry, and typically ends up enriching businesses in the donor countries while dangerously undercutting the farming economies of recipient countries.  It is estimated that for every dollar of aid going into poor countries, multinationals take 66 cents of profits out. On its website, USAID reports it found ways to claw back more than 80% of the aid it provided to Haiti.  The powerful are exploiting the poor to make bigger and bigger profits.

The continued deprivation of the world’s hungry threatens our own well-being.  Lower than subsistence wages abroad provide us with cheap food, clothing and electronics, but only at a huge cost to our own economies.  The enforced poverty in the Third World jeopardizes employment, good wages, and working conditions here at home.  As the number of ‘working poor,’ those struggling in low-wage, often part-time jobs that do not provide adequately for themselves and their families, continues to grow in our own communities, so does poverty and malnutrition with all the concomitant ramifications that drain our economies.  The brutish idea that business has the right to exploit its workers in order to make profits is bizarre.  Any business that is unable to continue without providing a descent living for its workers does not deserve to survive. Clearing the way for the world’s poor to free themselves from economic oppression would free us as well.

There are those who believe that measures necessary to relieve poverty will infringe upon freedom and civil liberties.  Yet across the globe, one can find no correlation between hunger and civil liberties. However, one narrow definition of freedom—the aforementioned self-serving right to unfettered accumulation of wealth-producing property and the right to use it with no constraints whatsoever—is in fundamental conflict with ending hunger. By contrast, an understanding that freedom entails economic security for all is essential to that end.

There is a great deal of lip service paid to the fight against global poverty, but even the most cursory look at the figures should make one wonder if it has ever been anything more than a skirmish.  Despite what many would have us believe—that the cost of putting an end to poverty is out of reach—there is no truth to it.  Reality is that the cost of providing basic education, health and nutrition for all world-wide is roughly the same amount the world spends on pet food every year.  It is the profits realized from the dangerous and unjust global food system now in place that is driving the perpetuation of poverty.

In addition to being poor, the poor are also marginalized.  Since poor people don’t have money, any market-driven economy is always going to neglect their interests.  Our governments, financial institutions and corporations operate within the framework of capitalism.  Capitalism is based on products being produced for sale on a market with a view to profit, and on the competitive pressures of the market dictating that these profits be accumulated in the form of more and more capital invested to make yet further profits.  The whole purpose of capitalist corporations is to make a profit on the capital invested in their businesses so that their shareholders can benefit. That’s the nature of the beast.  It is to their advantage to keep people poor.  Doing so returns bigger profits.  Therefore there is simply no real incentive to really help them. 

But those of us who are Christians should have enormous incentive to see to it that the poor are adequately cared for.  God has provided enough for all; there is absolutely no need for poverty.  God Himself says so in Deuteronomy 15:4-5:

However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.

But we ignore His commands and justify our actions with Pharisaic rationalizations.  Some of us feel entitled to more than their fair share and ignore the misery that results, blind to the damage we are doing to ourselves.

As a Christian working in a struggling nation, I have become acutely aware that the way we “do ministry” has a direct correlation to the way we look at poverty.  For some it is a problem to be “fixed,” a project for rich Westerners to tackle, employing methods carried with us from home rather than homegrown strategies that empower people to develop their own solutions, unique to their own situation.  Western Christians often see spreading the Gospel as not just the primary but the only goal of ministry, relegating the kingdom of God to otherworldly status, and deaf to what Jesus taught, washing their hands of any responsibility to address the practical needs of the people to whom they preach, ignoring the here-and-now plight of the poor, deferring their salvation to heaven. 

To my understanding, the kingdom of God is at hand.  Jesus has called me to join Him in ushering in the kingdom right now.   When He said, “The poor you will always have with you,” He was not making a casual observation.  We cannot ignore the rest of the verse as recorded in Mark 14:7, for it is the operative part:  “and you can help them any time you want.” I suspect it is a reference to Deuteronomy 15:11:  For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”   That particular verse is embedded within a number of specific provisions concerning how the “haves” are to care for the “have-nots,” warning the wealthy not to use their position to harm those with less, and that they have an obligation to alleviate the sufferings of the poor, to provide for the vulnerable in a way that preserves their dignity. The overarching attitude toward the poor can be best summed up very simply: your brother.

God explains the rationale for helping the poor one verse earlier: You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Jesus was not fatalistically resigning Himself to endless poverty.  He was pointing out that there would always be opportunities for us to help the poor.

Jesus regarded poverty exactly as the Old Testament does, as an involuntary social evil to be abolished, not tolerated, and represented the poor (who included widows, orphans and aliens) as people to be succoured, not blamed.  Both see the solution to poverty not as charity, but justice.

Nelson Mandela well understood this.  I long ago wrote his words on the flyleaf of my Bible.

Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life . . .

Let’s no longer accept charity in place of justice.




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