Not Just a Material World

Poverty Falls, Many Problems Remain

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By Father John Flynn

ROME, APRIL 22, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Global poverty is falling, according to data just published by the World Bank. New estimates in the World Development Indicators 2007 show that the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day fell to 18.4% in 2004, explained the World Bank in a press release dated April 15.

In concrete numbers this means there are an estimated 985 million people living in extreme poverty. While still a very large number, it is an improvement. In 1990 the number was 1.25 billion.

In spite of the progress made, poverty is still an enormous problem. If the daily rate is raised to those who are living on $2 a day or less, then there are an estimated 2.6 billion people in this situation.

Nevertheless, the World Bank reported that developing countries have averaged a solid 3.9% annual growth in gross domestic product per capita a year since 2000. Another important factor in the lower poverty numbers was China's strong economic growth.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains problematic. In 2004, there were 298 million people living in extreme poverty. This, the World Bank observed, is practically the same number as in 1999.

The World Bank also commented that growth is not always enough to reduce poverty, given that in some countries inequality has worsened, leaving the poor without benefits from economic progress.

The World Bank's own poverty programs have also been criticized. An internal report, published late last year by the organization's Independent Evaluation Group, noted that only 2 in 5 borrowing countries have recorded continuous per capita income growth during the five years ending in 2005.

According to the "Annual Review of Development Effectiveness 2006," the World Bank's assistance often contributed to improving economic growth in countries, but it was less successful in bringing about the creation of jobs. The report also commented on the problem of worsening income inequality, which can reduce the contribution of economic growth to poverty reduction.

Aid commitments not met

Meanwhile, data published earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reveals that richer countries are falling behind in their aid to the Third World.

The 22 member-countries of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, the world's major donors, provided $103.9 billion in aid in 2006, the organization stated in data published April 3 on aid levels. This was down by 5.1% from 2005, in constant 2005 dollars. The $103.9 billion in aid represents 0.3% of the combined gross national income of the countries involved.

The only countries to reach or exceed the U.N. target of 0.7% of gross national income were Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark. In terms of the dollar amount given, the largest donor in 2006 was the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, Japan, France and Germany.

In part, the decline was due to unusually high levels of aid in 2005, largely due to debt relief operations in Iraq and Nigeria. If debt relief is excluded, then the decline in aid in 2006 is reduced to 1.8%.

In its press release the OECD also observed that aid to sub-Saharan Africa, excluding debt relief, was static in 2006. This is despite a commitment made by the G8 countries in the July Gleneagles summit to double aid to Africa by 2010.

The OECD had previously warned of the shortfall in aid, in its Development Cooperation Report. An OECD press release issued Feb. 22 explained that if countries are to meet the commitments for 2010 made to developing nations, aid funding would have to rise sharply.

In addition to doubling aid to Africa, richer nations have also undertaken to increase aid to $130 billion by 2010.

Progress in resolving problems with international trade is also lagging. Attention was drawn to this by the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations in New York, Archbishop Celestino Migliore.

In a speech given before a U.N. committee last Oct. 17, he stated that no substantial progress has been made in meeting commitments given in 2001 at the 4th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization.

Trade, Archbishop Migliore noted, is not simply a complement to aid and debt relief. "Trade is rather a priority for the general and sustainable growth of the economies of many developing countries," he said.

Moral responsibility

The Pope has spoken out on a number of occasions on matters related to poverty and economic development. "Once again I invite the leaders of the wealthiest nations to take the necessary steps to ensure that poor countries, which often have a wealth of natural resources, are able to benefit from the fruits of goods that are rightfully theirs," he said Jan. 8 in his annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also speaks clearly on the matter: "Rich nations have a grave moral responsibility toward those which are unable to ensure the means of their development by themselves or have been prevented from doing so by tragic historical events" (No. 2439).

For those who argue that the Church is meddling in affairs outside its competence, the Catechism points out that the Church leaves to the laity the work of directly intervening in these matters (No. 2442).

Moreover, the Church does not propose a specific program, as action in this area can legitimately take a variety of forms. What is important, the Catechism continues, is that the action taken be inspired by the message of the Gospel, the common good, and the teaching of the Church.

Benedict XVI developed in greater depth the Church's contribution in his 2006 message for Lent. The primary contribution of the Church does not consist in technical solutions, but in proclaiming the truth of Christ, he explained. It is Christ, the Pope added, "who educates consciences and teaches the authentic dignity of the person and of work."

The Catechism also states that the responsibility to help poorer nations is not just a question of justice, but is also a duty of charity (No. 2439). The Pope's 2006 Lent message spoke of the role of charity, noting that "no economic, social, or political project can replace that gift of self to another through which charity is expressed."

The worst poverty is not to know Christ, the Pope added, citing Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Therefore, he continued, "we must help others to find God in the merciful face of Christ. Without this perspective, civilization lacks a solid foundation."

In this moral dimension of development the family plays an important role, as the Pontiff explained in his speech given Oct. 16 to Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Addressing the question of rural development, the Pontiff argued that the family needed to be given priority. The moral principles and values which govern the family, the Pope explained, must be given priority. Matters such as relations between husband and wife and family solidarity need to be protected. "Investment in the agricultural sector has to allow the family to assume its proper place and function, avoiding the damaging consequences of hedonism and materialism that can place marriage and family life at risk," he urged.

The Pope also called for a renewed commitment to solidarity and cooperation between states. By so doing the spirit of justice, peace and harmony will be built up among peoples, he concluded. A timely message for a world in which many suffer from material and spiritual poverty.