Universe Column, November 4th 2007
Consider for a moment that half the world – nearly three billion people – live on less than two dollars a day; that the World Bank reports that more than 800 million people are wracked by starvation or despair, living below any rational definition of human decency; that
the Gross Domestic Product of the poorest 48 nations (i.e. a quarter of the world’s countries) is less than the wealth of the world’s three richest people combined; that 20% of the population in the developed nations, consume 86% of the world’s goods; that, according to UNICEF, 30,000 children die each day due to poverty; and that nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
At the end of last month, during his weekly general audience, which coincided with the World Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty, Pope Benedict cited our duty to respond to abject poverty as part of his call to engage; and specifically told us that if we searched our consciences they would require us to act. He said that the growing disparity between the rich and the poor is an offence against human dignity:
“This worrying situation appeals to the conscience of mankind because the conditions being suffered by such a large number of people are such as to offend the dignity of human beings and, as a consequence, to compromise the authentic and harmonious progress of the world community.
“I encourage, then, an increase in efforts to eliminate the causes of poverty and the tragic consequences deriving from it.”
What Pope Benedict calls “the tragic consequences deriving from poverty” are seen in the emaciated bodies and the hopelessness of the children in Darfur, in the Congo, in Rwanda, in Burma, in North Korea and in the favellas of Latin America.
They are graphically illustrated in the blood red silhouettes etched into the roadway outside the church of Our Lady of Candelaria in Rio, where eight young children were gunned down by police officers as they slept on the street; they are seen amongst the detritus dumped on the sea shore near Coca Cabana where, if you look carefully, in one photograph I have seen, you can see the small feet of a dead child, discarded as rubbish – unwanted and unloved.
The tragic consequences deriving from poverty also result in contemporary slavery and human trafficking:
• 27 million people enslaved today;
• The International Labour Organisationo say this includes 8.4 million children;
• 700,000 are trafficked every year;
• Debt Bondage affects 20 million people;
• Forced labour, child labour, economic servitude, racially motivated and caste based slavery all still persist throughout the world;
• At least 12.3 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide;
• 80% of the 700,000 people trafficked annually are women and children;
• Human trafficking is the third largest source of income for organised crime (after arms and drugs);
• Trafficking generates $7 billion per year;
What possesses human beings to do these things to one another?
At the heart of the human problem is the human heart. That is why the Pope urgently pleads with us to embark on “the formation of the heart.”
The tragic consequences of a world which refuses to love can be seen in the injustice and the violence which continues to devastate vast swathes of our earth. Seven million have died in Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda in the last 15 years alone : it is Africa’s World War One. The ceasefire in the Congo has just been broken again and the Government of National Unity between Southern and Northern Sudan has been ended, also threatening to re-open that shocking conflict.
I will always remember meeting Bishop Akio Johnson, a Catholic bishop in Southern Sudan. He has had nine attempts on his life: I met him standing next to the bomb shelters that saved the lives of school children as the Government of Sudan bombed their school, the church, the health centre and the bishop’s home.
Surely our consciences should require us to see the link between conflict resolution and grinding poverty; and also the role that we in the Western arsenals have played as quarter masters of so many of these conflicts.
Pope Benedict is surely right to insist that we first inform our consciences and then take individual and collective actions.