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What Can One Person Do?
Faith to Heal a Broken World
By SABINA ALKIRE, EDMUND NEWELL, Ann Barham, Chloe Breyer, Ian Douglas
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2005 Sabina Alkire and Edmund Newell
All rights reserved.
Beyond a Dollar a Day What Are the MDGs?
Living on Less Than a Dollar a Day
One of the reasons we are so aware of global poverty is that shocking statistics are readily available. One disturbing statistic to those of us in affluent societies is that over one-sixth of the world's population lives on less than the equivalent of US$1 a day.
What is it like to live on less than a dollar a day? The answer will vary between people and places. It will mean something different to someone living in a city in Eastern Europe, a shantytown in Africa, or a village in the mountains of South America. What it will mean to all, however, is severe hardship and insecurity, constant worries about food, and a daily struggle to get by.
The journalist Solomon Omollo — reporting for BBC Africa Live! — decided to listen to what living on less than a dollar a day was like. He interviewed Dominic Nkhata and his wife, Patricia, a Zambian couple in their twenties with a two-year-old daughter.
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Dominic works as a factory hand while Patricia is a housewife. The couple are also responsible for four orphans, the children of Dominic's deceased sisters. The family live in two rooms in one of Lusaka's poorer neighborhoods, a shantytown called Garden Compound, ... and are typical of the millions of Africans who live on less than a dollar a day.
Dominic earns 525,000 kwacha a month as his gross pay. After tax and other deductions, he's left with only 300,000 kwacha — roughly $40 — to take home with him. Juggling this meager income then becomes Patricia's headache — Dominic just hands the money to her: "When I get that money I just get confused. I tell her, just make your budget, whatever you plan is all right with me," he says.
The first thing Patricia does is to pay the rent, which takes up almost all the money. "After paying the rent," she says, "I sometimes have only about 10,000 kwacha ($2) left. That money is only enough for one day. The next morning I have to go and borrow some food or money from my family." Patricia buys her food at a local market stall. She spends half of her remaining money — $1 — on lunch. For six people, she can only afford six teaspoons of rice, three tomatoes, two tablespoons of cooking oil, two onions and some salt. It's hardly a nutritious meal. The rest of the money will be spent on an equally meager supper.
It is all the more important that Patricia and Dominic should have a good diet, because it could actually help prolong their lives — like 2 million other Zambians they are infected with the HIV virus. Buying drugs of any kind is out of the question for Dominic and Patricia.
Patricia and Dominic's situation is not unique. In their neighborhood, almost everyone buys their groceries on credit if they want to eat, and according to Patricia, many families in Garden Compound eat once a day. That's all they can afford. "We can't buy anything with that money," Patricia says. "The food, clothing, school fees. We look after four orphans too, but we can only afford for one of them, the boy, to go to school. The rest are at home." ...
Before Christmas I asked Zambia's finance minister, Peter Ngandu Magande, who is to blame for the poverty of so many of his countrymen.... He conceded that privatization had brought some poverty, but felt we were making too much of an issue of living on less than a dollar a day. "In most of our Zambian communities, particularly in rural areas, people do not pay for water, lighting, housing and energy, so it is true that many of them live on less than $1 a day. But then how does this become a problem worth singing about all over the world?"
Asked how he would manage on a dollar a day he said he would buy two kilos of maize meal worth 2,400 kwacha and spend the balance on fish or meat, salt, and soap for the day. Maybe he knows a cheaper market than Patricia and Dominic!
He also said that some Zambians wanted to live beyond their means: "On such a tight budget," he said, "I will not afford television, radio, beer, a car, or a mobile phone, which in a Zambian environment should be considered luxuries." Well, Dominic and his family do not have any of those. Having a square meal every day would be luxury enough.
— Solomon Omollo; reproduced by kind permission of the BBC World Service.
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This book is about the tension between extreme poverty — which seems overwhelming — and the unique possibility this generation has to reduce it. It is a call, a prayer, a plea, for action.
"You will always have the poor with you," Jesus said (Matthew 26:11). And he taught his disciples to feed, to heal, to liberate, to serve. To live with this tension — between recurring human suffering and our consistent, emphatic duty to respond — is something Christians can learn to do well. We can learn that it is okay to be moved to the marrow by shocking facts — that 1 percent of people on earth earn more than the poorest 50 percent combined, for example. We can learn that it is possible to feed, heal, liberate, and serve in more effective and radical ways than we ever have before. We can learn to work effectively and to fail gracefully. Vitally, when we turn on the news and hear a tragic story of a tsunami or genocide or drought or financial crisis, we can learn how to reach for God and keep our own faith strong and pray to find more "laborers" to respond to extreme poverty (see Luke 10:2).
Yes, one person can do a great deal to reduce extreme poverty. Concrete actions can be taken. Change will come, if the action is informed and timely. This chapter gives an informational briefing on poverty. It begins with people like the Nkhata family who live in extreme poverty and then it describes global trends. It goes on to explain the Millennium Declaration and Millennium Development Goals, which can be a catalyst and a gathering point for Christians as well as others. It closes by exploring further why action by Christians — individuals, families, groups, and churches — can be uniquely effective in our time.
There are now 6.4 billion human beings, fashioned in the image of our Creator. Of these children of God, one in seven of us are hungry. One in seven us of live in urban slums. One in six of us lack clean water to drink. Over one in three of us lack basic sanitation. Nearly half of us live on less than $2 a day. Poor people are created in the image of God, and often their lives are far more radiant and blessed than these numbers convey. But this does not justify extreme involuntary material poverty. Let us listen to a few people who understand poverty.
A prominent study in sixty countries tried to understand how the poor defined poverty. Teams would go to a village or neighborhood gathering and ask who the majority considered poor. Then the team would sit with the poor people and ask whether they considered themselves to be poor. If the people said yes, then the team would ask, "And what is poverty?" They replied:
* "Poverty is like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free." (a person in Jamaica)
* Poverty is "to come home and see your children go hungry and not have anything to give them." (parents in Brazil)
* "If you don't have money today, your disease will lead you to your grave." (a person in Ghana)
* "If I die there is no one to marry off my youngest daughter. I do not know whether I will be able to get food tomorrow. I do not see any light of hope." (a man in Bangladesh)
* "We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of." (a blind woman in Moldova)
* "A normal person has ... some self-esteem, to take a holiday, read a book. While now — you work here or there all day in order to have something to eat, and at night you can't even exchange a couple of words like normal persons, you drop off asleep as if you were dead. It's as if you were dead while you were still alive." (a middle-aged woman in Bulgaria)
There is good news. Over the past thirty years global poverty has greatly decreased. In this time, the average life expectancy of a human being increased by eight years. Thirty years ago about half of the world was illiterate; today three-quarters of us can read. One hundred and twenty million fewer people live on less than $1 a day now than in 1990. We stand on the shoulders of generations of dedicated people in faith communities, governments, and private initiatives worldwide that have contributed to these advances. Truly, there is much to celebrate.
At the same time, what we may not know is that for many people things got worse in the 1990s. It is tempting to think that everything is improving — computers are faster; wireless connections are better; cars are safer; medicines are more advanced. But in 2003 a United Nations report found that "some 54 countries are poorer now than in 1990. In 21 [countries], a larger proportion of people are going hungry. In 14, more children are dying before age five. In 12, primary school enrollments are shrinking. In 34, life expectancy has fallen. Such reversals in survival were previously rare."
What can we do? A lot. The prominent 2005 MDG report Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, led by Jeffrey Sachs, opens with this paragraph — a clarion call for action:
We have the opportunity in the coming decade to cut world poverty by half. Billions more people could enjoy the fruits of the global economy. Tens of millions of lives can be saved. The practical solutions exist. The political framework is established. And for the first time, the costs are utterly affordable. Whatever one's motivation for attacking the crisis of extreme poverty — human rights, religious values, security, fiscal prudence, ideology — the solutions are the same. All that is needed is action.
What Can One Person Do? shares the conviction (after scrutiny of the evidence) that the power to reduce extreme poverty — perhaps for the first time in history — lies in our hands. We must learn to use that power.
This book takes its title from the wonderful Pontius Puddle cartoon that sees the world, as it were, from God's view. Millions and millions of people are concerned. They are, one by one, raising their isolated prayers to God, "What can one person do?" "What can one church do?" "What can one nation do?" Together these lonely prayers of despair raise a deafening roar. The cartoon implies an obvious response: what would happen if all who prayed in despair because they were "just one person, one church, one nation" resolved to work together? It is a question some are already asking.
Many of us make New Year's resolutions. At the turn of each year we take stock of our lives and pledge to change things for the better. Anyone who has made such resolutions will know how difficult it can be to stick to them. Yet sometimes looking back we realize that — however imperfect our steps were and however fragile and unsteady our convictions felt to us at the time — we actually, by the grace of God, turned a corner.
The advent of a new millennium encouraged many people to make special resolutions. Of these, surely one of the most important was made in New York in September 2000 at the Millennium Summit — the largest-ever gathering of heads of state. At this summit, the leaders of 189 nations unanimously adopted a United Nations resolution called the Millennium Declaration.
The Millennium Declaration provides a new compact for international cooperation. World leaders committed to act, saying, "We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women, and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty to which more than a billion of them are now subjected."
The Millennium Declaration includes a series of poverty-reduction goals, the Millennium Development Goals, which are to:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
2. Achieve universal primary education.
3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
4. Reduce child mortality.
5. Improve maternal health.
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
8. Develop a global partnership for development.
Underlying these goals are eighteen clearly defined targets and forty-nine indicators that are used to monitor progress. This list may look limited, and the targets complicated. And yet, despite their limitations the MDGs provide the most comprehensive, integrated, and widely supported approach to tackling global poverty ever achieved. This is important, because history has demonstrated that there is no easy fix to global poverty. Poverty reduction is a multidimensional phenomenon requiring a coordinated response of many individuals, communities, organizations, and nations.
What do these lofty goals have to do with our day-to-day lives, with our family, our church, our town? How are these goals a concern for any one of us? Aren't they for governments and other big players? For legitimate reasons, many of us will avoid any suggestion that we can act to reduce global poverty. We feel too little, too small, too much "just one person." Perhaps we say things like these:
"Leave it to the experts. I do not feel qualified to contribute. And I also think that the church's expertise is not in poverty reduction, either. So we should leave this work to others."
"We should focus on equally important problems in our backyard. There is growing poverty in my country and in my neighborhood. No other country is planning to help us. So we should focus our attention locally — if everyone did that it would be fine."
"It's not my vocation. I am passionate about other things. My time and resources are limited. God has not given me the gifts to do this work. Clearly other people do have such gifts and interests — let them do it."
"Poverty can't be solved. There will always be people who need support. There are poor in all countries of the world. Poverty eradication is impossible."
These are legitimate concerns, but they do not excuse inactivity. First, these goals cannot be met without widespread public support — as diverse experts like Sen, Drèze, Sachs's teams, and others stress. Second, the poorest people cannot lift themselves from poverty, and the wealth we enjoy is partly because of a trade system that is "rigged" in our favor. Third, deeply rooted in the Christian tradition is the imperative for each and every person of faith to care for the poor in whatever way they can — even if their primary vocation lies elsewhere. Finally, although relative poverty will always exist, and vulnerable people will always need extra support, extreme poverty, hunger, destitution, premature mortality, and illiteracy can all be drastically reduced using current knowledge. There is no other problem that causes such extensive suffering where the potential to overcome it lies so close at hand. The blockage to progress is not technical constraints; it is a lack of political will and action.
Beyond these reasons there is one more, and it has to do with the coherence between our faith and our own lives. Bryant Myers, a vice president of World Vision, writes, "I understand Christian witness to include the declaration of the gospel by life.... By life I refer to the fact that Christians are the message. We are the sixty-seventh book of the Bible. People read our lives, our actions and our words and believe they know what being a Christian means."
Why are the MDGs strategic?
More people might act if they realize that the MDGs are different from previous poverty campaigns and are more realistic. Many promises have been made — and broken. Learning from these broken promises, the MDGs display four characteristics needed to foster change: consensus, collaboration, feasibility, and sustained attention. These characteristics, although set out for cooperation between nations, are just as important for local action and commitment. They are just as important for those in the pews as for presidents.
First, the MDGs have been publicly agreed upon by many different institutions and governments, so there is consensus on their vital importance and on the responses that would work. Some think that achieving the MDGs is important for reasons of global security and stability; others have personal or professional interests in furthering the MDGs; others think the MDGs are ethical imperatives. For many different reasons, diverse groups agree that we really must act to meet the MDGs.
Excerpted from What Can One Person Do? by SABINA ALKIRE, EDMUND NEWELL, Ann Barham, Chloe Breyer, Ian Douglas. Copyright © 2005 Sabina Alkire and Edmund Newell. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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