June 19, 2006
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 446-450


In July 2004, economist Jeffrey Sachs and some of his colleagues visited the Sauri sublocation of eight villages in western Kenya. The region is beset with AIDS, malaria and hunger.

In his book, The End of Poverty, Sachs describes meeting with 200 community members one afternoon for several hours. Most of the community farm tiny plots of land, less than a quarter acre in size, which have been exhausted of nutrients.

Only two of the farmers at the meeting reported using fertilizers at present. But when asked how many had used fertilizer in the past, "every hand in the room went up.

THE FARMERS SPEAK

Farmer after farmer described how the price of fertilizer was now out of reach, and how their current impoverishment left them unable to purchase what they had used in the past" (p. 230).

The community recently had a clinic, but the villagers were unable to pay the doctor. He left and the clinic is now padlocked.

Three-quarters of the people suffer from malaria, but only two people had antimalarial bed nets. At least 30 per cent of the adults had AIDS but no one had access to antiretroviral therapy to control the disease.

Until a few years ago, people in Sauri cooked their meals using local wood for fuel. Now, there is no wood left. A quarter of the houses have access to trees that have been grown to fix nitrogen in the soil; the rest do not. Some buy sticks at another village to cook their meals; many use cow dung for fuel or eat uncooked meals.

Secondary education is non-existent, the water is of poor quality and there is no electricity. The economic prospects for Sauri would seem to be extremely bleak.

But Sachs maintains the region could have fertilizer, a doctor, clinic and drugs, a truck, a proper water supply, electricity, modern cooking fuel, a couple of cell phones, and other basic amenities for US$350,000 a year – US$70 a resident.

The benefits would be astounding – everything from virtual elimination of malaria to doubling or tripling of food yields.

For the entire country of Kenya, one of the most populous nations in Africa, it would cost about US$1.5 billion a year to stem the tide of hunger, disease and rural underdevelopment.

Moreover, once the country had more than a subsistence food supply, it could develop industry and get its foot on the first rung of the ladder of development. After that, the need for outside aid would quickly fall off.

But if Kenya needs $1.5 billion a year for rural development, what does it receive?

Donor aid to the country is about US$100 million a year, far short of what is needed. Further, Kenya's debt servicing to wealthy nations is about US$600 million a year. The international community, instead of bolstering the country's economy, is draining it.

Sachs maintains that it is possible to eliminate extreme poverty around the globe by 2025, if world nations would make a firm commitment to doing so. Once extreme poverty was eliminated, countries would be on the road to self-sufficient development.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, "The poverty of billions of men and women is the one issue that most challenges our human and Christian consciences" (n. 449). Economic development is not only something to which people aspire, it is a human right.

The Compendium notes that until recently many countries believed that they could develop by isolating themselves from the world market.

Having tasted the ravages of colonialism and the imperialism of the transnational corporations, poor nations thought they could best go it on their own.

That turned out to be a fiction. The economies of countries isolated from the world economy invariably stagnated.

Economic development means an engagement in the world economy.

Sachs notes that 50 per cent of the population in Africa lives in extreme poverty.

But in East Asia, the percentage of those in extreme poverty has fallen from 58 per cent in 1981 to only 15 per cent in 2001, a major leap forward in only one generation.

Poverty has not been eliminated in East Asia. But it is on the downswing. That region has high and rising food production, freeing rural residents to work in urban factories.

Those factories, typically sweatshops, often involve human rights abuses.

They are also a second step up the development ladder, a step towards the information technology workers of India who have decent housing, adequate nutrition, good clothing and education for their children.

MISTAKEN STEREOTYPE

The stereotype is that Africa has been left behind because it is rife with political corruption and misrule.

But Sachs maintains that corruption in many African nations is less than in some Asian nations that are prospering.

"Many African governments are desperately trying to do the right thing, but they face enormous obstacles of poverty, disease, ecological crisis, and geopolitical neglect or worse" (p. 207).

The Church believes that humanity is not a collection of individuals struggling for self-interest, but a global family in which all ought to help all. Nations must help nations; people must help people.

While a fair global marketplace is necessary to ending poverty, more is needed than a market mentality. The end of poverty can only come once peoples are imbued with a commitment to solidarity, justice and universal charity.