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2010: Decline and Opportunity for the World's Poor

by Elisha London

Posted: 16 Jun 2010

"Time is tick, tick, ticking away ... there is no time to delay, the Africa we dream of is only 8 goals away." [1]

As the world looks to South Africa this month to enjoy the goal scoring on the football field, the above lyrics from a music video released this week to coincide with the FIFA World Cup remind us that five years ago the world united behind some different goals - the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

This song launched by the 8 Goals for Africa campaign highlights that time is indeed running out to achieve the MDGs, a set of eight internationally-agreed goals designed to reduce poverty, hunger, disease, and maternal and child deaths by 2015. Listening to these lyrics I'm both encouraged and curious to see how we respond to their urgency.

Will we continue to rally behind the 1.4 billion people who live in extreme poverty[2]? Current data suggests this is questionable. Public opinion questions the validity of its premise. However, history, progress and faith suggest a different story is possible.

History

Five years ago the world united around the vision of making poverty history. The United Kingdom was the epicenter of a movement that rippled across the globe making it clear to world leaders to honour their promises commit beyond paper to achievement of the MDGs. 16 million Brits pledged their support to making poverty history.

This public support has translated into political action, and great progress is being made. Over the last thirty years the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has halved from 52% in 1982 to 22% today[3], over the last decade there have been 33 million more children in are school worldwide, and over the last five years there has been a ten-fold increase in the coverage of antiretroviral treatment (ART) for HIV and AIDS[4].

Five years on, despite progress, the number of UK individuals actively engaged in issues of poverty has declined significantly. Polling shows that only 21% of individuals in the UK are very concerned about extreme poverty, the lowest since 1999[5]. Why, in the face of progress has public support for development declined?

Progress

My friend Vicky managed to capture the frustration of the UK public when she said: "I'd love to help, but I'm confronted by the same images of starving children every year and am fed up of feeling guilty. I have no idea where my donations have gone or what progress has been made in this area. Why should I keep giving if it seems like nothing has changed?"

Decades of concerts, campaigns and fundraising drives have raised awareness such that individuals like Vicky are moved to want to do something. However, how often have the successes been communicated back to Vicky? If she sees the same stereotypical images of a starving black child, will she continue to be moved, or become desensitized against these images, leading to an inevitable sense of hopelessness?

Of course guilt induced fundraising is not the only cause of skepticism against the success of aid. Priorities at home are front of mind, and questions around the effectiveness and efficiency of aid are real and should be asked.

Transparency and accountability are at the forefront of public policy and debate, as demonstrated in a report[6] by Oxfam this month. However, asking these questions should not paralyse us into inaction or allow the dangerous theory that all aid should be stopped to gain momentum. Good aid not only saves lives, but is indispensable in unlocking poor countries' and people's ability to work their own way out of poverty.

The message here is an encouraging one. Progress is being made. Yes, there are challenges, but these are being actively addressed. However, for this message to be heard this story needs to be told to the millions that called for it to be written five years ago.

On 24 February 2010 the Archbishop of York, former Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander, and over 1,000 people from churches across the UK came together at St Paul's Cathedral to hear this message at the UK launch of a groundbreaking presentation called 1.4 Billion Reasons[7].

This feature presentation reframes perspectives on development into something positive without shying away from its complexities. Most importantly it equips individuals to take more effective action in their own lives, and is currently being booked to be shown in universities, businesses and churches across the UK.

Faith

While 1.4 Billion Reasons is not a Christian initiative, I was greatly encouraged to see the support of St Paul's Cathedral and churches behind this initiative as I believe it is important for the Church to continue to play a significant role in development for two reasons.

First, it is fundamental to the Christian faith. With over 2,000 verses in the bible relating to the poor and oppressed, as a person of faith I cannot deny that caring for the poor is close to God's heart, and therefore, mine.

Second, I believe the Church has a unique role to play in development. This isn't necessarily a popular view, and should not be misinterpreted. For centuries the Church and individuals motivated by the Christian faith have played an integral role in development both here in the UK and around the world. We often speak of William Wilberforce and his colossal efforts in working tirelessly for thirty-five years to see the abolition of the slave trade as just one example. Furthermore, at a community level in the developing world, faith communities including but certainly not limited to the Christian faith are often the most present and accountable organised group that deliver services in the absence of a well-functioning state.

Certainly, efforts have fallen short at times - been misguided, manipulated, and sometimes simply ineffective. However, these historical shortcomings should not paralyze us into inaction either. They face us with dilemmas that need to be discussed and learnt from in moving forward.

It is for this reason I'm looking forward to discussing these issues and many more as part of this ongoing series with the St Paul's Institute. In the future I look forward to writing more specifically on aid effectiveness, corruption, apparent paradoxes between faith and development, multi-faith action on development and much more.

If there is a particular issue you would like to hear about regarding faith, and/or development, do let me know by commenting on this article below. Lets make this an open and lively discussion.

In the meantime, as World Cup paraphernalia penetrates the news, take some time to consider the MDGs. Will you be paralyzed into inaction as a result of questions we have, or will we be guided by history, success and faith to do all we can to ensure the goals that are scored this year include progress on the MDGs?



[2] Defined by the World Bank as living on under USD$1.25/day

[5] Darnton, Andrew (2009), The Public, DFID and Support for Development - A Rapid Review

About this author

Elisha London is the UK Country Manager for the Global Poverty Project.

Rob - Posted: 22 Jun 2010

I really like this piece, thank you for putting it up. It brings up some very important issues that really need to be focussed on - I look forward to what you will write next!

Claire - Posted: 04 Jul 2010

Thanks for the piece, food for thought.

Your comments on the football got me thinking about the amounts of money channelled into the sport and how it is used. A brief trawl through the FIFA website gave me a pleasant surprise in finding they have a number of football related aid initiatives, it's a shame that these haven't been mentioned during the TV coverage this past month (at least not when I've been watching) - an opportunity missed perhaps?


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Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.