Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

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Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.

5/30/2005

Bill McKibben on Jeffrey Sachs' Plan to End World Poverty

Bill McKibben has been one of my favorite thinkers ever since I read his book The Age of Missing Information back in the mid-90s.

To write The Age of Missing Information, McKibben spent 1,700 hours watching cable television from Fairfax, Va., the cable system with the most channels at the time, and then he went camping in the Adirondacks to see if there was anything he might learn from nature that was different from what he'd seen on TV (even on the nature shows). One of the things he noticed is that never once did he see a natural death on TV. While camping he saw again and again that death is part of the cycle of life. He concludes that TV is making us dumber about life's deepest meanings.

In the most recent issue of the Christian Century (May 31, 2005) McKibben has written an analysis (more than a review) of a book that hopes to provide the solution for world poverty. The book is The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time written by Jeffrey D. Sachs. Sachs is a highly credentialed economist. At the request of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Sachs led a panel of 250 experts in economic development that Annan had asked to come up with a plan to reduce global poverty. After the panel's report was released, Sachs wrote his own book in which he describes his strategy for eradicating poverty by 2025.

To my surprise, McKibben seems to accept many of Sachs' conclusions, albeit cautiously and with reservation. Sachs argues that we should concentrate on eliminating extreme poverty -- meaning the circumstances that cause more than a billion people in African and South Asia to live on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day. If we could help these folk move from extreme poverty to moderate poverty (an income of between one and two dollars a day), they could get a first foothold onto the ladder of the global economy and the worst would be over, Sachs believes.

Sachs says we could help end extreme poverty through five interventions -- what he calls the "Big Five." They are: 1) agricultural aid, such as more fertilizer and better seed; 2) investments in basic health to prevent malaria and treat AIDS; 3) investments in education, such as school lunches; 4) electricity and roads; and 5) safe drinking water and sanitation.

Here is the shocker: Sachs says that all this could be done at a cost of 31 cents a day per extremely poor person. The total cost to the rich world would be $124 billion, or 0.6 percent of our income. Not 6 percent, McKibben emphasizes, but six-tenth of 1 percent. The United States could pay it share by repealing the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $500,000 a year, McKibben notes.

McKibben believes we should try many of the things Sachs proposes. Certainly Christians should not have any problem with the cost. "I was hungry and you gave me 0.6 percent of your income," McKibben deadpans.

McKibben, as I noted, has some reservations. He believes it may be a mistake to assume that the rest of the world should develop along the same lines the West has. He is nervous that Sachs' emphasis on urbanization may have environmental consequences that will make Sachs' vision unachievable. He suspects that Sachs' plan is too grandiose and not sensitive enough to local circumstances. He criticizes Sachs for using per capita income as his only measurement for development. (He offers the example of the state of Kerala in India where per capita income is no greater than the rest of India but where life expectancy, literacy and fertility compare favorable with parts of the United States. This quality of life was achieved not by industrialization but by land reform.)

Yet, whether we agree with Sachs' macro approach or McKibben's more community-oriented strategies, or some combination of the two (which seems to be what McKibben is really proposing), it is clear that we have the capacity to greatly lessen world poverty at a relatively small cost. The value of both Sachs' book and McKibben's essay is to show us that reducing world poverty is doable.

I wonder if a presidential campaign based on a promise of "ending world poverty in out lifetimes" would attract the faith-based vote, including the Religious Right? Sounds pro-life to me.

Like most of what he writes, McKibben's Christian Century essay is worth reading and brooding about.

3 Comments:

Blogger John said...

To reduce world poverty, I think that we should promote as much capitalism, political freedom, and property rights as possible. People do best when they have opportunities to thrive. At least, that's my two sentence answer.

4:40 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Sachs, who is very much a capitalist, admits that capitalism by itself will not do it. A quote from McKibben's article: "It is not enough, Sachs argues, to preach 'free markets' ... Free markets are necessary but not sufficient. These countries need help in achieving what he considers the crucial first step: raising grain yields enough that farmers can move beyond subsistence to providing cheap food to supply a growing urban economy."

Then, too, capitalism without strong labor organizing will not help people out of poverty because owners will always keep labor costs as low as possibile. In counties where there is an almost endless labor pool, organizing is very difficult. In order to thrive, people need power.

Capitalism --without human rights, including the right of labor to organize; without the democratic capacity to regulate owners by passing laws to limit their abuse of workers; and without the redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation-- will become oppressive, and most people will not thrive.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Mirdad said...

Dean,

The scope of the problem: The world's 200 richest people have a total annual income equal to the annual income of the world's 2,500,000,000 poorest people.

Human beings can be divided into two classes: The greedy and grasping class, and the generous and sharing class. Individuals of all financial circumstances are found in each class. Thus we should not blame "the rich" for their "hardness of heart." Bill Gates gave more money to charity last year alone than all five of the WalMart heirs (each with a net worth of $20 billion) have given combined in their entire lifetimes.

However, there is a fiction in law, that a corporation is a person. If so, it clearly belongs to the greedy class. A corporation has no heart, no moral conscience, no national allegiance, no feelings. It exists purely for its own survival and maximum aggrandizement, regardless of the human costs of its actions to real human beings.

Today, the world is run by mega-corporations. They elect our leaders and tell them what they want them to do. They move about the world like a wolf pack in search of prey. There is no room here to go into the vast conglomerates which control huge swaths of our lives, from the food we eat to the media we read to the interest we pay on our mortgages - which may be all controlled by a single conglomerate.

An author who has written extensively and brilliantly on this subject is Thomas Hartmann.

Real flesh-and-blood people need to wake up and curb the relentless power of corporations. As long as corporations continue to increase in wealth, power and scope of operations, I do not think there is much hope for any change in the state of affairs you describe.

One last observation: Beyond and above the official aid the USA gives to other countries, which per capita puts the USA way down the list of donors, the aliens, both legal and illegal, who live here, send billions back to their families in poor countries. The last estimate I read was $50 billion a year in private aid flowing from the USA to the Third World. This unofficial money would put the USA at the head of the list.

11:36 AM  

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