Vatican Promotes Funneling Aid to Poorest of Poor

VATICAN CITY — What can be done to help the 300 million people living in dehumanizing conditions of abject poverty, without basic health care or education?

It seems an impossible task sometimes, but discussions at a July 9 meeting at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace may be grounds for hope that an innovative new scheme could lift many millions out of such misery within a relatively short time.

The seminar, entitled “Poverty and Globalization: Financing and Development Including the Millennium Development Goals,” discussed a plan to eliminate extreme forms of global poverty within the next decade. Central to the discussion was a financial proposal for tackling Third World poverty that has gained the wholehearted support of Pope John Paul II and leaders of other faith groups.

Called the International Finance Facility (IFF), the initiative is a means by which development funds could be rapidly raised on international capital markets, doubling over a short time the amount that is currently given in development aid.

Among other current proposals, the IFF is widely considered the best scheme to enable the world to meet the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, ambitious targets set by 190 countries four years ago to halve world poverty by 2015.

At its current rate of progress, the world will only have succeeded in halving poverty in Africa in the next 100 years, not the next 10. “That is not something any of us can accept,” said seminar co-chairman Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, who joined Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and other cardinals at the head of an impressive array of delegates that included politicians, academics, diplomats and NGO representatives.

“Either we have the generosity to lift the poor of the world out of the mire, or we face a crisis of huge proportions,” Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said, adding that it is a matter of “moral action and moral will.”

Heading the international campaign is British Finance Minister Gordon Brown, who first proposed the IFF.

Brown, who took a leading role at the Vatican seminar, said that so far 50 countries support the plan that, by frontloading aid flows, could generate an additional $50 billion a year to tackle the causes of poverty. The funds would be used to finance schools and hospitals.

At this time, of the countries that form the G8 group of leading industrialized nations, only France is behind the scheme, although Brown is confident that others will announce their support in the next few months.

He emphasized that the backing of the Church is “incredibly important” and cited the effectiveness of the Church-backed Jubilee Campaign to cancel Third World debt, which Brown credited with changing the minds of government leaders on that issue.

Aid Problems

But there are significant problems associated with aid. In the past, it has been blamed for increasing levels of corruption, with funds being siphoned into undeserving hands or leeched by self-serving government bureaucracies.

It has also been criticized for increasing dependency in low-income countries, rather than fostering self-sufficiency.

Such concerns did not figure highly in the Vatican seminar, but in an interview with the Register, Cardinal Murphy O'Connor said he believes the Church has an important role here, too.

“The Church's efforts are not just in education and conversion but in ‘communio’ — in helping people get on well together,” he said. “That's particularly important in Africa where there's very much of a tribal system.”

The cardinal believes the first priority is to help Africa cease conflict and then “to make sure there is good

Peace, told bishops and the faithful of Africa's Great Lakes region.

“In the name of the Lord, the master of life, I exhort you: Stop hating one another and stop killing one another,” he told the region's inhabitants during a July visit to Kinshasa, Congo.

The cardinal urged the people to put down “your machetes, your hatchets, your Kalashnikovs and other weapons of destruction and death” and take up instruments for building peace and reconciliation.

The text of the cardinal's July 4 speech to the gathering, sponsored by the Association of Episcopal Conferences of Central Africa, was released July 13 by his office.

Cardinal Martino said the United Nations and the international community would help the countries as they move toward democracy and governance.” However, he added that good government has to come “not just from outside but from within — they've got to really want it.”

The Vatican seminar concentrated on how to increase aid, not on how to best deliver it. That's because the IFF is envisioned primarily as a fund-raising mechanism to pump more cash into channels already used to distribute and manage aid flows, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

However, Brown did imply that the additional capital would be directed to those nations that display improvements in good governance.

But he also stressed the need for wealthier countries to do their part in securing a level playing field in terms of trade, emphasizing the need to “act now to end agricultural protections” which he said have made it very hard for developing countries to compete in the areas for which their economies are best suited.

Pope's Words

In his message to the seminar, Pope John Paul II said that conditions of extreme poverty are “the cause of grave concern to the international community.”

The Pope said that over “the short to medium term, a commitment to increase foreign aid seems the only way forward,” and he added that while the Church welcomes the International Finance Facility, it also encourages other U.N. and government-sponsored initiatives.

Considerable emphasis at the conference was placed on the need for the laity to exert pressure on politicians to commit their governments to established targets.

development, but that the region's citizens must take the first essential step.

He praised the region's Catholic bishops and faithful for their efforts “to re-establish the image of God in this region, an image tarnished and obscured, trampled and injured by a series of barbaric and cruel acts.”

The people of the region must recognize that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God and that all people are brothers and sisters, he said.

Despair and discouragement are understandable, Cardinal Martino said, but they are not virtues.

“Our faith is a faith that makes us hope against all hope,” he said.

The cardinal reminded those gathered that Pope John Paul II has called peace a “permanent engagement.”

“There is a task for everybody in the pews to say to their politicians, “What are you doing to achieve the Millennium Development Goals?'” said Duncan MacLaren, General Secretary of the Catholic development agency Caritas Internationalis. “Without that pressure, nothing will be done.”

Already, governments are required to give 0.7% of gross national product in aid to developing countries, though few do, including Brown's own government.

Chris Bain, director of CAFOD, the development agency of the bishops of England and Wales, said that lobbying governments to reach that 0.7% target is the main goal, and that right now the IFF is “the best option on the table, even if it's not the best option we could ever have.”

In their closing joint statement, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor and Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, expressed hope that the seminar would mark the beginning of a global campaign to guarantee freedom from poverty. They also encouraged proposals for international taxes, something which the United States firmly opposes.

Another meeting to assess the progress of the IFF is scheduled to take place in a year.

The consequences of continued inaction would be disastrous, Brown stressed to participants. “As His Holiness said,” the British finance minister said, “for this generation, having made a promise to the poor and then to break it, is unpardonable.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy