As a statement of intention, "Make Poverty History" is hard to argue with. And it has proven over the course of years to be a rallying cry for people concerned about poverty in our world, particularly in the developing world.
Yet the concrete goals being set by this popular catchphrase are hard to pin down. In a piece today in Eureka Street, the Australian Jesuits' online magazine, writer Ben Coleridge argues that "poverty" is inadequate to the issues before us.
Poverty is not a one dimensional affliction. Communities enduring poverty are almost always torn by multiple afflictions, for example, ethnic or class discrimination or corruption. A person in a poor community may not simply suffer from a lack of primary goods (food, shelter, healthcare), but also from various forms of discrimination or poor access to institutional protection. In India, for example there are on average 11 judges for every 1 million people.
More fruitful planning and action, he suggests, might come by thinking rather in terms of "justice". "By making 'justice' the stated goal of the 'anti-poverty' movement, success would be measured not only by material outcomes, such as the quantity of aid delivered or the number of schools opened, but by the impact made on people's lives."
Coleridge's point is well taken. We're dealing with complex issues here. And slogans by definition simply in order to focus attention.
But we are imaginative creatures; for better or worse, catchphrases and images and video shorts are important means of capturing and motivating us, particularly in this hyperstimulated deluge of messages within which we live.
"Make Poverty History" may in fact be history; but we'll only be well served if we create something else to take its place.
Check out Coleridge's full piece here.
Jim McDermott, SJ