The challenges of development and poverty from the perspective of communion

Logo_Brasile_2011_rid2The main presentation to the EoC Assembly on Poverty and Development, given on May 27, was entrusted to Genevieve Sanze. Here is the entire text of that intervention.

The challenges of development and poverty from the perspective of communion

By Geneviève Sanze

I want to begin with a premise about a frequently used word, in Africa and in the whole world. This word is development. In relationship to this word, development, I'll speak about two other key words: poverty and communion. And we'll look at both development and poverty from the viewpoint of communion.
The word "development" and the classification of "developed" and "underdeveloped" made their way into the geopolitical scene near the end of the 1940s. It was a new terminological opposition, but one which seemed natural at the time.

Under the initial push from the United States, aid programs for development were put into place, to try to develop those countries which were considered "behind" compared to the West. Such help was inspired in great part by the theory that held that each society follows well-defined evolutionary or developmental stages which allow it to pass from a transitional or "under-developed” state to a modern or "developed" state. Poor countries - always defined as such by rich ones - not only disposed of less material wealth but were viewed as considerably behind in the evolution process. 

The inherited distinction between "civilized" and "non-civilized" was based on the presumption that the West was the model of reference. Grouping countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America together into one category, "underdeveloped countries", denied their deep differences, highlighting a probable misunderstanding of reality and a certain indifference towards non-Western values. On the other hand, for a long time, these development theories legitimized a certain negligence of responsibility of Northern countries towards the economic and social hardships of poor countries, openly ignoring and underrating the effects of colonization, economic plundering and other forms of unequal exchange.

As such, the theory of underdevelopment was very successful, and underdeveloped countries themselves adhered to such a vision, requesting means to be able to become developed. At the time, there was great optimism, and people thought that 10 years would be enough to fill the gap. Adding to the situation, the United Nations had baptized the 1960s as the "decade of development". 

Today, in 2011, we cannot say if - from this perspective - we have progressed or regressed. The reality has definitely been less happy that foreseen, and it is essential to rethink the idea of development, using more sophisticated and anthropologically more complex categories of development and underdevelopment measured mainly on the axis of economic resources.

Development, as we knew it in the 1950s, reduced to technological progress and the accumulation of material wealth, needed the myth of the ever-increasing production of goods and the ideology of consumerism to absorb these goods and nourish the cycle of economic development.

In that definition of development, neither the unequal distribution of wealth or populations' living conditions were taken into consideration, and people gave even less thought to environmental destruction.

Starting in the 1960s, problems deriving from this idea of "development" clearly emerged: increasing poverty, increasing unemployment, the destruction of the environment, pollution... and people began to speak about "bad development" of both the North and the South. Today, many people have even begun to affirm that rather than talking about developed and undeveloped countries, we need to recognize that we have given life to a capitalistic model which has developed poorly everywhere. This model is not founded on reciprocity and fraternity among peoples but essentially on the plundering of wealth, on excessive exploitation of resources, on the domination of the powerful over the weak - and certainly not on communion.

Something has started to change over the last few decades, thanks to theoretical work by economists like Amartya Sen and philosophers like Martha Nussbaum. Today, we know that development is measured not by merchandise and income but by a index of rights, health, education, capabilities, and especially of freedom. At the same time, we have also learned that income is important, precisely because it is a means and an instrument of freedom when it originates from work (not only coming from outside aid and subsidies). But without other fundamental conditions, especially political and social conditions, income and the threshold of poverty can say little about development. 

We are convinced that the praxis and thought which are developing around the EoC, even in recent conventions and schools held in Nairobi, can offer new clues towards understanding development, poverty, wealth and reciprocity.

1. Principle traits of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa

Now I will speak about the experience of Africa, which I am more familiar with!And I'll begin by telling you something which we often witness in the so-called traditional society of our African countries. 

"You are a woman, you live in the country and you have a small child. He begins to get sick and has a strong cough. You prepare yourself to bring him one day to the dispensary or the closest health clinic, which is 15 km. away. Morning comes, you put the child on your back and begin walking for about three hours to the dispensary. In an attitude that is anything but patient, the nurse listens to you describe the illness of your child, and without even making the effort to minimally examine him (and probably not even having the means to do so), the nurse quickly writes a prescription on a piece of paper that she tells you to present to the people who responsible for dispensing medicine. The prescription is for a syrup, but you probably cannot figure that out because you are illiterate. The person dispensing medicine pours out a spoonful of the syrup and gives it to the child to drink. It's clear that there is no way to give you a flask of the syrup so that you can keep treating him at home, simply because there would be no medicine for all the others. Consequently, that person tells you to come back the next day for the next spoonful. You return home suffering. You put the child to bed and begin to make the meals and take care of the rest of the family. The next day, you take the same trip, under the same sun, to wait in the same line and receive the same small spoonful of medicine. But three days later, with the sun and the fatiguing trip, your child gets worse. Discouraged from these tiring trips, which prevent you from taking care of other things and don't even help your child, you end up thinking that it's not worth it all just to get a small spoonful of medicine. So you resort to the local healer. The dispensary hasn't benefitted either, as the spoonfuls of medicine that you haven't used will be given to someone else. And that's it."

For us Africans, speaking of poverty is absolutely unnecessary, as it accompanies us every day. We live with it. We don't need theories to understand it. 

They way we live poverty in Africa is multidimensional.

It is a profound subtraction of material and cultural goods that block normal development of the individual to the point of compromising the integrity of his person. Being poor is not being able to ensure, by one's own resources or activities, that the biological needs of one's own family will be satisfied. It means living in a state of perennial marginalization and life insecurity. These things tend to become hereditary: being hungry, uneducated, untreated , living in rudimentary housing, working in inhuman conditions. 

Those in poverty (generally speaking) are individuals or families whose income and other resources,conditions of life and patrimony, employment or other, are clearly below the average level of the society in which they live. 

"The poor accumulate disadvantages: of age, sex, number of children, color of skin, illness, fragile family structure... and especially disadvantage of birth. At the beginning of life, poverty establishes an insurmountable wall: malnutrition, fragile or weakened hereditary or inherited health, a precocious spectacle of misery and filth, unstable family life, multiple affective wounds during infancy, absence of useful models for intellectual development, inferiority complexes that afflict you throughout life in a state of subordination, humiliation and consensus to injustice if one has the shame of having been born."

That is the reality that we face each day. From this situation arise different challenges. In particular:

- The socio-cultural dimension. Culture is one of the key dimensions to development. In order for development to be long-term, it must be centered on the person and self-sustained. It must be founded on the endogenous values that give people meaning – for example, the traditional system of social security in Africa, as traditional reciprocal help, revenue/loans or "les tontines" as we say in Africa, and the savings and credit accounts, constitute forms of solidarity that are particularly adapt to the context of poverty and should be taken into consideration in development.  

- The socio-cultural conditions imposed on women. In fact, some traditional behaviors towards women and girls impede their promotion, education and full, worthy and effective participation to the commitment to development. 

- Education by the family and the community generally center around the transmission of values and normative functional behavior that encourage identical social replication. It puts little emphasis on the value of personal initiative, innovation and those aspects that contribute to rational and efficient management.

- The fatalist perception of the spread of poverty.

- Natural catastrophes, be they floods or droughts, just like armed conflict, make poverty endure, especially in Africa. Most conflicts are political and economic in nature, even if they are often formed along ethnic lines, for many complex reasons. The great military expenditures that follow deprive development programs of substantial resources.

- Poor governing (in general). Whatever the reason is, in Africa we do not work enough or at least as much as we should to resolve - on our own - the simplest problems of daily survival, without giving the idea of having raised international almsgiving aimed at salvation.

- Production of wealth in order to seriously fight the spread of famine and malnutrition, whose negative consequences are evident for the intellectual and physical capacity of the population, are still not enough to be able to efficiently fight illnesses like malaria, AIDS, and other endemic diseases inherited for years and whose persistence or worsening has resulted in the deterioration of living conditions of the masses.

- Failure of the imposed state. Poor governing is undoubtedly connected to what is beginning to be generally recognized as the greatest disadvantage of post-independence African societies: the structural and functional inadequacy of the state and of its inherited institutions.

- "The politics of the stomach" which our states are specialized in...

- A great deficit of intellectual creativity makes up one of the greatest handicaps of the African continent, which produces and spreads (starting with ourselves) too few ideas and cultural values.

What contribution can the Economy of Communion make to the understanding of this situation?

2. What is the meaning of development and poverty in the EOC?
The Economy of Communion's first objective is that of building a community in which "there are no poor." That is why the question of helping the poor is fundamental for the EoC.

Who are these brothers and sisters considered as poor in the EoC? Chiara gives us the answer: they are smiling, worthy, proud to be children of God and of this Work. They are not in total poverty, but they need some things. For example, they need to be unloaded of burdens that torment them day and night. They need to be reassured that they and their children will have something to eat; that their house, until now a poor barrack, will one day be better; that their children can study, that even they can be cured of diseases which require costly treatment; that family fathers can find jobs...

These are our brothers and sisters in need and who themselves help others (and not uncommonly).From a certain point of view, they are Jesus who asks for our love and who will one day say to us, "I was hungry, I was naked, I was homeless" or "my house was crumbling... and you..."The EoC is not primarily an organizational formula for a more ethical or more socially responsible business. It is a project for a more just and fraternal humanism, for a relationship of justice between North and South, of communion between persons, between brothers and sisters. 

There are a some words that express absolute evils: lies, murder, racism. But poverty is not like these terms. Not all types of poverty are inhuman. Poverty is a wound, but it is also a blessing if one chooses it out of love for others.

This poverty arises from the certainty that all that I am has been given to me as a gift, and therefore all that I have, as such, should be given. It is the root of the dynamic of reciprocity, of communion. The freedom and joy that arise from profound communion cannot be understood nor lasting if they do not become experience, lifestyle, culture of gift and of communion. 

The EoC proposes two elements - reciprocity and communion - as foundations to rise out of the wound of precariousness. The culture that the EoC proclaims is the logic of communion, not the bounty of someone towards another but the reciprocity that communion brings and which is its typical characteristic. One can only truly escape from poverty's trap when he has the light to begin to love and be moved principally by reciprocal love, relationship and fraternity. 

The poor as they appear in the EOC project are not an indistinct mass of needy to be helped in order to save our consciences. They are part of this global communion that we experience, even if just for a period of time, and they cannot but share their needs with full dignity, aware that giving and receiving is always love, not only for those who receive but also for those who give.

What comes before "giving" in the EoC is sharing one's life in communion and reciprocity, in an essentially gratuitous relationship.

It is relationships of fraternity that heal situations of misery. People reached by the project are not anonymous poor people with general needs but living people inserted into a community in which they experience communion of life. 

3. Which is the culture that allows us to experience communion and reciprocity?
The "culture of giving/gift"

Speaking of a "culture of love" means speaking of Gospel love, which is a deep and demanding love and which leads us to give.We give our surplus, and if our heart so moves us, we even give what is necessary to us. It is giving to those who are in need, knowing that it is an investment that brings fruits with high interests, because our giving opens God's hands. His providence fills us immeasurably so that we can continue to give in abundance, to receive and still relieve the uncountable needs of a multitude of poor."

The Economy of Communion's cause demands not only love for the poor but also for all men and women. The spirituality of unity that inspires the EoC supposes the existance of a love which is directed towards everyone. "Let us give incessantly: a smile, our understanding, forgiveness, our attentive ear. Let's give our intelligence, our will, our availability. Let's give our experiences, our capacities."

"The culture of giving is the culture of the Gospel. We understand the necessity of giving by looking to the Gospel. "Give", it is written, "and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap" (Lk 6:38).

Saint Basil affirms, "The bread that you set aside belongs to the hungry. The cloak that you keep in your closet belongs to the naked man. The money you hide belongs to the poor. You commit as many acts of injustice as people that you could help with what you have."

And Saint Thomas Aquinas says, "When the rich use the surplus necessary for the survival of the poor, they are robbing from them."Chiara reminds us, "A little charity, some small work of mercy, the surplus of one person is not enough for our goal. We need entire businesses and entrepreneurs who freely put their profits in common."

Reflecting on the relationship between goods and happiness, Luigino Bruni underlined that "goods become 'common goods' when they are put in common, while the good not shared becomes an evil. The good that is held close, like in jealous possession, actually impoverishes its possessor, because it strips him of the capacity of gift and reciprocity, which is the true human patrimony that leads to happiness."

So I present the following question: in this hall, are we poor? Who are the poor here among us? And who are the rich? Do we have something to give? Are we ready to go outside ourselves and go towards our neighbor to offer him or her the wealth that we are? The wealth that we have? Even if that wealth is nothing but a smile given, the sharing of a life, reciprocity or communion? What is it then to truly be poor? And to be rich? And what does fraternity and unity among peoples, among persons mean? Among us here? I believe that if we take the charism of unity seriously, many things begin to change. We realize that wealth and poverty are mostly dealings of relationship, and which in any case wealth becomes good and happy living when it is shared with others.

To reach such a revolution, we need men and women with a profound inner life and moved by great faith, by fundamental values. This is also the mission of the EoC.

Thanks to these values, the Gospel can truly penetrate all dimensions of economy and work, of politics, of law, of health, of school, of art, and can transform everything, through a renewed economy that puts man at the center and gives a significant part of its profits to those who are less fortunate. It will also happen through renewed politics, in which every political actor puts love of other at the basis of all his life. 

Concluding, let's pose this question to ourselves: how does the EoC consider poverty and development? What important message does it offer us?People cannot rise from the wound of poverty with money alone, however abundant it is. Neither is the redistribution of wealth or the construction of public goods enough (schools, streets, wells, etc.). Neither is it enough to intensify business relationships between North and South.

All of this is surely necessary, but it's not enough. The world will see the flowering of fraternity and communion when we are capable of building authentically human relationships between people who are different but equal - each one different and everyone the same - when we overcome the very categories of "poor peoples" and "rich peoples" and know how to discover, thanks to concrete experiences like those of the EoC, that no one in the world is poor to the point of not being able to be a gift for me; when we are capable of seeing and discovering that poverty of others also contains wealth and values that make us experience how much the other is indispensible to our happiness.

It is only when someone in need feels loved and esteemed, treated with dignity because recognized in his immense value that he can find in himself the will to rise from the wound of poverty and start walking again. And it is only after this first act of human freedom, whichevery person must fulfill, that other things can be added to the equation - help, funds, contracts, business relationships, secondary elements, instruments that contribute to the global development of the person.

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