Poverty solutions

Young people of the Economy of Communion take recommendations to the United Nations

By Elizabeth Garlow

from Living City April 2012


120203_new_york_onu01_ridTimely conversations on social development and the global economic crisis buzzed in the halls of the United Nations headquarters in New York from February 1–10 for the 50th session of the U.N.’s Commission for Social Development. The commission advises the U.N. on matters of social policy and is responsible for identifying ways to put people at the center of development.

This year’s session paid special attention to challenges faced by young people today. Youth unemployment taints the quality of life and social progress in both developing and developed countries.

“With almost one in four young workers unemployed in developed countries and the majority of young people from developing countries working in the informal economy, the world is experiencing a youth unemployment crisis, which further propagates social instability,” said Milos Koterec, president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).  (The “informal economy” refers to the self-employed, those not on someone else’s payroll.)

It was clear from the start that youth would play a profound role in this session of the commission dedicated to poverty eradication, with a big focus on accelerating Africa’s efforts to extricate the continent from underdevelopment and exclusion from the global economy.

Poverty. Unemployment. Social conflict. For New Humanity, a nongovernmental organization founded by the Focolare in 1987, these words speak of divisions that the Focolare’s spirituality of unity and communion of material goods has sought to mend in various parts of the world over the last 60 years. One particular initiative of the Focolare, the Economy of Communion in Freedom (EoC), does so in a very concrete, and what some would call revolutionary, way. 

On February 3, EoC representatives from North and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as several young people, shared experiences and recommendations for solutions to eradicate poverty. The presentation was done in partnership with the Vatican Mission to the U.N. and drew NGO and delegate representatives from around the world. 

The representatives of the EoC — a collective effort of 797 small to medium-sized businesses, thousands of individuals in need and hundreds of youth and academics — offered insights into understanding development, poverty, wealth and authentic human relationships. The experience of private companies generating new wealth and jobs to support those in need at both the local and global levels was like a breath of fresh air in a world where grant funding for social development projects is always more limited. 

In the words of EoC entrepreneur and International Commission Member John Mundell, the EoC generates “a sustainable ‘funding source’ that taps into a ‘new source’ of revenue: private social enterprises.” 

But there was more that the EoC could offer to the commission beyond solutions for the creation and redistribution of wealth.

The EoC was founded on a deep conviction that what is needed to overcome deprivation are deep and authentic human relationships of communion. 

120203_new_york_onu02_ridSuch relationships among people who are different but accepted as equals “get us out of the plague of insecurity because they go beyond being good to someone else … giving life to reciprocity,” said Dr. Genevieve Sanz of the International EoC Commission. Proximity between EoC entrepreneurs and those in need builds a sense of familial concern, transparency and accountability. 

The ideas of the EoC are finding fertile ground in Africa, according to Alexis Nsabimana, a native of Burundi and member of the newly formed African Commission of the EoC. Nsabimana shared at the U.N. that the cultural value of “ubuntu” — meaning “I am what I am because of who we all are” — builds a sense of community and an openness to the efforts of the EoC in improving the lives of all involved. In fact, Africa saw the highest growth in the number of EoC companies in 2011, with 27 new EoC companies beginning despite an economic crisis.

Examples shared of EoC companies gave a clear picture of concrete solutions to unemployment, such as the Dalla Strada Cooperative in Brazil that employs at-risk youth to make eco-friendly handbag accessories (dallastrada.com). The brand name Dalla Strada (Italian for “from the street”) arose from the need to respond to vast unemployment among youth in northeast Brazil. The employees there are all youth from the city outskirts, for whom Dalla Strada offers a chance of employment and therefore a future. 

In 2008 Dalla Strada’s founder, John Bosco, partnered with a street children’s shelter to offer courses in making handbags. In 2009 the project spread to orphanages throughout Brazil. Today, the company offers training opportunities for young employees not only in technical skills but in health, respect for the environment and human rights, all infused with the principles underlying the EoC. 

Today, 8,000 people depend on income from individuals employed in EoC companies. The poor that are assisted through EoC business profits are all are part of a global communion where giving and receiving is always considered a gift, not only for those who receive but also for those who give.120203_New_York_Onu03_rid

The event concluded with a group of eight young people of the Economy of Communion who offered recommendations for a just economy founded on relationships of solidarity. With hopes for a brighter future and a change in direction away from ethically questionable behavior that has put the world economy at risk, these young people proposed adopting infrastructure that encourages the development of business leaders concerned with the good of their local and global communities. 

The commission received the Economy of Communion as a unique representation of concrete efforts by small- and medium-sized companies to build an economy that is not only efficient and just, but based on relationships animated by values of mutual concern. 

The EoC began 20 years ago to nourish humanity and offer hope for a society where no one is in need. The time seems ripe to offer the EoC’s contribution to the world of social development policy. 

Perhaps, with February’s event in the halls of the U.N., such a contribution is already under way.               

Elizabeth Garlow directs the EoC North American Board and is a business development officer at ACCION USA, a nonprofit organization providing micro-loans to small businesses in the U.S.

There’s more on the Economy of Communion at edc-online.org. Join the EoC’s annual conference August 10–12, 2012 in Hyde Park, NY: email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for details.

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