Wednesday, May 23, 2007

on the wealth/poverty gap, and justice and charity

I am writing this post in response to a post on Jim Shultz's "Blog from Bolivia," found here.

Apologies in advance for a long post - this is an area I've thought a lot about.

First, while I can surely relate to Jim's acccount of the choque one experiences when crossing the gap from Bolivia to the US or Western Europe, it was my experience living in Bolivia that the gap was experienced more on a daily basis within the country.

North Americans who were in Bolivia in the 70s and 80s often tell stories of empty store shelves and a more omnipresent, visible poverty, and of returning to the US after a few years away and, to use a common example, walking into a supermarket and just bursting into tears. I never had quite that experience.

What was shocking - but frequent - for me was taking the bus from my neighborhood in La Paz (Alto Chijini - a poor, mainly Aymara barrio just beneath the 'rim of the bowl' near El Alto) to the Zona Sur, which looked amazingly like a US suburb. I could even see those wealthy neighborhoods from my window high above in Alto Chijini. I always invited visitors to take exactly that bus ride for a quick and striking glimpse into The Gap.

This is, I think, a typical characteristic of the globalized world in recent years. The gap between rich and poor within countries has widened. And the visibility of the gap has increased, with greater availability of goods for those with wealth (and some growth in the middle class - although not the growth promised by many 'free-traders'), and through media messages that tell people they are somehow less whole if they don't consume said goods. It is not uncommon for increased violence to accompany these changes in a society - a biproduct of the alienation the gap produces. I think Bolivia is seeing this, too.

Next, I think I am coming full circle (perhaps a spiral is a more accurate image) with regard to the appropriate response to the gap, and the relative merits of "justice" and "charity." To the extent that it is appropriate to distinguish between the two, I think we need both. And to a large extent, I doubt how distinct they are.

First of all, much "justice" work is aimed at creating "sustainable development," or increased self-sufficiency and wealth (not Richy Rich wealth, but the material wellbeing necessary for a dignified life) in poor societies. But I believe those societies' poverty has much to do with their historic and ongoing relationships to wealthier socieities; I believe the wealth of the latter is historically and presently subsidized in many ways by poorer societies; I believe wealthy societies can offer little in the way of proven models for sustainable development, since they themselves 'developed' on the backs of slaves, colonies, and other relationships that today's 'developing' societies cannot and should not recreate. In sum, I think a) that wealthy societies do owe something to poorer societies, and b)that it is doubtful whether poorer societies can develop economically without some payback.

So, to the extent that this constitutes "charity," I'm all for it. But obviously I'm also talkign about justice. So, they are somewhat bound up with one another.

Also, political programs and structural change are often talked about in utopian terms, as if they will solve all social ills (they won't). Also, those who promote them often denigrate the charity work that aims to address the real human suffering of the present moment even as we wait for the full or partial fruits of 'social justice' work, or structural change. Ironically, the justice camp also accuses the charity camp of allowing problems to perpetuate, while patting themselves on the back for their charity work. I say 'ironically' because at the end of the day, I've admittedly patted myself on the back for both kinds of work, but in one case it's been for feeding someone who came to me hungry and left full, and in the other it's been for writing a letter to a senator who never read it. Which did more good?

In my work with college students (Social Justice Minister in Campus Ministry at Seattle University), we often use a teachng tool called "the two feet of social justice." One foot is direct service ("charity"). The other is work for systemic change ("social justice"). We need both feet to walk forward. An important thing to note about the Dom Helder Camara quote is that he did feed the poor as well as asking why they were poor.

Structural change is crucial. So is direct service/charity. The latter is often done in ways that are condescending, self-congratulatory, and inadvertently serve to maintain unjust structures. We must be vigilant against all of this. But neither must we abandon being charitable.

A Catholic Worker once told me the difference between a liberal and a radical: a liberal sees a man starving and forms a committee to organize a campaign to lobby congress to pass legislation to address hunger. A radical sees a man starving and feeds him. While it's not as pithy, I would add that in the process, perhaps the radical asks the man how he came to be hungry, and together they determine how they can most effectively advocate for a situation that reflects his dignity (including but not limited to his need for food) in a sustainable way.

A couple more quotes by wiser folks:

"When life is dripping away from men, it is not the time for speculation or self-satisfying theory-applications. This is the time to stop the flow, to heal the wounds, to bathe the sores." –John Cogley, Catholic Worker

"The great masses of the poor in all countries are become an hereditary race, and it is next to impossible for them to get out of that state of themselves… It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for." -Thomas Paine

And if you feel like reading about 35 pages more on this, check out the papal encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Note that "Caritas" is latin for both "charity" and "love," so that while the title refers to charity (and the encyclical addresses its relationship to justice), the title is translated as "God is Love."


Boli-Nica said...

(b/t/w. I kind of posted this in the wrong thread....see below..might want to delete it)

The issue that I have with your arguments, is not necesarily with your conclusions, but more with one of your supporting arguments.

The wealthiest nations did not get wealthy by solely abusing other countries and peoples. If that were the case the ante-bellum American South and the Spanish Empire would have been the predominant powers of the 19th century. DeTouqueville put it sharply when observing the differences in the US South and North at one particular river crossing. The southern bank floundered, while the north buzzed with lively economic activity.
People in Latin America and Asia, had things like coffee or tobacco that people in Europe wanted to buy. But the Germans - to use an example used by a professor- did not need South America for their coffee, they could turn elsewhere and someone would be happy to sell it to them. For every enterprise by foreigners in Latin America that succeeded, another one went bankrupt. Most money Europeans and the US made was made by selling to other big countries.
Ultimately the nations that succeeded were the ones who not only harnessed the tools of mass production and resources, but the ones who were able to cultivate the kind of human capital capable of innovating and creating. And by creating this was not just "things" that people just "want to own", but of technologies and products that in many ways improved the human condition. Even under the imperfect rules of trade (more mercantilistic)of the 19th century, many people benefitted from increased trade - with the associated transfers of technology and know-how. Competition engendered by this trade, helped produce this innovation.
Free Trade may not be a cure-all for underdevelopment and the poverty gap, but it is a necessary precondition to do so IMO. Market forces it unleashes are needed to inject competition, and to actually help introduce the type of technologies and knowledge-base that can help you aim higher in the future. To err on the side of free trade, is better than to fall on protection and isolation. Better to be partially right, than totally wrong.

The challenge is to do so, while aiming to alleviate the suffering caused by disclocations in the markets, and in general being able to provide the poor of its population with the tools to live a dignified life: including access to proper nutrition, health care, labor rights, subsistence so no child has to work, and a free education that can not only teach poor people to read, but teaches them to do algebra, speak other languages, and program computers.

This thinker said something I also agree with...
It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish. It is also necessary to help these needy people to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources. Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required "something" is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity.

Pope John Paul II,

Anonymous said...

i enjoyed your post Dan, the link to did arouse some knee jerk aversion but overall I share your thoughts