The financial crisis and the world’s poor  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

“As world leaders gather in London for the Group of 20 summit meeting,” Nicholas Kristof reports, “the most wrenching statistic is this: According to World Bank estimates, the global economic crisis will cause an additional 22 children to die per hour, throughout all of 2009. And that’s the best-case scenario. The World Bank says it’s possible the toll will be twice that: an additional 400,000 child deaths, or an extra child dying every 79 seconds. ‘In London, Washington and Paris, people talk of bonuses or no bonuses,’ Robert Zoellick, the World Bank president, said this week. ‘In parts of Africa, South Asia and Latin America, the struggle is for food or no food.’”


It’s easy to lose sight of the poor. They tend to be marginalized, with no voice in the marketplace unless someone speaks for them. That was the role the 1st century church assumed.


Here is an interesting experiment: Bring up the financial crisis at the next church meeting you attend and keep track of how many people mention Wall Street, bonuses, government bailouts, and the world’s poor.


“I’m just back from Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” Kristof continues, “where I saw the impact of the crisis firsthand. In the Haitian slum of Cité Soleil, ravenous children tore at some corncobs that my guide had brought; it was their first food that day. In a slum hospital, where admissions for malnutrition have doubled since September, I met a woman who used to sell shoes on the street. Shoe sales dropped with the sagging economy, so the woman was forced to use her sales revenue to buy food for her child instead of to replace inventory. Now she has no more merchandise to sell, no food to eat and the child she cradled was half dead with starvation…


“One of the most preposterous ideas floating about is that the world’s poor feel ‘entitled’ to assistance. Entitled? Wall Street plutocrats display a sense of entitlement when they demand billions for bailouts. But whether at home or abroad, the poor typically suffer invisibly and silently. Oxfam has calculated that financial firms around the world have already received or been promised $8.4 trillion in bailouts. Just a week’s worth of interest on that sum while it’s waiting to be deployed would be enough to save most of the half-million women who die in childbirth each year in poor countries.


“The 500 richest people in the world, according to a U.N. calculation a few years ago, earned more than the 416 million poorest people. It’s worth bearing in mind that the first group bears a measure of responsibility for the global economic mess but will get by just fine, while the latter group has no responsibility and will suffer the worst consequences.”


Kristof (and others) have floated ideas of what the G20 nations can do, “with negligible sums,” as they discuss bailouts totaling trillions of dollars. If this is to be a reality, however, the world’s poorest citizens must have those who care about them give them a voice in the public square. The church needs to step up to its responsibility.


You can read Nicholas Kristof’s thoughtful piece, “At Stake are More Than Banks,” here. It appeared in the New York Times (April 1, 2009).


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