POVERTY IN THE WORLD
The Different Forms of Poverty
1. Two Unequal Worlds
To speak of poverty in the world is to speak of social exclusion. The world, in its material aspect (welfare state), is divided in two big blocks. The first is composed of countries that possess the lowest Social Exclusion Index. It is concentrated in Europe, the historical center of the expansion of capitalism, and includes Japan, the United States and Canada, countries of later industrialization but which instituted the agrarian reform and developed politics oriented towards the defense of national product. They are, therefore, the 28 countries with the lowest index of social exclusion. Four of these countries are in Eastern Europe and are the new members of the European Union (Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic). This reveals the contribution of some socialist regimes to the improvement of the indexes of quality of life and of social inclusion. These 28 countries represent 14.4 % of the world population and share 52.1% of the global revenue that is generated annually. The average per capita revenue of these countries is around US$26,900 taking into consideration the criterion of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).
Next come 60 countries with elevated social exclusion. They constitute 35.5 % of the world population and share 11.1 % of the revenue produced in the world. They have an average per capita revenue of US$2,300 taking into account the criterion of Purchasing Power Parity. Of these 60 countries, 44 are in Africa and in Oceania, partitioned territorially in the 19th century by the Europeans pursuing their interests. There are 10 countries in Asia that were submitted to different forms of formal and informal occupation, 6 countries in Latin America, where political dependency, during the 19th century, did not always mean a real economic, financial and political autonomy. One has also to underline that 80% of the African population live in countries placed in the extreme zone of social exclusion, compared to 37% in Asia, 19% in Oceania and 7% in Latin America.
2. Who are the Excluded?
The countries that present the worst Social Exclusion Index, in great majority, are victims of poverty, inequality, low schooling, illiteracy, lack generalized access to health and suffer instability in the labor market. They are the countries that suffer even the consequences of the old social exclusion such as low income and high illiteracy, as well as the marks of the new social exclusion like unemployment, inequality of income, low third-level education and violence.
In addition to material poverty there exists a more acute form, that of political poverty. The concept of political poverty emerged in the context of social politics, in particular in the struggle against poverty. Today it is used widely in the descriptions of human development of the UN/PNUD, especially since 1997. It points out that poverty cannot be reduced to material deprivation, important that it always is, because poverty is fundamentally a phenomenon of political exclusion.
To be a poor person is less than not to have, less than not to be. To experience hunger is misery indeed, but even greater misery is not knowing that, first, hunger is invented and imposed, and, second, that, to overcome hunger, it is not enough to have a meal, but one has to be in a condition to procure for oneself one’s proper sustenance.With this, ignorance is considered to be the center of poverty. A poor person is, above all, one who does not know or who is prevented from knowing that he is poor. Irremediably poor is the person who does not even know that he is poor. He lacks critical awareness, first, to “read” his reality and, later, to confront it within an alternative political project. Because he lacks this critical awareness, he fails to become a subject, master of his own history and, therefore, he just waits for a solution from others. The system takes advantage of this circumstance to maintain him as a “manipulated mass,” treating him as beneficiary rather than as a citizen.
A person is prevented from becoming a master of his history. Poverty, therefore, does not only imply being deprived of material goods, but, especially, being prevented from building one’s own opportunities, from taking one’s destiny in one’s own hands. When one speaks of ignorance, however, we do not express what every educator knows does not exist, that is, every human being is hermeneutically and culturally determined, he develops his proper culture and shared knowledge, he maintains the legacies of history and multiple identities. Rather, we point out that ignorance is historically produced, maintained and perpetuated.
3. The Poor as Subjects
The politics adopted by the World Bank does not satisfy the expectations of growth. When one measures the growth of a concrete population what is taken into consideration is the economic growth in a big scale. When the Gross National Product (GNP) is observed to be growing in a particular country or region, it is taken to mean that the goal of eradicating poverty has been met.That leads us to raise the following observations. First, the growth of the GNP is painfully slow and it can happen without in any way benefiting the poor. Second, when this happens, this growth can even be realized at the cost of the poor. Consequently, in this conception of growth, the poor are considered or seen as objects; they cease to recognize their enormous potential, particularly those of women and children. In many situations, the authorities do not see them as independent agents and protagonists of their own development.
We know that the human being, within given structures, is capable of making interventions in those structures and in themselves, opening proper spaces for action; to a certain extent, he creates his own individual and collective history. The human being is capable of unheard-of conquests that defy limits in every respect; he is capable of building his own autonomy.
4. The Attitude of Saint Vincent de Paul
Many forms of poverty in the times of Saint Vincent de Paul, similar to today’s, were the result of the ambitious politics of governments. In the France of his time, Vincent de Paul accomplished a work effective of eradicating poverty. He set many forms of service to change the miserable conditions of the poor.He organized the Priests of the Mission aimed at the evangelization and service of the poor; with Louise de Marillac he gathered the Daughters of the Charity for the direct work with the abandoned; he founded the Volunteers of the Charity to visit the poor and the sick in their own houses; he invested in the conscientization and formation of the clergy in order for them to take the side of the poor, founding seminaries, promoting the Tuesdays Conferences, sensitizing them with the needs of the Retired; he organized hospitals, houses of welcome for children, adolescents and patients; he established works that absorbed the children of the street, the abandoned children, the children who had neither house, family, meal, nor any type of protection.
His struggle in life was always to provide food to the hungry and to promote the dignity of the poor. No hungry person was indifferent for him; on the contrary, he showed indignation over the multitude of the hungry that hovered the streets. He worked at the galleys where the prisoners were condemned to work as rowers. He succored the victims of war, pestilence and famine. One can affirm that Vincent de Paul accomplished the project “famine zero” in Lorraine, Champagne and Picardy, regions then devastated by war and famine.
From San Quentin in 1652, a Priest of the Mission writes to Vincent:“The famine here is so bad that we see men eating dirt, chewing on grass, stripping the bark off the trees, and tearing up and swallowing the miserable rags that cover them. But what is horrifying—and what we would not dare to mention if we had not seen it—is that they are devouring their own arms and hands and are dying in this state of despair.”
From the letters sent by the Priests of the Mission to Saint Vincent one finds stories of the consequences of the devastation of the War of the Fronde. They narrate: ” We have just visited 35 villages of the deanery of Guise where we found about 600 persons, whose misery is so great, that they take dogs and dead horses, after the wolves have satisfied their famine on them. Just in Guise there are more than 500 patients taking refuge in holes and in caverns, places that are fit for animals rather than for human persons.”
5. A Vincentian Attitude
The Vincentian Family, persons and groups of persons closely linked to the charism and to the spirituality transmitted by Vincent de Paul, begins to reconfigure its work with the poor. It endeavors to return to the sources. The theme “Promotion of Systemic Change–Strategy to Help the Poor out of Poverty” is a system with precise diagnosis.
350 years after the death of Vincent de Paul, we are re-discovering what was evident to him. We begin to rediscover the wise educational maxim that Vincent de Paul used working with the poor: dedication and service to them by assisting them materially and spiritually.
To help to the poor out of material poverty implies helping them out of political poverty. One who is politically poor is not a true citizen because he does not have the capacity of organization and, consequently, the power to introduce changes either for himself or for the group of which he is a part.
Insertion and commitment
For Vincent de Paul, one needs to know the reality of the poor person, to see his material conditions and to understand his situation as a human being. Vincent was always attentive to the respect of the person in the work with the poor. Vincentian work is to promote systemic changes in the life of those excluded, according them dignity and abundant life in all its human dimensions: “If there are any among us who think they are in the Mission to evangelize poor people but not to alleviate their sufferings, to take care of their spiritual needs but not their temporal ones, I reply that we have to help them and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others, if we want to hear those pleasing words of the Sovereign Judge of the living and the dead: ‘Come, beloved of my Father; possess the kingdom that has been prepared for you, because I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you assisted me.’ To do that is to preach the Gospel by words and by works, and that’s the most perfect way; it’s also what Our Lord did, and what those should do who represent him on earth.”
We would like to suggest that Vincentian work at present cannot address only the disastrous consequences that compromise the life of the poor, but also and principally, their causes. More that ever, in the Vincentian work, one needs to articulate strategies for change issuing from politicization that leads the poor to:
- leave the historical process of ignorance. On the one hand, to give him the necessary tools so that he recognizes that he is living in poverty and, on the other hand, that he is himself suppressed to know that he is poor;
- cease being a mass and object of manipulation into becoming a subject of his own dignity;
- become a citizen who organizes himself politically and which renders him capable of instituting significant changes in his life and in the life of the community;
- gain awareness of his rights and construct the basic program of his own liberation.
350 years after the death of Vincent de Paul we are invited to make a qualitative leap in Vincentian work.
From the thoughts of Vincent de Paul:
“To evangelize the poor doesn’t simply mean to teach them the mysteries necessary for their salvation, but also to do what was foretold and prefigured by the prophets to make the Gospel effective. … Let the priests devote themselves to the care of the poor. Wasn’t that what Our Lord and many great saints did, and they not only recommended poor persons to others, but they themselves consoled, comforted and healed them? Aren’t they our brothers and sisters? … If there are any among us who think they are in the Mission to evangelize poor people but not to alleviate their sufferings, to take care of their spiritual needs but not their temporal ones, I reply that we have to help them and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others, if we want to hear those pleasing words of the Sovereign Judge of the living and the dead: ‘Come, beloved of my Father; possess the kingdom that has benn prepared for you, because I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you assisted me.’ To do that is to preach the Gospel by words and by works, and that’s the most perfect way; it’s also what Our Lord did, and what those should do who represent him on earth. … This is what should cause us to prefer this to all other states and works on earth and to consider ourselves happier for it.”
- For you, who are the excluded ones in society?
- How do we make our works with the poor effective?
- How does the content of this reflection affect the members of the Vincentian Family in their prayer, formation, and concrete projects of service for the poor?
By Mizaél Donizetti Poggioli, CM
Translated by: Marcelo V. Manimtim, CM, province of the Philippines