Monday, April 6, 2009

Advocate for the World's Poor

[FT Comment: Cardinal Rodriguez is an Affiliate of our Franciscan Province. His heart is so deeply Franciscan.]

According to Caritas Internationalis, someone in the world dies of hunger every 3.6 seconds. Eleven million children under the age of 5 die each year, six million of them from preventable causes. And the odds that a woman in Sub-Saharan Africa will die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth stand at one in 16. In the developed world, the odds are one in 3,800.

“Health is the only capital of the poor,” says Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez of Honduras, “and health is at its worst in the poorest nations.” A longtime advocate for the world’s poorest people, Cardinal Rodríguez serves as president of Caritas, which is the global umbrella group for some 160 Catholic charitable organizations.

In late September the cardinal addressed the U.N. General Assembly about the Millennium Development Goals, eight goals established by the United Nations in the year 2000 to combat extreme poverty in the world, meant to be achieved by 2015. The goals, said the cardinal, are “a catalyst for action...a reminder of the suffering of millions of people who live in extreme poverty.”

Progress has been slow; in some areas there has been practically none at all. The problem, said Rodríguez in an interview with America, lies to a large extent with the international community, which is “closed in on its own interests.” The G-8 industrialized nations see the rest of the world as strangers and regard “the market as their god.” Greed has invaded many giant corporations. When human beings forget that there are limits to the spirit of acquisitiveness and do not take into account the needs of the rest of the world, “we see the consequences.” He identified an example of unbridled greed: “The oil industry enriches some nations, but without a greater sense of universal solidarity it will be impossible to overcome poverty.”

“I’ve seen that same greed in my own country, Honduras,” Cardinal Rodríguez told the General Assembly. “International mining companies extract from the land its riches” and then “leave it poisoned and the people who live there worse off.”

Sustainable Development

Rodríguez explained that the international community’s reluctance to foster sustainable development in the poorest countries is partly responsible for the massive waves of global migration that are now taking place, as well as the walls built to stop them.

In May 2008, when he was interviewed in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, Cardinal Rodríguez spoke of the painful irony that while the North American Free Trade Agreement allows for the free movement of goods between Mexico and the United States, human beings are not afforded that same privilege, though they are usually poor men and women seeking only to forge a better life for themselves and their children through hard and honest work. Five years earlier, at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual Catholic Social Ministry gathering in Washington, D.C., the cardinal had also articulated the link between poverty and immigration: “The wealthy North will never have enough steel walls to contain the avalanche of illegal immigrants unless there is a real development” in poor nations.

Development and immigration are global issues that need large-scale remedies. There is a need, Cardinal Rodríguez said in his U.N. address, “to galvanize governments into urgent action by living up to past promises on development.” Past promises have been many. In 1975 at the Helsinki Conference, for example, 35 countries, including the United States, agreed to set aside 0.7 percent of their gross national product for development in poor countries. Without creating development opportunities in poor countries, “the only businesses that prosper are drug trafficking and the trafficking of human beings.”

So powerful has the drug trade become in Central and Latin America, he said, that the leaders of some cartels are able to direct their activities by cellphone while in prison. Complicating matters is the weakness of the justice system; the drug trade “involves so much money that a judge who really does his job places his own life in danger,” said Rodríguez.

Regarding human trafficking, the cardinal observed that traffickers in Honduras, his own country, charge $5,000 to transport a person into the United States, but once across the border they often abandon their charges in the desert. Hundreds die every year from exposure. Kidnapping, too, has become a kind of industry unto itself in Latin American countries.

Over the years Cardinal Rodríguez has commented on other issues affecting the poor of the world. He once described debt as “a tombstone over many nations.” Yet in countries where debt cancellation has occured, the results have been striking. Caritas Internationalis has reported that in Mozambique, for instance, cancellation has freed up money to pay for immunizations for children; in Tanzania it has meant the abolition of school fees and as a result, a 65 percent increase in school attendance.

At the United Nations, Cardinal Rodríguez warned that “climate change is undoing much of the progress made in developing countries.” Hurricane Mitch destroyed half a century of progress in Honduras. Climate change affects all countries, he said, but “the poor suffer disproportionately more than the rich,” even though “they bear the least responsibility for the pollution causing global warming.” To begin to change this dark situation, the industrialized nations “must back up their M.D.G. commitments by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 24 to 40 percent by 2020,” he explained, and then “by 80 percent by 2050 to avoid catastrophe.”

One hopeful sign of progress in achieving the Millennium Development Goals lies in the $16 billion in new contributions and pledges made during the U.N. gathering at a high-level meeting in which Cardinal Rodríguez took part. Caritas Internationalis subsequently reported that $1.6 billion had been pledged to foster food security and another $2 billion to improve maternal health and address child mortality.

In light of the soaring prices and given the global economic downturn, however, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that additional efforts will be needed before the international community can come even close to reaching the targets for reducing extreme poverty. The cardinal’s words at the end of his address were similarly blunt. Much of the world’s ongoing poverty, he said, has been caused by “a failure of politics and a failure of leadership.” How far those failures can be rectified may become evident in the next two years, if the secretary general’s proposal is accepted to hold a summit meeting in 2010 to review the Millennium Development Goals.

George M. Anderson, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

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