Thursday, April 22, 2010

A National Interfaith Conference on Global Poverty

I spent the past two days (April 20th and 21st) at the “One Voice of Faith” conference on global poverty at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. The cast of speakers was impressive including: Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service; Dr. Bonnie Anderson, President, House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church; Rev. Dr. Heng Sure, Director, Institute for World Religions and the moderator, Maha ElGenaidi, President, Islamic Networks Group. Panelist came from an array of notable organizations: Catholic Relief Services; RESULTS; Bread for the World; the UN Millennium Campaign. What made the event most worthwhile for me however was meeting three remarkable individuals running two small non-profits that are actually doing the hard work every day needed to put an end to global poverty. More about them follows below.

The fight against extreme poverty is expensive but is morally and, arguably, even economically the right thing to do. That 1.1 billion people in the world live on less than $1 per day is more than scandalous. That wealthy countries, and their citizenry, have a responsibility to alleviate the needs of the poor is consistent with the teachings of every faith. This interfaith conference focused on organizing the advocacy needed to move the US government to meet its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) commitment.

In 2000, the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution known as the Millennium Declaration that, among other noble objectives, calls for the eradication of global poverty. Information on the MDG and the campaign to end global poverty can be found at President Obama has committed to present the US’ plan for achieving the MDGs in his speech to the UN General Assembly this coming September.

Speakers and panelist pointed out that the recent global economic crisis has seriously affected the political will in the US to live up to our MDG commitments. Therefore, we were encouraged to engage in a concerted campaign to lobby our representatives in Congress regarding key anti-poverty legislation and support of the “Point 7 Now” initiative which calls for the US government to commit 0.7% of GNP to Official Development Assistance.

Alex Baumgarten, Director of Government Relations for the Episcopal Church, noted that Americans are “by far the most generous giving to private charities but don’t trust the government to efficiently distribute foreign aid.” It was further noted that Americans have a grossly inflated notion of just how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. In fact, while we are the most generous when giving from our own pockets, we are by far the most parsimonious giving from our public treasury. According to some statistics, the 0.16% of GNP the US contributes to ODA is the lowest among the 22 OECD countries.

But to Mary Burns, who along with her husband Bob, founded and run the Kasimu Education Fund, these are all just words and statistics she’s heard many times before. While we talk, she says, children are starving for food and education in the Manyesa area of Malawi where they have helped build a school, fund a small local micro-lending operation and provide scholarships to local youths to attend high school and teaching college. I spoke with Bob about the micro-lending activities and the availability of other financial services to the people of Manyesa. They are basically non-existent he said and desperately needed. I told him about some of the initiatives I know about to bring mobile banking services to the poor in Africa and promised to come back to him with some ideas.

Just listening to Mary and Bob talk about their passion for helping the people of this poor corner of the world achieve a measure of self-sufficiency by 2015 was truly inspiring. And, they are not alone. Bob told me of finding about 100 other small non-profit/NGOs based in Santa Clara and focused on helping the people of Africa. I have added a link to the Kasimu web site. Check out the video it is really amazing.

Then there is Raj Rambob, Executive Director of Homes and Hope, a San Mateo County based non-profit that provides temporary housing for families that have become homeless during the economic crisis. He told me of his family’s commitment not only to poor of San Mateo but to his grandparents ancestral village in India where they too support a school.

I have no doubt it is necessary to fight the good fight with regard to our government’s commitment to the MDGs but I have greater confidence in the Bob and Mary and Raj’s of this world. It may feel good to stand in a circle and sing Kumbaya but Bob and Mary and Raj are doing the work that will ultimately enable the poor to raise themselves out of poverty.

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