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Pacem in Terris Lecture Series

Remarks by Peter D. Bell

A World Without Poverty
April 5, 2004

Thank you, Dr. DeGioia. I am delighted to be here. I am honored to join Georgetown University in observing the 40th anniversary of Pope John XXIII's encyclical, Pacem in Terris. Delivered during the dark days of the Cold War when the world seemed on the brink of Armageddon, Pope John?s letter was a message of hope. He believed that the road to peace lay in the protection and promotion of human dignity and human rights, which every one of us should enjoy simply because of our humanity.

It is now 40 -- almost 41 -- years later. It has been 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. And the United States is again at war. We are engaged in a grim struggle in Iraq to replace the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein with a democratic government. We are also engaged in a worldwide campaign to destroy the Al Qaeda terrorist network. While these struggles dominate our media today and concern us all, I want to talk with you about another struggle -- a struggle that may receive less U.S. attention but that, in human terms, is enormously important. It is the struggle of nearly half of humanity to overcome extreme poverty.

Hard as it may be to fully grasp, nearly half of humanity is eking out a living on two dollars or less a day. And 1.2 billion of these human beings try somehow to survive on one dollar or less a day.1  People in extreme poverty live every day on a razor's edge of crisis. Their world is severely circumscribed. They reside in the flimsiest shelters on the most precarious sites; they are hit hardest by natural disasters; and they are most exposed to infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

We have not traveled far enough or rapidly enough on the road toward peace mapped out by Pope John XXIII. Yet, I believe that a world without extreme poverty could be within our reach -- not within the next decade, but possibly within the lifetime at least of the students in this audience.

Over the years, I have met thousands of people in extreme poverty. Each one has a story of endurance, determination and remarkable resourcefulness. I think of a bright-eyed young girl I met in Afghanistan in June 2001. Her name is Khatera. Despite Taliban prohibitions against the education of girls, she had the courage to attend a community school supported by CARE. Khatera was determined to become a doctor and to contribute to the future of her country.

I also think of Herath Banda, a hardworking farmer I met in Sri Lanka. With CARE's help, he had increased the productivity of his small farm, so that he could sell a portion of his harvest in the market. To complete his family's one-room house, he had been acquiring bricks for six years. With pride, Herath informed me that he would finish the house in just one more year.

If Khatera and Herath are able to nurture hope for a better future, surely I can, as well, and so can we all.

Today, we have the knowledge, technology and wealth to end extreme poverty. If we had the collective will, we could find the way. There is nothing more important that we could do to make the world a better place -- for everyone.

This afternoon, I want to talk with you about why it is important to end extreme poverty and how it can be done.

Why is it so important for us to fight global poverty?

There are three arguments to consider. The first is that reductions in poverty will benefit not only the less developed countries but also the industrialized countries. For example, the economic and social development of poor countries will reduce global population growth, restrain illegal immigration, and control the spread of infectious diseases. Advances in transportation, communication and globalization are rapidly shrinking the world. In a world that is becoming ever smaller, it is in the interest of the United States to spread the benefits of prosperity.

A second argument for combating global poverty surfaced in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. It suggests that terrorism somehow grows out of extreme poverty. Nothing in CARE's experience, working with thousands of the world' poorest communities, indicates that poor people are predisposed to become terrorists. The people behind the hijackings and killings of September 11 were neither poor nor uneducated. The most that can be said is that fanaticism often preys on a sense of social injustice, hopelessness and desperation. Poverty is not itself the cause of terrorism; yet to the extent that people around the world enjoy greater social justice and inclusion, America as a nation will be more secure.

The third argument -- and the most compelling reason for combating global poverty -- is a moral one. It is based on the dignity inherent in each human being and on the oneness of all humanity. Just as Pope John XXIII wrote, each of us has a right to live in dignity and a responsibility to protect the right of others to do the same. Each of us has a responsibility to ourselves and our fellow human beings to affirm the wholeness of the human family.

Why is it important for us to fight global poverty? I remember a woman I met in a remote village of Honduras right after Hurricane Mitch. The local matriarch, wrapped in a shawl, she threw her arms around me and said, "Only God and CARE come to visit here." People in her village appreciated our material assistance, but they also valued our companionship -- our solidarity.

At the end of the day, it is important for us to fight global poverty because of that sense of interconnection -- our sense of the dignity inherent in every human being. Or, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it: "In a real sense, all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother."

How do we end global poverty and build a better world for all?

Our media seldom put poverty into context or explain its complexities. Yet understanding the root causes of global poverty and how they inter-relate is critical to fighting it. Let me touch on some of the most pervasive challenges facing poor people today.

First, HIV/AIDS. Some 40 million people in the world live with this dreaded disease.2  Especially in sub-Saharan Africa today, HIV/AIDS is wreaking havoc on national productivity. It ostracizes the people infected and excludes them from critical social networks. It robs entire communities of the most productive members of society, including teachers, health workers and farmers.

As the epidemic takes its course, poverty and AIDS compound one another in a grim cycle of interdependence, changing the very landscape of society. On a visit to Lesotho in southern Africa, I was struck by one sign of a changed society: the soccer leagues were disbanding -- so many of the young men were attending funerals on Saturdays that there were no longer enough players to field complete teams.

The AIDS pandemic in Africa is the most devastating humanitarian crisis of our time -- and quite possibly of all times. Stopping the spread of AIDS is an absolute precondition for development in some 20 African countries.

Lack of access to basic education is a second root cause of poverty. One-hundred-twenty million children in the world -- a majority of them girls -- never enter a classroom or learn to read or write.3  Several months ago in Afghanistan, resurgent Taliban near Kandahar burned three of the community schools with which CARE has worked -- simply for the "offense" of educating girls. Going to school should not have to be an act of courage! It is a human right, and research has shown that no social investment brings greater returns than basic education, especially for girls. Each year of schooling for girls is associated with increases in family income; decreases in fertility rates; and decreases in infant, child and maternal death rates. Not to mention increases in knowledge and self-confidence.

Lack of access to clean water is a third root cause of poverty. More than a billion people in the world do not have access to safe water.4  In the poorest communities, diarrhea is the biggest killer of children. It kills three million children each year. Clean water, when accompanied by sanitation and hygiene, reduces disease and saves lives. Moreover, the installation of potable water can release hours of women's time each day for other pursuits -- since the task of fetching water usually falls to them.

In arid northern Sudan, I met women who rise every morning at 5:00 to pray, clean the house, prepare children for school, cook breakfast, and work on their plots of land. They had to walk three hours to the nearest water source, which added to the strain of their already demanding workload. There was nothing that they wished for more than a spigot of clean water -- if not in their home, at least in their community.

Let me mention one other cause of poverty: violent conflicts are underway in some 35 countries around the world.5  Most of these conflicts are internal; almost all are in developing countries. And in every case, the conflicts take their heaviest toll on poor people. I remember a visit to North Bor County in southern Sudan. Over the previous decade, the Dinka tribe in the area had been devastated by a series of raids. Members of an isolated Dinka community told me that their deepest desire was an end to the war. With the establishment of peace, they could begin to build a better future for themselves -- and their children. They could gain access to health care, roads and markets. They could send their children to school. One man said, "We want education and a road to connect us with the outside world. We want to be part of the world."

There are still other root causes of poverty. At the top of my list are poor governance, discrimination, especially against women and girls, and harmful trade policies that block entry of goods from developing countries to our markets.

Poverty-fighting organizations like CARE are committed to not just temporary relief, but enduring change for poor families. We recognize the need to focus not only on top-down, but on bottom-up approaches; not only on growth but on equity; and not only on physical infrastructure but on human resources, civil society and governance. Drawing on our global experience, we support local aspirations and capacities, so that poor communities can create their own lasting solutions. The beginning of wisdom is understanding that the exact combination of causes and solutions must be specific to each setting. This is an ambitious agenda, but we have, overall, learned a great deal about how to be effective in reducing poverty.

That learning has translated into real progress. Each time I visit a community where CARE is working and see the resourcefulness and determination of the people, I see how development assistance can support the basic values and motivations of poor people, and make their fight to build better lives more effective.

In Tanzania, women now have choices they did not have before. I visited a CARE project called Hujakwama, which in Swahili means "you are not stuck". The name conveys to women that they have the power to improve their own lives.  The project focuses not only on improving women's access to water, but also to sanitation, health care, education and income-generating opportunities. All told, the project had trained more than 1,200 women in entrepreneurial skills.

In Niger, rural women are also proving that they are not stuck. With CARE's help, they are managing community-based savings and loan programs, and starting economic activities such as peanut oil production, food preparation and grain storage. They are also paying their children's school fees and purchasing household items. The project now includes some 6,000 savings and loan groups throughout the country and is a model for such projects around the world.

In poor villages in Bangladesh where I just visited last week, young women who have been abandoned by their husbands or separated from them by death or divorce are cast out -- relegated to lives as domestic servants, prostitutes or beggars. In recent years,160,000 such women have enlisted in CARE's rural maintenance project, working in crews to repair dirt feeder roads. At the outset of the program, most of the women lack the self-respect even to look a visitor in the eye. But they soon take pride in performing a community service and earning an income.

Before entering the program, the women working as domestic servants might have earned 10 cents per day. Repairing the roads, they earn the princely sum of one dollar a day, and put aside 25 cents of that dollar as savings to eventually start their own small businesses. In the fourth and final year of the program, the women, though usually illiterate, attend classes through CARE in accounting and other business skills, so that they will be ready to go upon "graduation." Thousands of women have gone on to start successful economic activities, and have gained the respect of their communities. Several dozen have recently been elected to governing councils in their districts. 

At the end of a discussion with one of the work crews on an earlier visit, I asked whether the women had any request of me.  The crew leader responded without hesitation: "Give other Bangladeshi women the same opportunity CARE has given us." She felt empowered by her experience. She was confident she could pull herself out of poverty.

With local leadership and outside support, similar advances are occurring in communities across the world. Each case is important in itself. Yet each case also contributes to a larger transformation. Though change may be slow and grudging, the results are worth the effort.

Despite the enormous toll that poverty continues to take around the world, we have seen progress on vital fronts. Between 1980 and 1990, immunization rates increased from five to 80 percent,6 and helped save the lives of 4 million children each year.7  Eight-hundred million more people have obtained access to safe water since 1990.8  Illiteracy among adults has been cut almost in half over the last three decades.9 Dramatic increases have also been achieved in agricultural productivity. India, for example, is now self-sufficient in grains.

For many millions of people, the world has gotten better.

Yet, for many millions of others, there is still much more to be done. Africa is often regarded as the hardest development case. In fact, 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are poorer now than they were in 1990.10 Drought, HIV/AIDS and poverty have reinforced one another to produce the food crisis in southern Africa -- that region's version of what my UNICEF colleague Carol Bellamy calls the "perfect storm."

But we can win the fight against extreme poverty, even in Africa. If you saw, as I have seen, the motivation and courage of people in poor African communities, you would have no doubt. Collaborating with others who share our understanding of what works, we can systematically attack the root causes of poverty and quell the storm.

If ever there were a challenge that cries out for American leadership, it is the fight against global poverty. I like a remark that Elton John, with whom CARE has allied itself in the fight against AIDS, once made. He said: "To look after our own at home is a sign of strength. To reach out to others around the world is a sign of greatness." Just imagine the impact of an America that put ending poverty at the top of its strategic agenda! Imagine the impact of a U.S. president who pursued the fight against global poverty with the same vigor that President Bush showed in his campaign against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

When it comes to reducing global poverty, the United States could make a powerful contribution on many fronts. Let me cite two briefly, and then discuss a third.

First, let's look to trade. Opening the markets of the largest economy in the world could give a critical boost to the export growth and economic development of poor countries. In the year 2000, Congress virtually eliminated tariffs on textiles coming into the U.S. from some African countries. This has been a positive advance. On the other hand, President Bush signed a Farm Bill two years ago that will award subsidies of tens of billions of dollars to American farmers. That law makes American sugar and cotton cheaper than African sugar and cotton, effectively keeping them out of our market. A political strategy to phase out U.S. agricultural subsidies could provide big opportunities for African economies. The World Bank estimates that ending trade-distorting farm subsidies and tariffs could, in fact, lift 150 million people out of poverty by 2015!11

Second, let's look to diplomacy. Where the United States is prepared to give sustained diplomatic attention, it can often contribute to resolving civil conflicts. For example, the Bush administration has quietly but effectively supported talks aimed at ending the civil war in Sudan -- a war that has gotten little coverage in the U.S. media, but that has killed two million Sudanese and displaced four million. At the moment, the talks seem to be sputtering just short of a settlement. If successful, however, the peace process could make a huge difference in Africa's largest country. Diplomacy is an under-appreciated resource in fighting poverty.

A third front in fighting poverty is U.S. development assistance. That assistance is vital in helping the poorest countries to be more self-reliant and to engage in the world economy. Americans typically believe that 20 percent of all government spending goes to foreign aid.12 They are astonished to learn that the actual amount of U.S. spending on foreign aid is less than one percent!

Americans also express concern that the U.S. is carrying more than its fair share of the burden of assistance. But, even though we contribute the most in absolute numbers of dollars13, the U.S. is actually dead last among the 22 industrialized democracies in percentage of GNP spent on international development. And of the $240 billion that Americans gave to charity last year, less than two percent went to reducing global poverty. There is so much more that we could do!

In his three plus years in office, President Bush's international agenda has been dominated by the so-called "harder" issues of military security and economic policy. But he struck a different note in March 2002 at a UN conference on development. Specifically, President Bush proposed the creation of a new Millennium Challenge Account. He set out to add $5 billion by 2006 to the core U.S. budget for development assistance -- a 50 percent increase. All $5 billion would be channeled to countries that meet certain thresholds in terms of economic freedom, political liberty and the rule of law. In January, Congress appropriated $1 billion for the account for this fiscal year. I have some concerns about this initiative, including worries that it could be subverted by geopolitical objectives. Nevertheless, the Millennium Challenge Account could eventually mark the most significant expansion of development assistance since the 1960s.

In his State of the Union message last year, President Bush came forward with another bold initiative. To join the global battle against AIDS, especially in Africa, he proposed a $15 billion program over five years. I was heartened by the President's proposal for two reasons: first, because it seemed to mark the true beginning of a U.S. response to the AIDS pandemic that would be in keeping with the scale of the problem. Second, because it received support from such a broad-based, politically-diverse constituency. In January, Congress appropriated $2.4 billion for the initiative for this fiscal year - less than the authorized amount of $3 billion, but still $1 billion more than the amount appropriated last fiscal year.

In 1970, the U.S. and other leading industrialized democracies agreed on a common goal of allocating point 7 percent of their gross national product to international development.

It is impressive that countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have met their goal of point 7 percent of GNP. I recognize that the U.S. has other responsibilities in the world, but I believe strongly that we must achieve a better balance between defending ourselves from our enemies and providing hope and opportunity to others. Our contribution to the fight against global poverty would be a true measure of this country's greatness. The increases in AIDS funding and the newly created Millennium Challenge Account in this year's federal budget are steps in the right direction. But, as the richest nation in the world, we can -- and we must -- do more.

How much of the global fight against poverty can the U.S. take on? I cannot wait for this debate to get underway. And what better time than during the presidential campaign this very year.        

So, where does the end of poverty begin?

It begins with an idea -- an act of imagination and the embracing of a vision. At a global level, the end of poverty begins with the idea that a world without poverty is both morally necessary and actually achievable. At the level of families in poor communities, the end of poverty may simply begin with the conviction that their lives -- or their children's lives -- can be made better.

Responsibility for ending poverty must begin with the governments of developing countries. They bear a special responsibility. Effective governments create policy environments that respect human rights, encourage political participation, promote development, and foster civic pride and entrepreneurial spirit. These governments give priority to education, health and other services, which are essential investments in people in extreme poverty.

The end of poverty begins with leadership. I am impressed by the display of leadership by the president of Kenya. One of President Kibaki's first acts in office was to abolish fees for public schools, and parents flooded the schools with their children.

Of course, good intentions can only go so far. To actually reduce extreme poverty, it is important to set goals, lay out strategies, mobilize resources, assign accountability and measure progress.

The responsibility for ending poverty also begins with poor communities, local leaders and grassroots organizations. They must be the owners and organizers of their own destinies. People in communities that work together can overcome conflict, share the costs of bringing clean water to everyone, rebuild schools torn down by war, raise children orphaned by AIDS, and press governmental authorities to be accountable.

The end of poverty begins with private corporations. They can help end extreme poverty by increasing employment in poor communities, adhering to the highest standards of corporate responsibility, upholding labor standards, advancing human rights, and protecting the environment. They can also help end poverty by building local capacity -- by providing new skills, knowledge, and management training.

The end of poverty begins when we all work together toward that goal -- national governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations like CARE, and civil society organizations in developing countries.

The end of poverty begins with Khatera in Afghanistan and Herath in Sri Lanka.

The end of poverty also begins with each of us. Given the interconnectedness of the world and the oneness of all humanity, we can and must play a role.

There is a very real sense in which each of us -- in this auditorium and around the world -- must be part of where the end of poverty begins. The moral arguments to end poverty have long been there. Today, for the first time, we have the knowledge, technology, and wealth to get the job done. We could actually put an end to extreme poverty in a matter of decades.     

Our enlistment in this cause starts from the realization that we are citizens not only of our own country but also of the world. We have an obligation to be knowledgeable about the world and about the engagement of the U.S. within it. We should develop views on trade policies, agricultural subsidies, and whether it makes sense for the U.S. to have a defense budget equal to those of the next 22 largest defense budgets in the world combined.14

We should also educate ourselves on the humanitarian consequences of war -- the four million displaced and two million dead from the long war in Sudan, and the 3.3 million dead in the conflict of the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past four years.

The responsibility for ending poverty begins with each of us here seeing how the institutions in our lives -- where we work, where we study, where we worship -- can help in the fight against global poverty.

I believe that all of us want to make a difference for the better -- not just in our own lives, but also in the lives of our families, communities, and as far into the world as our horizons stretch.  The motivation -- the yearning -- to contribute to a better world is instinctive and deeply human.  Transform this yearning into effective action. 

Cast a ballot for political leaders with a broad view of the world. Send a fax or an email or make a phone call to your representatives in Congress. Stress the importance of development assistance and urge them to keep track of the President's commitments to the Millennium Challenge Account and the AIDS initiative. Volunteer at a nonprofit organization to help people struggling right here in our nation's capital. Join the Peace Corps. Come to work for CARE. Or, make a donation, volunteer, or serve on the board of an international relief and development organization. Be forewarned, however, that is how I began at CARE, and look at me now! Once you get into this kind of work, it is hard to stop!

It may be tempting to conclude that the task of ending poverty is too overwhelming and too long-term. In the end, it must be done one individual, one family, one community, one country, one region at a time. We have learned a lot about how to scale up our efforts, partner with others and increase our collective impact. CARE worked directly with some 45 million people in the world's poorest communities last year and made a difference for the better in their lives. Given the 1.2 billion people in extreme poverty, those 45 million may seem like so many drops in a vast ocean, but each one is a human being who wants, just as you and I do, to live in dignity and security.

Herath, the farmer I met in Sri Lanka, believed that, with persistence and resourcefulness, he would acquire enough bricks to build a safe and secure home for his family. So I believe that we, in partnership with many thousands of others, can muster the will and the resources to build a better world for our global family -- the kind of world Pope John XXIII envisioned for us all.

The end of poverty begins by our taking that first step, acquiring that first brick -- and the next -- until a stable foundation is laid. With ingenuity and commitment, we can and we will build a world where extreme poverty has been overcome -- where everyone sleeps in safety and awakens with hope.

The end of poverty must begin with each of us.

And it can begin right here.

It can begin right now.


1.  UNDP, Human Development Report 2002, and World Bank, World Development Report 2000/2001.

2.  UNAIDS, AIDS Epidemic Update, December 2003.

3.  UNICEF, State of the World's Children 2003, and World Bank, World Development Indicators 2002. UNICEF, SOWC 1999.

4.  World Bank, World Development Indicators 2002.

5.  Project Ploughshares, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel College, Armed Conflicts Report 2001.

6.  UNICEF, Progress of Nations 1998.

7.  World Bank, Millennium Development Goals Web site, 2003.

8.   UNDP, Human Development Report 2002.

9.  World Bank, World Development Indicators 2002.

10.   UNDP, Human Development Report 2002.

11.  New York Times editorial, December 30, 2003.

12.  Bostrom, Meg, Public Attitudes Toward Foreign Affairs: AN Overview of the Current State of Public Opinion, October 1999.

13.  Council on Foreign Relations, www.terrorismanswers.com/policy/foreignaid.html

14. The Center for Defense Information, 3 February 2003.

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