In its issue of October 19 The Christian Century, house organ of well-meaning mainline Protestants, reported on a summit meeting at the United Nations of religious leaders and other humanitarians on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the so-called UN Millenium Development Goals. The latter constituted a program for “the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger” by the year
2050 2015. The summit agreed that progress had been made, but (of course) that “more must be done”.
Anyone seriously concerned with poverty is well advised to pay no attention to pronouncement by or at the UN. Even less attention should be given to statements from the World Council of Churches, an organization that claims to speak in the name of Protestant and Orthodox churches throughout the world. The absence from the WCC of the Roman Catholic church and many if not most Evangelical churches somewhat diminishes its ecumenical claim, but this has not kept it from pronouncing with great self-confidence about every conceivable topic. Perhaps the location of the WCC in Geneva has been unfortunate. The moral arrogance of John Calvin and the putatively saintly republic he presided over in Geneva may still be exerting its influence. Be this as it may, since its founding in mid-twentieth century, the WCC has issued a stream of useless commentary on world affairs, after the 1960s strongly colored by the fashionable leftism of the Western intelligentsia. I have not followed the doings of the WCC in recent years. I have been told that its ideology has become somewhat moderated. The aforementioned news item makes me think that, as the French have it, “the heart is always on the left” (“le coeur est toujours a la gauche”) on the pretty shore of Lake Geneva.
Olav Fykse Tveit, the general secretary of the WCC, also contributed pearls of wisdom to the aforementioned summit. He opined that the attainment of the (aptly named) millenarian goals by
2050 2015 is “endangered”—unless there are “significant transformations in global economic frameworks.” One must wonder just what are these “transformations” supposed to be? Well, Tveit tells us: Governments should do more to address “the root causes of poverty” and to establish “an enabling international economic environment.” He who has ears, let him hear. I think I have the requisite ears, having listened to this rhetoric for more decades than I like to remember. Within that rhetoric, “root causes” means the exploitation of developing societies by an international capitalist system, by the ideology of “neo-liberalism,” and of course by the malignant power of American imperialism. As to the “enabling international economic environment,” this means some sort of world governance to curb the excesses of multinationals and to promote radical redistributionist policies in poor countries.
I have not interviewed Tveit and I have not read whatever he may have written. For all I know, he might deny that he intended the views I suspect him to have. But I do know his audience all too well—and that is how he will be understood. What is more, these are the views that the WCC has been proposing for a very long time, though they may have morphed from outright admiration of Maoism to some version of socialism-lite. This change is to be welcomed on humanitarian grounds—much fewer victims of state terrorism. But it is not much more helpful for the eradication of poverty than its bloodthirsty predecessor.
At the same UN summit David Beckman, head of Bread for the World (a Washington-based advocacy group) voiced optimism—“because hundreds of millions of people have escaped from extreme poverty in the last twenty years.” Yes indeed. But where has this happened? I think one can say with great confidence: It has happened in countries that have pursued market-oriented economic policies. To put the same proposition more starkly: It is capitalism which has enabled millions of people to escape from poverty. The wave of the new prosperity began in Japan, then spread to the so-called “four little tigers” (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore), then pushed into the wider region of Southeast Asia—all countries which acquired “neo-liberal” economic systems. More recently it has happened on a huge scale in China and in India, precisely since these countries adopted market-driven economic reforms (in the former case, paradoxically, by a regime that still calls itself Communist and that has a huge portrait of Mao hanging over the entrance to its government center).
The great drama of this century will be the rivalry between China and India in becoming the world’s leading economy—one under an authoritarian regime, the other a democracy. This story cannot be pursued right now. But the clear lesson for anyone interested in the eradication of poverty is that economic growth is the main force against poverty. Therefore the main task of governments in poor countries must be to develop policies that foster economic growth. This does not mean that governments should not have other tasks—among them policies to soften the impact of growth on those who do not at first benefit from it. If churches have anything to contribute to the great development debate, it should be to draw attention to the moral legitimacy both of policies that facilitate growth and of policies that seek to assist the losers in what Joseph Schumpeter called the “creative destruction” of the capitalist transformation. If churches cannot do this, it would be best if they kept quiet on these matters.