Three questions on development at the United Nations

by Rev. John Rausch, glmy
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

“No Poverty,” “Zero Hunger,” “Good Health and Well-Being,” “Quality Education”—these are a few of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals the United Nations ambitiously wants to achieve by 2030. Earlier this year, the 56th session of the U.N.’s Commission for Social Development convened to address the eradication of extreme poverty as a human right. Numerous non-governmental organizations shared information about best practices to promote sustainable development, and the Congregations of St. Joseph organized a side event to offer Catholic input to the Commission. I sat on that panel.

The three other panelists were clergy and religious representing Africa, India and the Philippines. Our task was to showcase success stories from impoverished communities that reflect hope for a fuller life. One panelist told about helping people living under lean-tos secure more adequate housing. Another described families making their livelihoods cooperatively through bee keeping. The third sketched the difficulties of dealing with multiple thousands of displaced people and refugees. My stories came from Appalachia where the sting of poverty can frequently be overlooked, covered up, or dismissed.

Rev. John Rausch, glmy at the UN (photo courtesy of Rev. John Rausch)

The panelists were asked three questions, and the first dealt with our motivation for eradicating poverty.

“As a person of faith,” I answered, “I recognize that Jesus associated with the downtrodden and those excluded in society. I am committed to a preferential option for the poor.”

As an economist, I know there exists enough material goods for everyone to live a decent life. “Enough in order to be more” is an ethical principle of development that says everyone has a right to enough food, clothing, shelter, education and health care in order to grow to one’s fullest potential.

“The reason people don’t have ‘enough’ is because political systems of maldistribution are based on greed,” I concluded.

The second question asked about key strategies for eliminating poverty. I applauded two previous panelists, because they described cooperatives and community organizations that gave their participants a voice, while teaching essential skills of leadership and group process. In my own work, cooperatives have been a great source of human development.

I described Appalachia as a mineral colony where outside corporations control the region, drain the profits from the area, and leave many people with no voice or choice living with pollution. Poverty in Appalachia does not mean starvation, but the lack of options, a shorter lifespan and psychic feelings of inferiority. The small community of Dayhoit in Harlan County, Kentucky, seldom sees anyone living past age 55. The incidents of cancer from pollution are astronomical.

The role of faith-based people in development must span two worlds. We need to support fledgling organizations of the oppressed like cooperatives, while challenging the hyper-consumption of the powerful. I use symbols like sowing wildflower seeds during a prayer ritual to spark a connection between a denuded mountain, consumption patterns, and the consequences for local folks and creation.

The final question asked for our advice in eradicating poverty.

“Eliminating poverty is so daunting,” I began. “Face the odds. It’s like we’re in a leaky canoe in a swift current with only tooth brushes for paddles. Headed over the falls, we raise our hands in prayer, then spot a low hanging branch that we grab for safety. The branch bends and we find ourselves on shore. We burst out laughing knowing we escaped disaster and God is smiling on us. My advice,” I ended, “in your work for justice, catch the next low hanging branch, and do it with a smile. Laughter is key to development work.”

Rev. John Rausch lives and works in Appalachia in the United States. He is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace.

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