IS THERE HOPE FOR AFRICA?

By Jim Jordal

"For every dollar that goes into sub-Sahara Africa as aid, $1.50 goes out for international debt payments."

From The Debt Threat, by Noreena Hertz, reported in News Bites, Sojourners Magazine, June, 2005.

"Rwanda had its $1.4 billion debt canceled in April [2005] by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank under the 'heavily indebted poor country" initiative. Up to 55 percent of Rwanda's 8.2 million people live on less than $1 a day."

From News Bites, Sojourners Magazine, July, 2005.

"The greatest tragedy of our time is that one-sixth of humanity is not even on the development ladder. A large number of the extreme poor are caught in a poverty trap, unable on their own to escape from extreme material deprivation. They are trapped by disease, physical isolation, climate stress, environmental degradation, and by extreme poverty itself. Even though life-saving solutions exist to increase their chances for survival--whether in the form of new farming techniques, or essential medicines, or bed nets that can limit the transmission of malaria--these families and their governments lack the financial means to make these crucial investments. The world's poor know about the development ladder: they are tantalized by images of affluence from halfway around the world. But they are not able to get a first foothold on the ladder, and so cannot even begin the climb out of poverty."

From The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs, 2005

With the recently concluded summit conference of the G-8 nations in Scotland, media attention again reveals desperate poverty and suffering in sub-Saharan Africa. Literally hundreds of relief organizations work tirelessly to alleviate disease and starvation in this part of the world, but with questionable success, as the disaster continues seemingly unabated. Reports differ due to the immensity of the problem, but most agree that perhaps 25,000 Africans die daily from disease, starvation, and the very act of being desperately poor.

For the first time in human history, enough wealth exists worldwide to solve the problem. In the year 2000, the United Nations and all 191 member nations, deeply concerned with the problem of desperate poverty (defined as personal income of less than a dollar per day, and affecting a billion people) proposed what we now know as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the aim of which, among other things, is to halve worldwide desperate poverty by the year 2015. Unfortunately, many of the poorest nations, most of them African, have utterly failed to meet even minimum MDGs, and remain mired in debt, poverty, sickness, oppression, and death.

Is there hope for Africa? Can anything be done to end desperate, debilitating poverty in sub-Saharan Africa? Can problems that have existed for hundreds of years, defying all attempts at remediation, now be solved in the next several decades?

According to increasing numbers of economists, the answer is "Yes, but only if major changes occur in both Western and African perceptions and behaviors." So, what needs to change?

One needed change is in the perception of Westerners concerning the problems of Africa. It's difficult to marshal aid for Africa when so many people believe Africa to be a hopeless cause. They perceive the rampant corruption and inefficiency presided over by brutal, despotic governments, and determine that whatever aid is offered will be lost in the maze of conflicting interests, tribal feuds, massive ignorance, run-away population growth, and endemic disease.

There is some truth in this perception, since it arises from certain well-documented cases involving desperately poor countries lacking even basic infrastructure and institutions of democracy; and pillaged by tyrannical, corrupt, military dictators. Who has not heard of foreign loans disappearing into secret Swiss bank accounts? Or food aid being seized by dictators to feed their hungry troops?

But there is another side to the story. Thievery and waste are only a small part of the trouble. Much worse is the fact that many poor nations are hundreds of miles from any seaport, lack any semblance of road and rail networks, and have few if any navigable rivers. High transportation costs thus necessitate that whatever food or goods they produce must be used locally. So there is no way other than local trade and commerce to gain significant family income.

In these poor nations perhaps half the people exist at the subsistence level, eating or using whatever they produce, never able to save or plan for the future. They are thus victims of what Jeffrey Sachs describes as "The Poverty Trap," meaning that they are "trapped by disease, physical isolation, climate stress, environmental degradation, and by extreme poverty itself." So they endure, generation after generation, at the same pitiful subsistence level, never able to reach the lowest rung of the ladder to success.

Is there any hope? Yes, there is, but only if the West can revamp its thinking concerning debilitating poverty, and if the poor nations of Africa can find it within themselves to use whatever debt relief and aid they get for the benefit of their poor people, and not to allow tyrants and political functionaries to siphon aid into foreign bank accounts. More next week.

By Jim Jordal

"…extreme poverty can be ended not in the time of our grandchildren, but in our time. The wealth of the rich world, the power of today's vast storehouses of knowledge, and the declining fraction of the world that needs help to escape from poverty all make the end of poverty a realistic possibility by the year 2025."

From The End of Poverty, by Jeffery Sachs, 2005

If the United Nations sponsored Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) proposing to halve desperate poverty (less than $1 per day personal income) by the year 2015 are to be achieved in Africa, there is no time to waste. During the next decade giant steps must be taken by the world's G-8 nations and other advanced economies to bring their financial support for Africa into line with their promised 0.7 percent of national income.

The United States today contributes about 0.14 percent of national income, or about one-fifth of our commitment. In that respect we rank near the bottom of developed nations in percentage of national income given to poverty-stricken countries. Actually, President Bush prides himself on having tripled our giving during his years in office, but the trouble is that we started from far too low a figure, so our total commitment still is minuscule compared to our great wealth.

But beyond the $50 billion recently pledged at the G-8 summit in Scotland, what possibilities exist that the Millennium Development Goals can be reached? According to University of Michigan Business School Professor C. K. Prahalad's 2005 book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, desperate poverty can be solved as multinational corporations (MNCs) realize there are fortunes to be made marketing to the approximately 4 billion people at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP). Their incomes are less than $2 per day, defining them as poor by any reasonable standard.

Professor Prahalad's reasoning is that up to now MNCs have overlooked this massive market due to erroneous beliefs that poor people do not need their products, cannot afford them, will not pay for technological innovations, and that anyway BOP markets are not critical to their profitability or growth. What they have failed to realize is that even though personal incomes are low in BOP countries, there are 4 to 5 billion potential consumers with total spending power rivaling that of the West.

Multinationals desiring to penetrate this vast market must realize that people at the BOP have little disposable income, existing literally from hand to mouth. They cannot travel far to make their purchases, and cannot obtain enough money to buy any quantity other than what they need daily. Therefore, businesses operating in this market must supply smaller, daily-use quantities packaged simply, and sold by local people in places close to consumers.

Obviously, MNC production and marketing strategies must change dramatically if they wish to succeed in BOP markets. The book mentions an example of cataract surgery, which would need to be priced at perhaps $50 (the surgery in the U. S. is as much as $3,000) if poor Africans were to avail themselves of the operation. But a company in India has become the world's largest provider of cataract surgery (200,000 operations yearly) at a price as low as $50, including hospitalization and care for any complications arising. And surprisingly, better than 60 percent of these patients receive free surgery, yet the company is very profitable.

Critics might claim that this Indian enterprise makes a profit because of substandard medical care or supplies. But their operations are at least as good as those in the West. Their profit arises from careful specialization and low-cost support services, plus the extra profits arising from handling so many cases. This is merely one example of hundreds of corporations making good profits while serving those at the BOP.

According to Professor Prahalad, persons at the BOP often pay the "Poverty Penalty," meaning that they pay far more for the same goods or services than do the rich. He cites vast differences between a poor town and a more prosperous one in India, regarding what people pay for certain goods and services. For example, the poor must obtain credit from moneylenders at 600 to 1,000 percent, while more prosperous people get credit at a bank for 12 to 18 percent. Eliminating this Poverty Penalty frees up vast purchasing power formerly wasted on excessive prices for goods and services.

The emerging microcredit movement is a direct result of the recognition by honest lenders that loaning small amounts for productive endeavors to the poorest people can make money. Again, prevailing logic would claim that such poor people would default on debts, thus killing their source of cheap credit. But their repayment rate is well above 90 percent, since they know that if they do not repay loans they will again become victims of moneylenders.

An example of what a little money used for a productive purpose can do appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes recently. It seems as if some organization contributed enough money to buy a high-producing milk goat for a poor woman in Africa. The result was that she sold the extra milk, gaining enough money to send her daughter to school, where she excelled sufficiently to earn a scholarship to a New England private prep school. She finally ended up in college in the U. S., all because of a milk goat worth a few dollars.

We could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. There is great hope for even the poorest Africans provided the West makes whatever changes are needed to develop this significant market. In fact, making poor people into entrepreneurs empowers them, provides a sense of purpose, and acts to reduce government regulation and even corruption. It's an idea whose time has come: defeating desperate poverty through local businesses operated by local people using cheap credit and intelligent production for available markets.

By Jim Jordal

And the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, for no one buys their merchandise anymore: merchandise of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet, every kind of citron wood, every kind of object of ivory, every kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble; and cinnamon and frankincense, wine and oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and bodies and souls of men….The merchants of these things, who became rich by her, will stand at a distance for fear of her torment, weeping and wailing, and saying, "alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls!" For in one hour such great riches came to nothing….Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God has avenged you on her!

Rev. 18:11-20 (NKJV)

Could the author of the above passage have been thinking of economic society today as he described a global commercial system valuing ostentation, profit, and wealth over human life and welfare? I think it highly possible. Today we see the twins of the apocalypse--automation and globalization--threatening to devour not only the earth, but most of its people. Based upon flawed concepts of private property and free enterprise, these terrible twins pillage nations, destroy cultures, rape environments, and debase virtually everything they touch. Political rulers bow before them; merchants worship them; financiers use them; churches ignore them--and we the people become their slaves. Enough! O Lord.

Working together, automation and globalization could provide the greatest deliverance in human history from the age-long curses of scarcity and backbreaking toil. Instead, they threaten to devastate the planet with unemployment, poverty, political unrest, and war. Their effect is universal, sweeping unimpeded across national boundaries, social classes, ideologies, and all human institutions. Previously, disasters were limited to certain geographical areas, affected only certain people, or lasted only for a relatively short time period. Not since the Deluge has anything so potentially destructive threatened the people of earth.

The philosophical underpinning of these twin terrors is the Western concept of private property coupled with the prevailing understanding of free enterprise. Our society views private property as exclusively ours to use, profit from, or destroy as we desire, with little thought or concern as to the effects of our actions upon others. Add to this the prevailing view that free enterprise entitles owners of productive factors (resources, labor, capital, management, and technology) to mercilessly exploit these factors in the drive for profits, and we have a recipe for economic and social disaster.

Arising from this economic malpractice is the modern rapacious multinational corporation, which now threatens society in ways never before experienced. These goliaths--many of whom have more power and wealth than many countries--manipulate truth, deny reality, exploit labor, crush the weak, subvert governments, despoil the environment, destroy indigenous cultures, and exhibit an utter lack of concern for the human and ecological despoliation resulting from their actions. That, friends, is the opposite of biblical love. It's total apathy concerning human welfare other than their own.

And why are automation and globalization not what advocates promise: saviors of economic society, producers of untold wealth for all, and harbingers of a new earthly utopia? These apocalyptic twins are not in themselves evil--actually they are gifts from God at the end of the age, meant to lift the Adamic curses of heavy toil and scarcity. In themselves they make eminently good economic sense. But evil arises from the greedy, arrogant, power-hungry motivations of the political and economic forces behind these movements. They view them, not as means for economic deliverance of the planet, but as opportunities for personal and group aggrandizement. Scripture considers such values violent, unjust, and oppressive.

So again we find human arrogance and greed perverting something God meant for a blessing. Actually, we shouldn't be surprised, because that's what happens when we substitute human wisdom for that of God. King Solomon of ancient Israel saw the age-old problem clearly when he lamented: "If you see the oppression of the poor, and violent perversion of justice and righteousness in a province, do not marvel at the matter…. Moreover the profit of the land is for all, even the king is served from the field (Ecc. 5:8-9, NKJV).

Were we to heed God’s definition of private property, we would view our possessions of land and other resources as a stewardship to be treasured, nurtured, conserved, and renewed. We would value people, not money, as true wealth, and would use our material assets for the benefit of all. Yes, there would still be widespread differentials in wealth--after all, not all humans are equally intelligent, industrious, or creative. But the extremes of wealth and poverty would be avoided, not by force of law, but because those of us "born on third base," so to speak, would understand that our welfare is tied dramatically to that of all people. We would understand that when the bell tolls, it tolls also for us.

If we heeded God's word, as we will when the Lord softens our hearts with His New Covenant (Heb. 8:10-13), then automation and gobalization could become, not curses upon the earth, but true blessings used to spread economic plenty throughout the earth.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright 1978, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

By Jim Jordal

Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out, when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, "Here I am."

Isaiah 58:6-9

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.

Prov. 14:34

In the first verse of Isaiah 58 God commands the prophet: "Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins." This is no soft admonition against what we euphemistically like to call poor judgment, misbehavior, or social pathology. This is a powerful cry against glaring, open sin. God tells Isaiah in effect: "There is a time for softness and reason, but not now. My people have grievously sinned, and I demand that you speak out clearly and forcefully to identify this sin."

The context is that Israel has fallen into apostasy and religious formalism by emphasizing fasting, or fleshly denial at the expense of obedience to God's word. They take delight in approaching God through sacrificial ritual, but cannot understand why God fails to notice how they have afflicted their souls in their misguided efforts to please Him. In other words, they deliberately disobey God, then attempt to curry His favor through fasting and sacrifice. But this is not to be.

Shades of today! We do almost anything as individuals, churches, and nations to gain God's favor, except the one thing God wants above all else--simple obedience to His commands. We celebrate holidays (holy days), conduct worship, give of our treasure, share our time, pray for everyone around the earth--but refuse to follow God's commands. Whether our lack of motivation to obey God's will is caused by ignorance, willful rebellion, selfishness, or what is open to discussion, but I prefer Jeremiah's explanation that the people are ignorant because their shepherds fail to clearly confront them with the word of God. For this omission, spiritual leaders stand under Divine censure.

So just what is it that God wants from His people and their nations? His simple command, evident in thousands of Bible verses, is that we do exactly as Isaiah urges: loose the bands of wickedness, undo heavy burdens, break every yoke, free the oppressed, share food with the hungry, bring those cast out to our house, cover the naked, and do not hide our resources from our own people.

Contrast these Divine demands with what America's leaders actually do. Rather than loosing the bands of wickedness, political leaders reward economic oppression and injustice. Consider our tax system, which becomes more regressive each year. Or minimum wage laws, which fall further and further behind the cost of living as time passes. Or employment markets that replace high-paying jobs lost to foreign competition with entry-level service jobs, and then have temerity enough to brag about the high rate of job creation. And worse yet, the more CEOs achieve efficiency by sqeezing the last drop of blood from a declining work force, the higher their political and economic rewards.

Instead of undoing the heavy burdens and breaking every yoke as demanded by God, we create additional and even more onerous financial barriers to success. What was the purpose of the recently redesigned federal bankruptcy code except to further burden those cast aside by progress and the American dream? What will the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) do except further impoverish already destitute farmers and workers in poor Central American countries? And what will the recent airline bankruptcies do except reward gross mismanagement and lack of foresight by many airline executives and further imperil airline workers?

And what of God's demand that we share our bread with the hungry, cover the naked, and bring the poor into our houses? We take pride in massive charity drives and generous disaster relief such as the recent tsunami aid. But in actuality U.S. foreign aid totals only a few hundredths of one percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), much lower than the promises made by political leaders. And homelessness and lack of affordable housing remain serious problems, not because we cannot deal with them, but because we will not.

If you are worried over the moral sickness seeming to pervade this land, please consider the last portion of the passage from Isaiah. In return for our obedience in delivering the helpless, God promises that our "light shall break forth like the morning," referring to a developing sense of national morality and righteous ethics that will become readily apparent to the world. The result will be healing for our wounded society, Divine blessing in our national life, and the ability to call effectively upon God for aid in facing whatever issues arise.

The true path to national greatness lies not in awesome military power, far-flung empire, or national economic wealth; but in obedience to the word of God. What must we endure before we learn this lesson?

Scripture from the New King James Version. Copyright 1978, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Economic logic often has no heart, since it is concerned with money, things, and situations rather than people. Read on to learn of an egregious example of such logic and its effect upon poor people and nations.