July 14, 2009

Drowning Girl

Source: The Washington Post

Saving a Drowning Girl


By Katherine Marshall

As the G8 meeting took place in Italy last week, three different voices spoke up on the same subject: the wide gap between promises made to address poverty and the realities on the ground. It's worth pausing to reflect on what these thoughtful people said.

The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof, borrowing an argument from Princeton professor Peter Singer, suggested that if the eight world leaders at the summit saw a girl drowning near their meeting they would surely jump in and save her, ruining their expensive suits. But a "psychic numbing" seems to take over when it is not one girl but millions of poor people. Why, he asked, do the dramatic facts about suffering meet such a bland response? What can we do to change the situation?

The great musician and humanist Bono appealed for a new view of Africa's problems as a positive, achievable challenge. His appeal was G8-linked but more geared to the spotlight moving to Africa for President Obama's historic visit. Bono's appeal for serious attention to Africa reminded me of his passionate admonition some years ago to a group of eminent religious leaders: "God is on his knees to you, begging you to get off your [backsides]..."

And Pope Benedict XVI issued a long awaited Encyclical about the state of the world, and the welfare of its people, Caritas et Veritate. This too coincided with the G8 and his meeting with Obama. He too sounded notes of warning: "The risk of our times is that the de facto interdependence of peoples and nations is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development." He called for thought, dialogue and action to address development. One of the more interesting passages noted that "Cooperation for development must not be concerned exclusively with the economic dimension: it offers a wonderful opportunity for encounter between cultures and peoples." And "In the search for solutions to the current economic crisis, development aid for poor countries must be considered a valid means of creating wealth for all."

These voices brought to mind Robert McNamara's words of almost 40 years ago when he was World Bank president. McNamara, who died last week, used every argument he could muster to achieve focus and action, not only on the sheer misery of poverty but also on the broader implications of inequalities in the world. He cautioned that inequality "would not, perhaps, be as socially and politically explosive as it in fact is, could it remain a well kept secret. For centuries stagnating societies and deprived people remained content with their lot because they were unaware that life was really any better elsewhere... Now, with the transistor radio and the television tube in remote corners of the world dramatizing the disparities in the quality of life, what was tolerable in the past provokes turbulence today." As the economic crisis hits with unequal force we should heed his warning that levels of anger are rising.

What links these four appeals is the force of the moral arguments they make. All echo a frustration about how hard it is to translate morality into action. Each in its own way argues that the huge gulf between rhetoric and reality is shameful and dangerous. With a religious fervor they ask us all to heed their call to change the situation, to save those drowning children.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.

By Katherine Marshall | July 13, 2009; 12:32 AM ET

| Category: Faith in Action
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