Challenges on ‘World Day of the Poor’!

hunger
A mother holds her malnourished baby at a hospital in Baidoa, Somalia on September 3, 2022. (Photo: Ed Ram/Getty Images)

On 17 October 2022, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), released its annual Global Multidimensional Poverty Index(GMPI) report ‘Unpacking deprivation bundles to reduce multidimensional poverty’. The GMPI 2022 compares acute multidimensional poverty for 111 countries in developing regions. These countries are home to 6.1 billion people, three-quarters of the world’s population. Of these people, 1.2 billion (19.1%) are identified by the 2022 GMPI as multidimensionally poor.

The report, for the first time, dedicated a special section focusing on the 15-year trend of poverty in India. The revelation is that over the past 15 years, the number of poor people has declined by 415 million! However, India still has the highest number of poor people (almost 229 million) in the world. Besides, India hosts the highest number of poor children. 97 million children (21.8% of Indian children) are poor in the country. Children (under the age of 18) account for 50 percent of poor people in India. This means that one in every three children, lives in poverty. About 94 million people (8.1 percent) above the age of 60 are poor. The 2019-2021 data revealed that around 16.4 per cent of the Indian population is poor; of these,4.2 % live in extreme poverty since their deprivation score is above 50%. About 18.7% of the population is vulnerable and could be pushed into extreme poverty. Of these, two-thirds fall into the category where one person is at least deprived of nutrition.

All this, is not good news for India, which is headed by a regime which has mainstreamed corruption; helped their crony capitalist friends amass scandalous proportions of wealth at the cost of the poor; defocused from the plight of the poor by denigrating minorities and has cloaked itself with immunity by victimising all those who stand up for truth and justice. It is certainly not a compliment for the country, when in the ‘Human Development Report 2021-22- Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World’, by the UNDP, India is ranked 132 among 191 countries and territories on the 2021 Human Development Index (HDI). India’s ranking in Global Hunger Index 2022, also released in October, is now a pathetic 107 out of 121 countries!

It is this context, the reality which grips India and so much of the world today, that the Catholic Church observes on 13 November 2022, the sixth ‘World Day of the Poor’. Pope Francis in his powerful message for the day on the theme “For your sakes Christ became poor” (cf. 2 Cor 8:9), challenges not only Catholics but the entire world, to respond to the cries of the poor by addressing endemic issues and the structural causes of poverty! He sets the tone of his message in his opening para, “Jesus Christ… for your sakes became poor” (cf. 2 Cor 8:9). With these words, the Apostle Paul addresses the first Christians of Corinth in order to encourage their efforts to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters in need. The World Day of the Poor comes this year as a healthy challenge, helping us to reflect on our style of life and on the many forms of poverty all around us.”

Pope Francis addresses the global scenario including the current war in Ukraine. He strongly says, “here the situation is even more complex due to the direct intervention of a “superpower” aimed at imposing its own will in violation of the principle of the self-determination of peoples. Tragic scenarios are being reenacted and once more reciprocal extortionate demands made by a few potentates are stifling the voice of a humanity that cries out for peace”. Further adding, what great poverty is produced by the senselessness of war! Wherever we look, we can see how violence strikes those who are defenseless and vulnerable. We think of the deportation of thousands of persons, above all young boys and girls, in order to sever their roots and impose on them another identityMillions of women, children and elderly people are being forced to brave the danger of bombs just to find safety by seeking refuge as displaced persons in neighbouring countries. How many others remain in the war zones, living each day with fear and the lack of food, water, medical care and above all human affections? In these situations, reason is darkened and those who feel its effects are the countless ordinary people who end up being added to the already great numbers of those in need. How can we respond adequately to this situation, and to bring relief and peace to all these people in the grip of uncertainty and instability?

Pope Francis deals with critical issues which make the poor, poorer and the rich, richer. “We know that the issue is not money itself, for money is part of our daily life as individuals and our relationships in society. Rather, what we need to consider is the value that we put on money: it cannot become our absolute and chief purpose in life. Attachment to money prevents us from seeing everyday life with realism; it clouds our gaze and blinds us to the needs of others. Nothing worse could happen to a Christian and to a community than to be dazzled by the idol of wealth, which ends up chaining us to an ephemeral and bankrupt vision of life”. It is not surprising that according to the ‘World Inequality Report 2021, The top 1 per cent of Indians now own 33% of the country’s wealth compared to 31.7 per cent previously. The top 10 per cent own 64.6 per cent of the country’s wealth, up from 63.9 per cent. The share of the bottom 50 per cent now stands at 5.9 per cent, down from 6 per cent earlier. India stands out as a poor and one of the most unequal countries in the world with a small and very affluent elite. This is scandalous, a disgrace and totally unacceptable!

Pope Francis then hits out at the traditional ‘charity’, ‘benefactor’ top-down approach, which has been a very comfortable way of proceeding for many Christians and others. He calls it the “welfare mentality”. He insists on a rights-based approach saying, “no one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles… None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice” (Evangelii Gaudium, 201). There is an urgent need to find new solutions that can go beyond the approach of those social policies conceived as “a policy for the poor, but never with the poor and never of the poor, much less part of a project that brings people together” (Fratelli Tutti, 169).”

Pope Francis will certainly not endear himself to many of the rich and other vested interests when he says, “The poverty that kills is squalor, the daughter of injustice, exploitation, violence and the unjust distribution of resources. It is a hopeless and implacable poverty, imposed by the throwaway culture that offers neither future prospects nor avenues of escape. It is a squalor that not only reduces people to extreme material poverty, but also corrodes the spiritual dimension, which, albeit often overlooked, is nonetheless still there and still important. When the only law is the bottom line of profit at the end of the day, nothing holds us back from seeing others simply as objects to be exploited; other people are merely a means to an end. There no longer exist such things as a just salary or just working hours, and new forms of slavery emerge and entrap persons who lack alternatives and are forced to accept this toxic injustice simply to eke out a living. 

Reading Pope Francis message in its entirety certainly provides much food for thought, for prayer and reflection, for internalisation and action. In his final para, Pope Francis provides all authentic disciples of Jesus with an unequivocal direction “May this 2022 World Day of the Poor be for us a moment of grace. May it enable us to make a personal and communal examination of conscience and to ask ourselves whether the poverty of Jesus Christ is our faithful companion in life”.

Will we in the Church (others too!) – hierarchy, clergy, religious and laity, have the prophetic courage to take the challenges of Pope Francis seriously and ensure concrete implementation in the here and now?

(*Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer.    Contact: [email protected] )

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