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Current issue: Vol.1, No. 2 May 2001

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The rich are the real poor

By Fr. Renato Kizito Sesana

The world economy last year produced six times the wealth that it produced in 1950, twice the wealth of 1975. Should we then infer that the standard of living for the whole of the world's population has increased? No, is the categorical answer. And the reason is not that the world's population has also increased in the meantime, though in proportion much less than the increase in wealth. The basic reason is that wealth is increasingly being produced and consumed by a minority. Twenty percent of the world's population consumes 86 percent of the wealth, while 80 percent of the people are left to share in 14 percent of the wealth. More than one billion people are not able to satisfy their most basic human needs, such as getting enough food to eat.

In his January 1, 1999 message for the World Day of Peace, Pope John Paul II, after examining how the denial of some basic human rights is a major obstacle in building peace, delivered a long paragraph entitled “Global Progress in Solidarity.” In it, he says: “We urgently need a new vision of global progress in solidarity, so as to enable all people to realise their potential. An immediate and vigorous effort is needed to ensure that the greatest possible number of nations will be able to extricate themselves form a now intolerable situation.”

Solidarity is a word frequently used by preachers and social workers. It has a nice ring to it; it comes from the root of solid. Speaking of a nation or a society living in solidarity, we have both the idea that it is one body where people are responsible for each other, and also of strength, because unity builds strength.

Before appealing for a world living in solidarity, it would be good enough to have solidarity prevailing in our African societies.

But solidarity is not a solution that can be imposed. It implies free participation; it must come from the heart of individuals. We are in solidarity with members of our extended family without any imposition, because we have been educated to be part of it, and we have finally chosen it.

Also, solidarity that goes beyond the extended family – the clan, tribe, nation – can be developed only through a personal choice and a process of education.

Solidarity education

Education on how to build solidarity is important, but so far there are only scattered attempts to provide this education. Churches and religions, of course, should educate people about solidarity. In different ways, all religions teach respect for, and love of, others. Still, everybody does not accept religious language, and unfortunately all the implications of religious messages are not always understood. It is enough to think of what happened in Rwanda, where the majority of people involved in the 1994 genocide were Christians. Apparently, for many, their acceptance of the message of Christ did not teach them to overcome hatred.

How do we educate for building solidarity? We run the risk of writing a long list of good thoughts and lofty intentions. Instead, we should try to express solidarity in attitudes and gestures that are concrete and practical.

The first point could be: Learn to see.

Most of the time during the day, our eyes are open but we do not really see what is around us. For instance, we do not pay attention to things we see too often or routinely: the band of street children next to the bus stop; the cashier at the shopping centre who does not earn enough to feed her children; the too common heaps of garbage scattered around town. We might have even consciously decided not to speak or get involved with the refugees or displaced people who have come to stay not too far from us.

To learn to see means to look at all people and events around us with the intention of understanding those people and events. We want to be an aware, active part of the social life around us, and not only at an episodic or superficial level. We want to understand the causes of important social facts. These include why refugees live in Kenya, how the behaviour of tourists who come to visit us affect the society, and why there is animosity against certain classes of people. To see means to want to know the motivation of the other social actors. With empathy – which embraces understanding – and also without renouncing our critical judgement, we weigh facts and people in relation to our own beliefs and values. The world is one, but is composed of different people, institutions, and nations, with links and relationships that are not always so clear. In order to understand, I have to keep my eyes open and to make a positive effort to understand. This is the first step because solidarity can only be based on facts and concrete happenings, not on imagination.

The second step is: Learn to give.

Once I have a clear picture of society, I can then decide what more I can give to increase my solidarity with others. It could be my time, money, skills, affection, and even my life.

Whatever I decide to give, I must give in the right way. In fact, the choice of the right ways is as important as what I give. A way of giving that nails the others in a position of being a perpetual recipient is invalid and useless, because at the end of my giving I have changed nothing. My giving must always be a chance for the other to become independent, even if only in the distant future. A good trainer, be it a football coach or a political educator, aims at making the trainees better than himself or herself, able to stand on their own and eventually train others.

This step is where many fail. Parents do not make their children grow in responsibility; teachers do not trust the potential of their pupils; donors give only enough to keep recipients dependent without strength to grow on their own; leaders are not accountable, financially and otherwise, to their people. One day, these parents, teachers, donors, and leaders will complain that they have been let down by the people they have helped, but the mistake is theirs.

Then there is the most difficult step: Learn to receive.

True solidarity means to recognise that there are areas in which I must be ready to accept help from others. We are all equal partners in society, and nobody is above receiving from others. African proverbs give many examples of the foolishness of people who think they know it all and do not need any instruction or advise, therefore putting themselves in trouble and becoming the laughing stock of the village. Instead, in gratefully receiving from others all contributions, we recognise our humanity and the fact that we are not superior in any essential way to any other person. In the last instance, I should be able to understand that what I give becomes genuine and true only when I am able to receive in a spirit of simplicity what others have to offer.

The really poor

Only if my acts of solidarity go through these steps can they help the society around me to move towards true solidarity. A respectful analysis of the situation, and a careful search for the right means so that others will be on an equal footing with me and finally give their own contribution, are essential steps. Otherwise, we have a “solidarity” that is so only in name, because in reality, others are weighed under heavy emotional, organisational, or financial burdens of dependency.

This applies also to the request to cancel the international debt of the poor nations. If done in the wrong way, debt cancellation might become a gracious gift bestowed from on high to the poor. It must not be so; it must be a common decision taken by equal partners for the common good.

Solidarity involves respect for the dignity of the other person. Even more, it means to empower the other, to give to the other the possibility to show his or her true value. It means to break the stereotype of the other – the handicapped, the rival, the Luo, the Arab, the Indian, the pagan, the outcast – and discover that she or he is just another human being.

From this perspective, we understand then that to be economically poor is not the worst form of poverty. The real abject poverty is that of a person who chooses not to participate or contribute to the life of his/her community according to his/her possibilities. Maybe in this world the poorest are those strange 225 richest human beings that, according to often-repeated statistics, own more than four percent of the world's wealth. They as a group own enough to give the whole world's population access to basic social services – such as health care, education, and food. They have chosen not to do it. They are the really poor people; they are in need of our solidarity.

Renato Kizito Sesana is a Comboni Missionary. He has lived in Africa since 1977. At present he is in Nairobi, where he is involved in pastoral and social activities and teaches Journalism at Tangaza College.

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