The halving of extreme poverty over the last two decades is one of the biggest success stories in recent human history. But chances are you haven’t heard about it.
A recent global study ‘Glocalities’, carried out by Dutch agency Motivaction, found that worldwide, only one-in-a-hundred people correctly identified that global poverty has actually halved. In Australia 90 per cent of people believe global poverty is as bad, or worse, than it’s ever been.
So why are we so oblivious? What’s behind the pessimism? Social media? An echo-chamber of bad news in a big world where we’re constantly bombarded by cries for help?
It’s hard to distinguish the wins from the losses when children still scavenge on mountains of refuse and people are blown apart by extremists.
But at UnitingWorld we see first-hand the positive impact of aid programs in places such as a north Bengali village, where freedom from poverty is far more than a statistic. We meet the children in school uniforms with smiles so wide their faces seem to crack. We stand beside mothers cradling babies who will live beyond five years of age. Fathers proudly show us irrigation schemes they plotted themselves.
This is the hard-won reality of more than a billion people rising from extreme poverty and those who speak of life made new. These are the voices of whole communities telling the greatest stories you’ve never heard.
So how did it all happen? There’s no doubt that a lot of poverty reduction is about economic growth, especially in Asia and across Africa.
Trade and the distribution of wealth have put food in the bellies and clean water in the communities of millions of people around the world. But the economy isn’t everything, and trade won’t reach those who have little to give. For another billion people holding out against changing climate, gender injustice and disability, life is wickedly difficult.
This is where the work of UnitingWorld in places such as South Sudan is so important. Dogged by war, these are the people who aren’t rising on the economic tide because the wounds of conflict are still bleeding. Travel inside the country is dangerous, petrol prices are sky-high and export prices for oil, on which the economy depends, are falling.
Rev Caleb is one of a handful of Christian leaders who has returned to the country to help rebuild. They are convinced that South Sudan’s best chance for the future lies in the creation of an enduring peace, and they’ll achieve it by caring for people’s spiritual as well as physical needs.
“This country cannot move forward unless we do the deep work of reconciliation and forgiveness, person to person, tribe to tribe, at the grassroots and at the political level,” Caleb said.
“We are re-training teachers and leaders, providing trauma counselling for women and children who are victims of war, helping families get the skills they need to earn a living. But none of this will succeed without peace as the foundation.”
The Uniting Church in Australia, through UnitingWorld and our partner the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan, is on the ground in South Sudan with a vision to care for the whole person – spiritual and physical. It’s a unique difference and one that Rev Caleb and other Christian leaders believe is the key to the country’s future.
This vision for the whole person is echoed in the work of our partner in China, where economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty over the last two decades. However, those left behind are living in desperate circumstances in rural areas as rapid urbanisation takes place. They include the elderly, the orphaned and those with disabilities.
But as Christianity grows at an astonishing pace across China, it has care for these groups firmly on the agenda. This is Christianity changing lives told in stories that cherish the Christ who transforms and touches every part of life.
“Christmas is about God taking on flesh to meet people at every point of need,” Sureka Goringe, associate director of UnitingWorld, said.
“When we support our friends in Asia, Africa and the Pacific, we’re supporting local churches who intimately know their communities. They build on their strengths to give them the tools to live with dignity and hope – from education and economic development to relationship with God and others. This is about investing in a whole person’s life.”
There are limitations, but the reduction of poverty is making better progress worldwide than most of us have dared to dream. And the knowledge that through partnerships, we’re also part of filling lives with the richness of grace and meaning is without doubt one of the greatest stories you’ll ever hear.
The Uniting Church’s ‘Everything in Common’ gift catalogue helps you give gifts that make the world of difference to lives in need of peace, hope and love.