Leaders say interfaith effort to end global poverty growing

SAN FRANCISCO – Eliminating much of the world’s worst poverty within a decade would become a principle of U.S. foreign policy for the first time under a Catholic-led legislative push gathering force with a growing interfaith alliance.

Nearly 40 representatives from Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths as well as the Shinto and Wiccan religions, met at the University of San Francisco Feb. 20 in an effort to broaden the ranks of members of faith communities involved in the campaign.

Leaders said they are trying to build the campaign to full strength by May to push the U.S. Senate to pass the Global Poverty Act of 2007 this summer. The U.S. House passed the bill Sept. 25.

The meeting was organized by the Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought at the Jesuit-run University San Francisco. It was hosted by Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco; Jesuit Father Stephen Privett, the university’s president; and Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus of California.

The bill, if signed into law, would require the president to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to promote the elimination of global poverty as a foreign policy goal.

Backers say it would combine the nation’s 15 piecemeal and sometimes contradictory international poverty relief programs into one program built on the ethic of relieving the worst human suffering caused by lack of access to proper nutrition, clean water, health care and adequate income.

“This would make poverty and hunger the lens through which foreign policy is being made,” said David Gist, legislative advocate for Bread for the World, a Christian citizens’ anti-hunger lobby.

In a presentation to the group, Gist said the reforms would give U.S. anti-poverty policy new focus and more funding as well as more accountability. The bill would require the secretary of state to report to Congress within a year on the progress made on eight health care and economic objectives.

Gist said the added accountability would help prevent policy mistakes, citing as an example U.S. subsidies for domestic cotton growers, which he said cost the economy of the West African nation of Mali $43 million in 2001; that is $7 million less than the United States spent on relief there that year.

The legislation also would commit the United States to a role in meeting the U.N. Millennium Development Goals set by 180 members of the world body in 2000.

Those goals call for developed nations to invest more wealth in improving the lives of the world’s poor by 2015. They include reducing by half the billion-plus people who live on less than $1 a day; cutting in half the proportion of people suffering from hunger and lacking access to safe drinking water and sanitation; and reducing child mortality by two-thirds.

Growing frustration that the goals would not be met without urgent reforms in U.S. trade and foreign policy led the Archdiocese of San Francisco and other Catholic organizations to mobilize the Catholic faithful on the issue in 2006. Two conferences in the last two years have been held in San Francisco; last year’s conference set legislative goals.

Archbishop Niederauer and George Wesolek, director of the archdiocesan Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns, met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Jan. 7 and asked her to co-sponsor the bill, Wesolek said.

Two weeks later, Feinstein wrote Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to urge his support for increasing the foreign aid budget by 5 percent a year leading up to 2015. In the first year, the increase would translate to an additional $1.8 billion.

Efforts are under way to line up Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and other senators as additional co-sponsors, and an interfaith delegation is being organized to meet with Leahy in Washington.

The delegation will be led by Archbishop Niederauer, Father Privett and Bishop Andrus, and it will include 10 other faith representatives.

“One of the things we find positive in this campaign is that it really is a bipartisan issue,” Wesolek told Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper. “It cuts across party lines, but it also cuts across other kinds of party lines, like conservative and liberal.”

Wesolek predicted the measure will pass and President George W. Bush will sign it, noting the president’s record on aid to Africa.

Faith leaders said the success of the campaign since 2006 is because of constituents’ pressure on lawmakers. Wesolek said Catholic constituents played a crucial role in House passage of its version of the global poverty bill.

Participants at the University San Francisco meeting predicted the pressure on lawmakers will grow broader and more intense.

“One of the strengths we have is that now we’re getting together and organizing enough where we can hold them accountable,” said Sarah Nolan, an organizer with the San Francisco Organizing Project and a member of St. Kevin Parish in San Francisco.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.