Historic religious gathering sees unique opportunity to end global poverty

September 13, 2005

A consultation of international religious leaders delivered a consensus statement to the United Nations on the eve of its 60th annual General Assembly in New York, reaffirming support for the Millennium Development Goals and calling for increased collaboration between churches and governments to augment their work for the poor.

The September 13 statement, titled "A Call to Partnership: Communiqué from the Consultation of Religious Leaders on Global Poverty," declared that "one-sixth of the world's people still fight daily for survival under the crushing burden of extreme poverty" and urged governments to take concrete steps towards creating a just society, building partnerships, promoting accountability and transparency, canceling debt, increasing development assistance, and supporting peace-building through security. [The full statement can be found online at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_65547_ENG_HTM.htm]

An interfaith service of music and prayer, held at Washington National Cathedral September 11, marked the beginning of the three-day Consultation and inaugurated the cathedral's Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation, headed by the former secretary general of the Anglican Communion, the Rev. Canon John L. Peterson.

"People have gathered for this service from around the globe and from different religious traditions," said the Very Rev. Samuel Lloyd, dean of the cathedral. "And they've come together for one purpose: to seek by the spirit of God to galvanize the nations of the earth to end the devastating poverty that besets a billion of our brothers and sisters across this planet."

A unique moment

Speaking at the service, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold described the U.N. meeting as a "unique moment" and one that gives people of faith a special mandate. "Now is a moment for people to come together across national boundaries and religious affiliations," he said, "to contemplate how the work of reconciliation can be lived out in our lives."

Introduced by Griswold, former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright said that when she served as the U.S.'s permanent representative to the U.N. nothing made her prouder than to sit behind a sign that read simply "United States." "Nothing disappoints me more now than to have that label attached to policies that fail to reflect the generosity and compassion of the American people," she said.

Albright also criticized the United States' proposed revisions to U.N. poverty-reduction strategies, suggested by John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in August.

A religious delegation that included Peterson and Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town met with U.N. deputy secretary general Madame Fréchette and Jean Ping, president of the general assembly, on September 13. "[Fréchette and Ping] were very responsive to the communiqué," Peterson said, "calling on the church to do everything they can to enable this to happen."

'A powerful message'

Alex Baumgarten, international policy analyst at the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations, accompanied the religious delegation to New York. "Particularly at a time when the U.S. government is urging the international community to back away from the Millennium Development Goals, this unprecedented unity of religious leaders sends a powerful message that the goals represent humanity's best option for ending the scandal of poverty in our time," he said.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special advisor to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, delivered a lecture at Washington National Cathedral prior to the interfaith service September 11. "The voices of the poor ... are telling us they want to survive," he said. "That they want their children to survive. That they want their children to be healthy enough and have enough food so that they can sit in a classroom ... rather than being trapped in a world of disease, despair and violence."

Three years ago, Annan asked Sachs to pull together a network of leading scientists and development practitioners from around the world to assess what could be done in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals. The results focused on issues such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, safe drinking water, urban slums, access to essential medicines, hunger, gender equity, schooling, the mobilization of science and technology, international trading system and environmental sustainability.

"What we found indisputably was that these goals are achievable, because in every area, whether it's feeding people in Africa, fighting malaria, helping people with AIDS to stay alive, there are practical, proven, low cost interventions that can accomplish the tasks," Sachs said.

Sachs, who visited 14 African countries this summer, explained that the U.S. government has not responded adequately to crises such as malaria.

"The amount we're spending for 750 million Africans struggling for survival .... is $3 billion total. That's 3 cents out of every $100 of our national income," Sachs said, noting that the U.S. government had previously committed to giving 0.7 percent of its gross national product as official development assistance in the Monterrey Consensus of March 2002.

"I think we have to act if our government will not," Sachs said. "We have to find ways to rise to this challenge, to make commitments and to take action."

On September 12, Sachs helped launch Millennium Promise, which "aims to be an open, broad partnership of like-minded people who say it's time for leadership through action." Details about Millennium Promise can be found online at: http://www.millenniumpromise.org.

At a September 13 news conference, Ndungane explained that there are a billion people who live on less than a dollar a day and 120 million children who can't go to school. "That is not only scandalous, it is immoral, it is evil," he said. "Therefore we have committed ourselves to being in strategic partnerships with various NGOs in seeking to end hunger. Our mobilization as faith communities and civil society would enable us to achieve this goal."