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‘Meeting goals on poverty requires faith bodies to act’

18 September 2015

world vision

Building: Kevin Jenkins meets children with special needs at an early childhood development centre in Myanmar

Building: Kevin Jenkins meets children with special needs at an early childhood development centre in Myanmar

AS GOALS go, ending extreme poverty everywhere within the next 15 years could be described as ambitious. It would mean lifting an estimated one billion people over the less-than-$1.25-a-day bar.

The president of World Vision International, Kevin Jenkins, believes that we do not talk enough about progress to date.

“The average person would have a view that a lot of money gets spent, but they are not sure it makes that much difference,” he said on Monday. “It’s not true. Extreme poverty has been cut in half in 15 years: from two billion going to bed hungry to 800 million. That’s way less.”

His contention is that meeting the next set of goals — ending extreme poverty is the first of the UN’s 15 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — will require faith bodies to do some heavy lifting.

“Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, said publicly in a meeting that I was in with faith leaders that he had convened, that we will not eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 if faith communities are not engaged,” he said. “For him to be so open about that — it does show a new era.”

Speaking days before world leaders meet at the UN to adopt the draft goals, Mr Jenkins called on faith leaders not to settle for a place “in the preface”.

“There is an element of flavour-of-the-month,” he said. “When deeply secular organisations talk about the importance of faith communities, they are mainly throwing a bone to Pew research showing that people say they connect to faith communities or respect faith leaders. So they say: ‘We need to engage the Church or broader faith communities.’ Of course, we think that is true, but we also believe in a much more holistic approach: that a whole person has physical and spiritual needs. If you are going to have sustainable transformation, there is a spiritual part to it.”

To that effect, he has written to faith leaders about the SDGs, urging them: “Let’s not just have faith be mentioned in the preface. Let’s get it integrated and show . . . the great power of bringing a spiritual element to our work.”

He has urged them, specifically, to join the Every Women Every Child movement, spearheaded by the secretary general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, arguing that they will be “essential” in reducing under-five’s and maternal deaths.

World Vision’s annual report contends that “resilience and impact have a spiritual dimension. Practical support is an important building block for children to thrive, but knowing they are loved ‘by God and neighbour’ takes . . . hope to a completely different level.”

Asked about when faith organisations are part of the problem, such as in opposing women’s education for example, Mr Jenkins said that he preferred to talk of “educating” rather than “challenging”, citing success in changing churches’ responses to HIV/AIDs from one of judgement to grace. Work is now under way to engage with churches and mosques who “press forward views on girls and women that do not sound like God values all people equally”.

Disagreement over what constitutes Kingdom values came close to home last year, when a change of policy in the US to permit employees’ entering same-sex marriages prompted 10,000 donors to cancel child sponsorship, and a U-turn within 48 hours (News, 28 March 2014).

“My main reflection is to stick with what we know about and don’t jump in on the most divisive issue,” he said. “It is just an issue that is a very challenging issue for the Church around the world . . . I am sure we lost some, but in general supporters have stuck with us.”

World Vision is the world’s largest international children’s charity. It has more than 45,000 staff in 100 countries, and an income of $2.8 billion last year. It has been heavily involved in responding to the Syrian crisis, helping more than two million affected people, providing water, sanitation, food, health, and safe spaces for children.

Natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal, can generate an outpouring overnight, whereas the UN’s appeal for Syria is currently only 37 per cent funded. When asked how aid agencies could continue to raise money for protracted crises with no end in sight, Mr Jenkins said: “I don’t believe that people get tired of being generous or charitable. The challenge is that, unfortunately, most donors are not strategic. . . Our job is to educate people, to turn their hearts to the biggest issues in the word. TV coverage is a bad proxy for human suffering.”

He quoted a fellow Canadian, the philosopher Marshall McLuhan — who coined the phrase “global village” in the 1960s — and the parable of the Good Samaritan: “We know that if something is happening to our physical neighbour, we cannot do enough. We drop everything. And in fact, in a very real way right now, it is coming home to Europeans that the Syrians who they ignored for the last four years are their neighbour because they just showed up.”

Aid agencies made the greatest difference, he said, among the most vulnerable, “who tend to under-participate significantly in the growth of economies. They can’t find their way in, and don’t naturally get included.”

As the giant of poverty is defeated, in part through economic growth, Mr Jenkins’s concern is that “we do not declare victory on average: that we go to where most vulnerable are. . . We need to persuade people that their neighbourhood is way bigger than they ever thought.”

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