Several months ago, Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, spoke at a news conference in Washington, D.C. Holding up a scrap of paper with a number scribbled on it, he announced, “This is it. This is the global target to end poverty.”
The number written on the paper? 2030.
But so what, right? World leaders have been making empty predictions about ending poverty for years. Lyndon B. Johnson famously stated in 1964, “for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.”
Almost 50 years later, we’re still working on Johnson’s prediction, but we’re hopeful. Recent articles in The New York Times , Business Week and The Economist have fueled the discussion about the reality of ending extreme poverty in our lifetime.
Many of the world’s leading development scholars agree that we can indeed end extreme poverty throughout the world within the next 20 years. In fact, this may be the most widely held consensus in the field of development economics.
But it seems there is something missing in the recent discussion about the fight against global poverty: Christian voices.
Those who have been the most prominent members of generating this optimism are individuals who work for secular organizations and institutions.
There is painful irony in the all-too-real generalization that agnostic and atheist development scholars spread more hope for the poor than many Christians. Today’s Christians ought to be at the forefront of the eradication of extreme poverty, leading the way and bearing witness to hope—hope not only in life after death but also in a fulfilling and purposeful life before death.
Origins of Optimism
The holistic, real and perhaps Christian definition of poverty is complex, dynamic, multidimensional and very challenging to work with.
In simple economic terms, an individual lives in poverty if they live on less than $2 a day. Extreme poverty sets the threshold at $1.25 per day. Economists frame these expenditure levels in purchasing power parity, which takes into account the differences in prices across different countries of the world.
For example, in Zambia, the average person living on less than $1.25 per day might be able to scrape together a meal, but would have just pennies left over to spend on transportation, housing and education. This person would also likely have no access to running water or electricity in their home.
This is the definition that much of the world uses when discussing extreme poverty.
Needless to say, lifting all human beings above this level of existence is a meager goal, but a goal we have struggled to accomplish until recently.
In 1990, 43 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty, by 2010 that number had halved. This is an outstanding success! But can this number really become zero by 2030?
Many experts point to two positive trends when answering this question.
First, developing countries are trading with each other more rather than simply with other, more developed countries. This creates more independence for developing countries and less vulnerability to economic shocks in richer economies.
Second, economic opportunity is knocking as the working-age population in developing countries begins to outnumber the non-working dependent children population. Decreases in birth rates have transformed population growth from a curse to an opportunity.
But don’t become blinded by this optimism. There are serious challenges ahead if the world will succeed in further decreasing the number of people living in extreme poverty.
Much of the reduction in extreme poverty in recent years has been due to economic growth in countries such as China and India. As a large number of poor people in these countries continue to be pulled out of poverty, the geography of poverty will be transformed.
In the next 20 years, the majority of the world’s poor will reside in much more abject settings of poverty. In war-torn countries with corrupt governments and fractured societies, for example. Much effort and coordination will be needed to reach these people.
The bottom line: We have the ability to lift the last 21 percent of human beings out of extreme poverty but it will require new technologies, innovative policies and increased effort.
The Crucial Voice
It is here that the missing voices of Christian leaders in the fight against global poverty are stark and salient.
There is rich ecumenical Christian tradition that points to life as being fundamentally deeper than the material and earthly. Life is more about how we use these material possessions and whom we spend them with.
Alleviating poverty is an area where the beautiful and robust nature of the whole Gospel can be put into practice.
As unprecedented numbers of people worldwide are achieving material existence beyond mere subsistence and grinding poverty, the need for the whole Gospel to be preached through both word and deed is perhaps more significant than ever.
There are huge gaps of work to be filled by Christians. Along with helping provide access to clean water, effective education and just markets, Christians can contribute to the discipleship of individuals and families, joining in the fulfilling work of building the Kingdom.
Where do we start? Read books and articles to learn more about the challenges and realities of life for those living in extreme poverty. Join or start conversations with your friends about what your community can do. If you are still attending school, take classes that enhance your understanding of poverty and development. If you are out of school and working, find people and organizations to partner with both financially and socially.
We need Christians to work at every level of poverty reduction, from the policy level to the grassroots level to the greeters at the entrance of our churches.
An unprecedented global effort is needed to fulfill the optimistic predictions of development economists. Everyone is going to need do their part and fulfill their role.
For Christians, our role is specifically vague. Specific due to the clear call to action and vague due to the endless ways God may use us in achieving His good purpose.