Ending Global Poverty


In 2000, international leaders, including President Clinton and Prime Minister Chrétien, gathered for the UN Millennium Summit to combat global poverty. They acknowledged what people of faith around the world have long known: In an age of unprecedented prosperity, there is no excuse for the ongoing plague of abject poverty. Together, the leaders sought to repair a world where more than 800 million people go hungry every day—300 million of them children; where more than 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water; and 2.6 billion live without decent sanitation. 1

Millennium Development Goals

As a first step, world leaders set a benchmark of halving global poverty by 2015 by laying out eight clearly measurable goals. These "Millennium Development Goals," endorsed by all 191 members of the United Nations, provide a clear plan to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease for all of God's children.

This visionary commitment to justice parallels Judaism's own commitment to tikkun olam. If there is one central principle of economic justice that dominates the 3,000 years of Jewish thought and communal practice, it is this: The moral test of any society is what its economic and social policies do for the most vulnerable of God's children—people who are poor, elderly, ill, widowed and orphaned; children and all others who are strangers in our midst. Our unprecedented prosperity means that, for the first time in human history, we have the collective ability to end global poverty.

Our Jewish values do not simply compel us to act to alleviate human suffering; they describe how to implement this call to economic justice. Maimonides taught that there are eight levels of tzedakah, each greater than the next, and the greatest level is to empower others through gifts, loans or partnerships in such a way that they become independent and are able to sustain themselves. We reaffirm now what we have taught for centuries: Sustainable and enduring interventions are necessary to end the cycle of poverty.

These values are manifest in the Millennium Development Goals. The first seven of the goals lay out the enduring interventions needed by 2015 to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and improve health. The eighth and last of the Millennium Development Goals lays out the responsibilities of developed countries to help developing countries meet these goals. It calls for more generous aid to countries committed to poverty reduction, debt cancellation for poor countries and more equitable trade rules. The United States and Canada have made repeated promises to increase the percentage of their Gross National Product (GNP) that they commit to development assistance. Specifically, the UN Earth Summit of 1992 and Monterrey Consensus of 2002 reaffirm this commitment to allocate 0.7 percent of GNP to development assistance. To meet its pledge, the United States will need to quadruple its current development assistance, while Canada will need to nearly triple its current funding.

Global Poverty and Health

The AIDS emergency is one of the worst health catastrophes in human history and is severely exacerbating the poverty crisis in many parts of the world. By 2004, more than 40 million people around the world had been infected with HIV, and nearly 30 million people had died from AIDS. Every day 14,000 people are newly infected and 8,500 people die. Tuberculosis and malaria, two deadly diseases in their own right, are responsible for more than half of all AIDS deaths in the developing world, and together AIDS, TB and malaria kill 6 million people every year. 2

Compounding the urgency of the situation are the secondary aspects of the AIDS crisis. By 2004, AIDS had killed or incapacitated 7 million agricultural workers across Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Americas, thereby putting 15 million people at risk of starvation in 2005. High rates of HIV/AIDS among teachers, law enforcement personnel, health care staff and other workers threaten the economic security and future of many countries in the developing world. Fourteen million children have lost at least one parent to the virus, dooming a second generation to poverty.

Global Poverty and Debt Relief

While increased funding is necessary to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, it is not enough. International debt continues to hamstring poor countries' efforts to invest in their populations. Even though some poor countries were granted 100 percent debt cancellation in 2005, other poor countries continue to spend billions in debt service payments. This cripples their ability to provide education, health care and other essential services to their impoverished populations. Moreover, debt relief is too often conditioned on economic policies that deepen poverty or degrade the environment, such as requiring user fees for health care or education. The United Nations has declared that full debt cancellation is necessary to free the resources needed by poor countries. Nonetheless, many experts point out that debt cancellation needs to be done in a manner that does not undermine the ability of the World Bank and other development banks to make loans to developing nations.

Furthermore, there is a growing call from coalitions within indebted countries for serious consideration of what is referred to as "odious debt." Debt is considered odious if a government used the loaned money to oppress its people or for inappropriate personal purposes, with the knowledge of the creditors. Many countries such as South Africa, Argentina, and Indonesia continue to pay billions of dollars in debt service on such odious debts. Currently, lending nations, which share culpability for such bad debts, serve as the only arbiters of odious debt claims, creating a clear conflict of interest. There needs to be an accountable and transparent international mechanism to evaluate and fairly adjudicate odious debt claims.

Global Poverty and Fair Trade Rules

Finally, fair trade rules are necessary to meet the Millennium Development Goals. More than half the world's population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods. Therefore, changes in agricultural trade policies affect billions of people. Current policies, which include billions of dollars in subsidies for farmers in developed countries, assure unequal trade. All 191 signatories of the Millennium Development Goals agree that an open, rules-based system of trade, where trade rules are applied to all countries equally, is necessary to alleviate poverty. Individuals can support fair trade goods, already available on the global market, by buying items such as food and clothing that are labeled "Fair Trade" and assure a fair wage and safe working environment for the producers.

Therefore, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

1. Endorse the Millennium Development Goals as a critical step toward ending global poverty;

2. Call on the governments of the United States and Canada to meet their commitments to the Millennium Development Goals, including:

a. Increasing funding for development assistance to 0.7 percent of GNP; and

b. Prioritizing development projects that are sustainable, have high levels of community participation and empower women;

3. Support efforts to address the global HIV/AIDS crisis by:

a. Recognizing President Bush for calling for dramatically increasing U.S. commitments to combating HIV/AIDS and urging him to fulfill those commitments;

b. Commending former Prime Minister Chrétien and Prime Minister Martin for expanding access to generic AIDS drugs; and

c. Calling on the United States and Canada to contribute generously, in proportion to their share of the world's wealth, to the global effort to combat AIDS, TB and malaria;

4. Urge the U.S. administration to support all scientifically proven means of disease prevention, including use of condoms;

5. Call on multinational corporations and their affiliated companies to provide to their employees and dependents immediate affordable access to AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria treatment;

6. Commend the United States and Canadian governments for their leadership in canceling 100 percent of the debts of 18 of the world's poorest nations;

7. Call on the U.S. and Canadian governments to continue debt negotiations with those poor countries that have accountable and responsible governments and that are burdened with high levels of human need and environmental distress until agreement is reached on 100 percent debt cancellation without harmful economic conditions attached;

8. Call for strict accountability and rigorous oversight of debt cancellation to eliminate fraudulent behavior by government officials and administrators responsible for the distribution of funds;

9. Support efforts to establish an accountable and transparent international mechanism that includes both lending and borrowing countries to evaluate and fairly adjudicate odious debt claims;

10. Urge the United States and Canada to strive to create a fair system of international trade that protects labor rights, access to essential medicines, local food production, environmental integrity, and the livelihoods of farmers, and that prioritizes poverty reduction for the most vulnerable members of society;

11. Encourage all arms of the Reform Movement and their members to utilize Fair Trade products and support the work of international relief organizations such as the American Jewish World Service, MAZON and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

[1] Fast Facts: The Faces of Poverty, The Millennium Project.