Monday, April 10, 2006

The Millennium Development Goals

The other day one of our deputies to General Convention wrote to several of us, "There will be a great deal of pressure on us... to support the MDGs. In principle it is difficult for Christians to be against such lofty goals." The email then raised several concerns that this particular deputy had, asking for insight from this little group.

If you don't know or don't remember what the Millennium Development Goals are they are as follows:

1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Develop a global partnership for development

The goals were established within the context of the United Nations in 2000, and have resulted in unprecedented efforts by many governments and groupings around the world to respond to these international needs and challenges.

Just glancing at them, they are hard to gainsay, especially for citizens of God's Kingdom. Having worked in global ministry until relatively recently and done a lot of traveling around the world as a result, I can from experience and observation say that each one of these targets is vital for the health and future of humanity. So, in many respects this should be a no-brainer for believers.

It seems that the problem with the MDGs comes in the unpacking and the application of them. As a Christian who has the privilege of a roof over my head, food on my table, adequate healthcare and access to education, then I have the obligation laid upon me by the compassion of Christ to take seriously the wants and needs of those who have few of these blessings -- which is a huge slice of the world's population. The conversation that Jesus had with his disciples which is recorded in Matthew 25:1ff makes clear the obligation of the agape (love) to which we are bound as the greatly blessed followers of the Lamb of God.

Yet the question is just how we are going to attack even the small sliver of these goals of which we are capable. This seems to be one of the places where we come apart because the bodies engaged in this task that some trust others do not. In response to this question about the MDGs were responses, for example, that denigrated the United Nations or praised it. (BTW, I think there is a different perception of the UN among those of us who come from smaller, weaker nations, than that held by so many Americans, citizens of the most powerful nation in the world). There are also very mixed feelings about the Christian and church agencies that might involve themselves in this work.

Having worked internationally, as well as being concerned about those we support who are able to put boots on the ground, food in bellies, and schoolbooks on desks, there is also the huge issue of accountability. After having been misled by even the most godly people, when I was working with Global South dioceses and in Russia, it became my practice when visiting somewhere that might be the recipient of resources to ask to see the accountant. I would also try to discover the network of interrelationships among those who would administer work at the receiving end, for in some places those with a job have a primary obligation to family, clan, or tribe.

The reason for this carefulness was simple: it did not matter how good people's theology might be, or how much they said they loved the Lord Jesus, money and resources going into so many places where they were a scarce commodity would too often get channelled off into other pockets or to meet other needs than those being funded. We might tut, tut, over this, but quite honestly it happens in the developed world as has been seen from some of the scandals that have surrounded certain significant philanthropies. Those of us called to administer funds and resources not only have a responsibility to the recipients, but also to the donors.

So, when trying to assess things like the Millennium Development Goals there are a whole series of questions that need to be asked and answered. Not only if these are appropriate goals for Christians to put their weight behind, but also how we are to approach the challenge, which challenges we are going to take on for ourselves, who is going to administer the work we commit to undertaking, and who is going to be accountable for the right use of funds and resources at every stage of the process. There are more questions, but these are a good starting point.

A further concern has to be what will happen to monies that might released for other work as a result of donations from the rich world, especially if one of the key partners is the government of a nation. If, for example, we put funding that might help with the area of public elementary education, will the government then withdraw funding from there and use it to help buy the president a jet or add another armored vehicle to that country's army? And if this happens, would this be a good thing or a bad thing?

Which brings us back to the goals themselves. In principle they all look pretty good to me, but the way I might interpret them, given my biblical Christian worldview and presuppositions, might be very different from the way that a secular body would interpret them. For example, having seen child mortality at first hand in needy countries, I am deeply moved by the reality behind simple song we all learned that "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world..." This means feeding, clothing, medicating, and educating must be on the front burner, but how do we relate to those for whom challenging child mortality means preventing the birth of "unwanted" children by means of abortion?

Since being asked this far-reaching question I have found myself trying to frame my own personal response to the Millennium Development Goals, which I have not had to this point. I have concluded that they are in principle a valuable tool to use to measure our involvement with the needs of the world, and that we as Christians will be failing in our discipleship if we do not support them. However, I would further suggest that there should then be a multiplicity of ways of responding creatively to them in our policy-making, giving, and involvement.

First, passing ecclesiastical legislative affirmations of them is cheap and easy, and is something American mainline Christians love to do, but developing a trusted partnership in the Global South requires a lot more effort -- and then the willingness to back that effort with years and years of support and follow through. We are even worse at that.

For a number of years now, my wife has worked with a particular Sudanese refugee camp in northern Uganda providing scholarships in an elementary school that is run by one of the Sudanese dioceses. Each year seventy or more students, primarily girls, have had their needs covered by parishes and individuals in the Diocese of Tennessee. This isn't big, but it makes a huge difference that could be amplified over the years as Southern Sudan settles down to nation building. I like such hands-on micro-partnerships very much because there is a relationship that does good and by its very nature demands accountability.

But there is a component of these goals that I have not looked at yet, and that is to "ensure environmental sustainability." This one comes home to each of us and our lifestyles. Those of us in the developed world, however responsible we seek to be, are the most profligate in the use of the world's resources. This is having its impact on the climate globally, which is surely going to lead to a lot of tears as a relatively short period of time passes. When the environment is handled irresponsibly, the poor and needy are almost always the first to be hurt.

This requires each of us to look at the way we live, the way we do transportation, the way we do church, the way we educate our children, and so forth, to ask some pretty fundamental questions, and then to act upon them. It may be politically correct to trumpet the value of the MDGs from the housetops, but are we prepared to take these goals into our own houses and start asking what the real implication is for ourselves and the way we manage our lives? This is where the rubber really does hit the road.

There is a lot to be dealt with in a question like the one that was asked by our deputy, and I am grateful to have been asked it. I do not know how adequate my responses are, but I would hope they are a springboard from which those who are brighter, more intelligent, and more dynamic than myself might launch themselves.


Anonymous said...

MDG's; lets see, we've exported most of our manufacturing jobs overseas, also most of our technical advice has been outsourced to India and other Far East countries. We import most of our clothing, TV's, Computers, Cell Phones,I Pods, and a great deal of our specialty food. Our children avoid scientific education so we now graduate more foreign students than our own. You know what, we have fullfilled a great deal of the MDG's. Futher our churches have become so hertical we are now the principal target for missionary work by the global south Christianity that is booming.

Anonymous said...

"Those of us in the developed world, however responsible we seek to be, are the most profligate in the use of the world's resources. This is having its impact on the climate globally"

Agreed.. but what is the impact?

If it's 90% we NEED to act.

If it's 0.00001% such precipitous action is not only useless, but uselessly harmful.

Until we can quantify the result of of the use of resources (by anyone)
we're shooting in the dark, and following anyone's "curative" does nothing but feed their ego (and maybe pocketbook), possibly at the expense of human lives.

t19elves said...

Greetings Richard. Just thought you might be interested to know that the MDGs are the subject of a lively comment tread on Titusonenine, and someone has linked this blog post there.

Just wanted to give you a heads up in case you're interested in chiming in.