A Joyful Resolve: Transforming the Lives of the World's Poorest

As a Christian, I am happy to discuss my faith in relation to the great challenge of global hunger.  I believe Christ's command that we serve the poor is reason enough to struggle on behalf of those without enough to eat. But there is another powerful reason to extend the fight against hunger and extreme poverty. Very simply, we know great progress can be made, and this should inspire us to increase our efforts. 

I was nurtured as a Southern Baptist, and have taught Bible lessons throughout my life, including today at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, where my wife and I are deacons. Yet I long have believed that equally devout Christians could pursue different worship and organizational customs and still practice our faith in harmony.

All people of faith who take the Bible seriously - both the New Testament and the Hebrew text - very much agree that God's heart is with the poor and the vulnerable.  Jesus proclaimed at the beginning of his earthly ministry that he had come to "bring good news to the poor."  The Bible includes several thousand verses on the poor and on God's response to injustice. 

We Christians are acquainted, of course, with the familiar Biblical parables:  The outcast Lazarus, destitute, longing for crumbs from the rich man's table, and covered with sores - who is nonetheless embraced into the bosom of Abraham [Luke 16:19-31]. 

In the four gospels, we are reminded five times how Jesus fed the hungry crowd with loaves and fish.  And from Matthew, we receive an essential lesson from the Day of Judgment:

'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me.' 

God calls to all of us, rich and poor alike.  Recognizing the suffering of the poor, and the encumbrances of wealth, Jesus has said, "Come unto me all ye who are burdened and heavy laden, and I will refresh you."  In the Old Testament, in five short sentences from Isaiah, carefully joined together, God speaks to all: "I have chosen you!  I have called you by name! You are precious in my sight!  You are mine!  I love you!" 

In these and other ways, the Bible reveals how central the demand for justice for the poor and the oppressed is to the very nature of God.  When Jesus himself observed that "the poor will always be among us," it was not to excuse indifference to the poor, but to emphasize that our faith finds its full meaning only in the unceasing commitment to justice.

We live in a world of nearly seven billion people - more than two billion of whom are Christians, the greatest number of them living in the global South.  Thus in sprawling slums and isolated rural villages, one finds tens of millions of Christians among the world's poorest people. I point this out because, although every person is a child of God, sometimes we Christians with rich blessings forget that the struggle to help the world's poor also is an effort to improve the lives of our fellow Christians.  They number among the most vulnerable who suffer from hunger, disease, illiteracy.  They are among the one billion who go to bed hungry each night and who lack access to safe water. They, too, are denied the necessities and opportunities essential to shape productive, dignified lives.

But we must not confuse God's demand for justice with a simple call to charity. Tangible actions by individuals and global commitments by nations are required to secure justice and human rights for the least advantaged among us. And these commitments can reap results.

Ten years ago, leaders of 189 countries met at the United Nations to sign the Millennium Declaration, an unprecedented global agreement to take concrete steps to lift human beings above the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty and strengthen the foundations for development for all people by securing rights to education, food, and access to health care, among other basics. From that grew the Millennium Development Goals, or "MDGs" as they are known, including the important goal to halve hunger by 2015.

Since the goals were set, we have reduced the portion of the developing world's population living in extreme poverty. Those often burdened by hunger and malnutrition, from about half in 1990 to about one-quarter today.  Even in Africa, where the threat of food insecurity may be the most persistent, people have shown that when they are empowered with the right tools and knowledge, they can dramatically transform their own lives.

More than 24 years ago, through The Carter Center, I began working with the late Dr. Norman Borlaug on improving agriculture in 15 sub-Saharan African countries. At the time, famine ravaged the continent, and we focused on connecting local agronomists with farmers so that scientific advances could be brought to the fields more readily, farming techniques could be improved, and post-harvest practices could extend the reach of food. The end result has been more than 8 million small-scale farmers-all of whom live in countries at risk for famine or malnutrition-have doubled or even tripled their crop yields 

This is just one example of how some of the world's poorest people-with a comparatively small amount of help from their wealthy neighbors-are getting a better chance at meeting their most basic of human needs and realizing their true potential.

The Millennium Development Goals target poverty, hunger, and disease while encouraging universal primary education and fairness for women and girls.  They are backed by global consensus and have the strong support of all the world's major religious groups.   

Some have referred to the Millennium Development Goals as "a Marshall Plan for the world's poor."  Just as the Marshall Plan restored hope and opportunity to a war-shattered Europe after World War II, today the MDGs offer the same hope and opportunity to the least among us. 

The MDG program is achieving strong results.  The effort rests on knowledge we already possess, and relies on proven, effective implementation strategies.  In these ways, the goals represent a sharp break from failed development approaches of the past. 

You may ask, "How can I help?  How can I join my passion and energy with this amazing work?"  One effective step you can take is to express your support of the Millennium Development Goals in a short letter to your member of Congress.  A special Day1 website - Hunger.Day1.org - includes a sample letter and many resources.  You might also wish to visit the websites of organizations including EndPoverty2015, Bread for the World, and the Micah Challenge.  Share what you learn with family and friends....

In 2002, when I accepted the Nobel Peace Prize I ended my address with these words: "The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices.  God gives us the capacity for choice.  We can choose to alleviate suffering.  We can choose to work together for peace.  We can make these changes - and we must." 

When we confront the scale of human need and know that we have the tools to make a difference, our obligation to do justice is all the more clear.  We should feel a joyful resolve to press ahead.  I have never been more optimistic about our ability to lift up our brothers and sisters and to change the world at long last.



**_Peter Wallace:  Mr. President, how has your faith motivated your life of public service both as a politician and as a humanitarian?

President Carter:  Well, I don't really see any incompatibility between the principles of a democratic nation based on freedom and human rights and my own Christian faith.  I think the teachings of Christ, although they can't be applied directly to government, are basically the same principles that I've followed when I took the oath of office to uphold the constitution and laws of the United States, so there's no incompatibility.  Christ is the Prince of Peace and when I was President, I elevated keeping the peace to a top priority; and I think the principle of justice and the principle of honoring the rights of everyone equally and alleviating the plight of the poor and the disadvantaged and the suffering, all of those are principles of our nation and also principles of my faith.

Peter Wallace:  You and Mrs. Carter have traveled to more than 120 countries, including many of the very poorest.  What key lessons have you learned in relation to successful global development?

President Carter:  Well, it's not an accident that the countries that we visited have been mostly those where the people are poor and neglected and destitute and suffering or in need, because that's where we target our efforts at the Carter Center, and what I've learned I think more than I had ever known while I was in public office is the fact that the poorest of people, whom we tend to underestimate, are just as intelligent and just as hardworking and just as ambitious and have family values just as good as mine.  And if they're given a chance to improve their own lot in life, they respond with enthusiasm and with great effectiveness.  So I think the basic thing is, to summarize, that we underestimate the people that are already suffering and don't realize that if we just give them a chance they can overcome the causes of their suffering as much as possible on their own initiative just with a little help from outside.

Peter Wallace:  And what explains the very positive impacts of current development strategies in contrast to those of past generations?

President Carter:  One of the main attractive features of a new effort is that it's a global commitment.  Almost every nation on earth joined together in establishing the Millennium Development Goals, and this means that there's a concerted effort now with as much harmony as possible among the so-called donor groups and a better understanding of a genuine plight of the poorest people who are suffering and that we can more wisely provide the limited financial and other resources that we give to them in an effective way.

Peter Wallace:  Sometime as individuals we feel uncertain as to how to get involved in major undertakings such as the Carter Center's Global Health Efforts and the Millennium Development Goals.  How can an average person help truly make a difference?

President Carter:  Well, one way, obviously, is for us to contact our political leaders and just encourage them to elevate the alleviation of suffering around the world to a higher position of importance than would ordinarily be considered.  That's one way.  Another one is in our own local communities to find ways to devote our financial resources and our time to alleviate the plight of the poor.  In almost every community of a major nature in America, for instance, [there is a] Habitat for Humanity project going on.  We can help for a few hours or maybe for a few days each year just building a home in partnership with poor people.

Another one is to find some organization in which you have confidence.  The Carter Center would be just one of many, like World Hunger, or Catholic Relief Society, or Care, or The Red Cross even, and either devote time or give a financial contribution to those organizations that are already in existence and have proven that they are effective and that they use a financial contribution to a major degree [by] passing on the benefits of that contribution and not just for internal organizational costs.  So, in all these ways, I think that every American or [citizen of] any other country can do tangible things.  It just requires a willingness to devote our own time personally and our own financial resources to help others.

Peter Wallace:  You mentioned writing a letter to your member of Congress.  When you were President and Governor, what impact did the communication of your constituents have on you?

President Carter:  When I was in public office, the messages that I got from my constituents were a major consideration in my decision-making process.  Sometimes when there was a crisis when I was President, I might get thirty or forty thousand letters or messages just in one day on a matter of interest, and my staff would categorize the letters pro and con [regarding] a particular decision I had to make.  And I would pay close attention if there was a heavy dominance for one side or the other.  I would say the most effective letters, though, were the ones that didn't come from any outside influence -- like a prepared letter -- but [were] handwritten letters, for instance, that came from a human being who had a heartfelt interest in a particular subject that I might have inadvertently overlooked as a matter of importance.  And to get three or four of those letters, say, from diverse people in the United States concerning an unaddressed, previously ignored subject, would focus the attention of a President of the United States or the governor of a state on that.  And quite often, I would give a lot of attention to collective letters from a group of students in a high school or college or university.  It's not easy for twenty or thirty students on a campus to get together and say, 'I'm going to write the president of the United States and these are the matters concerning, say, higher education, that are very important to me,' so I paid particular attention to those kinds of messages that came to me.

Peter Wallace:  So we can make a difference?

President Carter:  Every person can make a difference, in particular in a democracy like ours.

Peter Wallace:  Mr. President, thank you very much.

President Carter:  It's a pleasure.  Thank you.  _**