Are the Rich to Blame for Poverty?

Missionary Discusses Causes of Underdevelopment

By Father Piero Gheddo
ROME, APRIL 26, 2009 ( The radical causes of poverty are not colonization, or the multi-nationals or the egoism of rich countries.
Although the rich of the world bear so much responsibility and culpability, they are not at the root of the poverty of poor peoples.

It makes me sad when I read in books and magazines not phrase “impoverished peoples” in the place of “poor peoples.” And the explanation given is that, prior to the encounter with Western colonization, for example, the African peoples and the Amazonian Indians lived a natural, happy, peaceful and community life. However, it is an ideological vision altogether contrary to the historical reality.
Suffice it to read the biographies of the first missionaries who came into contact with these peoples even before the colonial intervention. For example, PIME missionaries went to eastern Burma [now Myanmar] in 1868, and English colonization in those regions inhabited by tribal peoples — who lived in the Stone Age (iron was unknown to them) — began toward the end of the 19th century.
In fact, the missionaries wrote that the tribes were constantly at war among themselves, and described their life as inhumane, slightly above that of animals, in addition to being “impoverished.” The tribal peoples of Burma developed precisely through the action of the missionaries, who brought peace, taught them how to work and cultivate rice-fields — previously they were nomads — opened roads and schools, brought in modern medicine, studied their languages and compiled dictionaries, gathered proverbs and narratives from them and so on.
In 2001, the “non-globalists” coined an effective slogan for the Group of Eight meeting in Genoa: “We are rich because they are poor and they are poor because we are rich.” I always say that the poor are not helped by telling lies.

Akin to the other slogan: “Ten percent of the world population consumes 90% of the resources, and 90% of men consume only 10% of the available resources.” This must be corrected to read: “Ten percent of men produce and consume 90% of the resources, and 90% of men produce and consume 10% of the resources.”
The root of the problem is that first one must produce if one is to consume: One consumes if one produces, and in poor countries not enough is produced to maintain the rate of growth of the population.
Africa increased from 300 million inhabitants in 1960 to more than 800 million today, but basic agriculture is still to a large extent at the level of colonial times. Some “catastrophists” say that there are too many men to be able to surmount famine. It’s not true.

Japan, which has 342 inhabitants per square kilometer (Italy has 194), and has one of the highest densities of population in the world in a wholly mountainous country (only 19% of the territory is cultivable), and a difficult climate, is self-sufficient in the basic food it consumes, namely rice.
Famine does not come from too many men and women, but from the fact that they are not taught how to produce more, beyond the level of pure sustenance.
However, in the West this is not acknowledged because it calls into question our true responsibility, which is not just helping finance poor countries and paying a just price for their raw materials (this is also true, but it is not first and foremost). Our responsibility is to contribute to their education so they become self-sufficient, first of all in the production of food and then of all the rest.

The distance between the rich and the poor in the world is not above all an economic fact, but a cultural-political one. In Europe, after centuries of slow progress toward modern industry and agriculture, we have arrived at having the technology, the capacity, the entrepreneurial and work mentality (in addition to democracy and the free market) to produce. Whereas at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, many peoples of the global South passed from pre-history — that is, absence of written languages — to modernity in one century, with two World Wars in between!
In situations such as this, it is superfluous to say that they have great human values, that they are young, intelligent and affable, full of good will. Even I know these things very well, but the cultural leap from pre-history to the computer and airplanes can be absorbed in part by some individuals in the technical sense, but not in the cultural sense.
The popular masses use mobile phones and television, but the head, the habits, the customs of life, the underlying mentality have remained more or less in the past. Religious faiths and cultures cannot change rapidly; time is needed.

This is the story that I hear most often repeated by missionaries who live their life with poor people, something which is still not understood in the West and, what is more, there is no desire to admit it.
In December 2007 I was in Cameroon, one of the model countries of Africa south of the Sahara: large enough to contain Italy one and a half times, with 18 million inhabitants, politically stable, without wars or civil strife, with an acceptable form of democracy and liberty. Annual economic growth equals 2%-3% of GDP. Average income per capita is US$800 a year, when in many African countries it varies from US$100 to US$300 (Italy is just under US$30,000). Foreign debt is virtually nonexistent, a few tens of millions.
Fine, but the fact is that Cameroon produces little if anything in the industrial area. It has no real industry, only cement works, textile production and sugar, beer and cigarettes, ginning of cotton and little else. It imports almost all modern goods, including lamps and refrigerators, exporting natural riches (oil, various minerals, wood) and agricultural products. And economic growth without industry is not possible.
The second cancer of Cameroon is state corruption at the political and administrative level. In the list of the most corrupt countries of the world drawn up by the United Nations, Cameroon always places at the top; in 2007, in fact, it placed first. It is not the specific fault of this or that head of state or administrator; it is a custom that stems from the mentality: When one has power one must think first of all of one’s ethnic group, tribe, village and family.

It is a widespread cancer throughout Africa — and not just in the latter, of course — which very much halts development, because the aid and grants received from the United Nations or from other states ends up almost totally in the pockets of those who hold power.
And, I repeat, this is true for high-level government officials and administrators, the military, etc., but also for anyone who has some power over others. There are exceptions, of course, but the bad custom that everyone speaks about is this. These are the real roots of underdevelopment.
Development is not only a technical and economic event, but stems above all from culture, from education: It is the work of individuals and not of money, it comes from people and not from machines, it is born through education, which is, however, a long, patient process, not accomplished by emergency interventions, but by living together with a people.

We Westerners do very little for the education of poor peoples, and we never hear of the role of cultural and religious values that lead to development: It is a topic that is ignored by the mass media and the Western “experts” that favor economic and technical aid.
 [Translation by ZENIT]

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Father Piero Gheddo, is currently director of Mondo e Missione and of Italia Missionaria, and is the founder of AsiaNews. Since 1994, he is the director of PIME’s historical office and postulator of several causes of canonization. He teaches in PIME’s pre-theological seminary in Rome. He is the author of more than 70 books.

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