Conferees: Aid Not a Cure-all for Poverty

“Populorum Progressio” Event Focuses on Development

By Carrie Gress

ROME, FEB. 29, 2008 ( When considering the problem of poverty, instead of looking at why people are poor, we should consider what creates wealth, said a participant in a Rome conference commemorating the encyclical “Populorum Progressio.”

Michael Miller, the director of programs for the Acton Institute, a Michigan and Rome-based think tank, affirmed this Thursday during a conference hosted by the institute, with the theme “Has International Development Failed the Poor?”

The event commemorated the 40th anniversary of the social encyclical “Populorum Progressio” issued by Pope Paul VI in 1967.

“Pope Paul VI was deeply moved by the harsh reality of poverty and ‘Populorum Progressio’ was a call for Catholics and all people of good will to commit their hearts, minds, skills and resources to help the poor. And that harsh reality of poverty remains with us,” Miller said. “The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto writing about the developing world, said: ‘It is teeming with entrepreneurs.’ And what we want to ask is how that entrepreneurial spirit can be unleashed so that the poorest of the poor can live lives that meet their dignity.”

Legionary of Christ Father Thomas Williams, author and CBS-TV commentator, said at the event: “Poverty is the natural state of man,” and therefore it is easy to see the causes of poverty. “It is the unnatural state of wealth that really needs to be investigated. Insufficient attention is given to the factors to bring this about.”

“The first of these is education,” said Father Williams. “An uneducated populace lacks the most fundamental tool for social and economic improvement. [Paul VI] states in the strongest of terms that ‘basic education is the first objective for any nation seeking to develop itself.’ He goes on to say: ‘Lack of education is as serious as lack of food; the illiterate is a starved spirit.'”

“Literacy is the ‘first and most basic tool for personal enrichment and social integration; and it is society’s most valuable tool for furthering development and economic progress,'” continued Father Williams, quoting “Populorum Progressio.” “Education and technology are not only a form of wealth in themselves, but, more importantly, guarantee the possibility of continued wealth creation for the people that possess them. Immaterial wealth has value precisely because it is a source of renewable wealth.”


In addition to education, Father Williams continued: “Paul offers praise for industrialization, along with the following list of virtues […] in the encyclical: ‘The introduction of industrialization, which is necessary for economic growth and human progress, is both a sign of development and a spur to it. By dint of intelligent thought and hard work, man gradually uncovers the hidden laws of nature and learns to make better use of natural resources. As he takes control over his way of life, he is stimulated to undertake new investigations and fresh discoveries, to take prudent risks and launch new ventures, to act responsibly and give of himself unselfishly.'”

Considering the question of aid to developing countries, Father Williams underlined: “Paul insists in no uncertain terms: ‘Advanced nations have a very heavy obligation to help the developing peoples.’ Yet, despite these repeated calls for solidarity and aid, [he] also recognized a key element of what would later be called ‘sustainable development.'”

“For sustainable development to occur,” Father Williams explained, “development must not be momentary, or tied to a single contingent cause, but stable and enduring. It must not depend on ongoing external intervention, but attain a certain self-sufficiency and interdependence. On repeated occasions, Paul insists on the need for the developing nations to take personal responsibility for their own development. He declares that ‘The peoples themselves have the prime responsibility for their own development.'”


Philip Booth, the editorial and program director at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, discussed how government to government aid has not proven itself to be an effective source of wealth creation in developing countries.

Booth said: “When ‘Populorum Progressio’ was written there was a broad consensus that the causes of poverty in the underdeveloped world were such that poverty could be relieved or alleviated by aid. There is now no such consensus about the theory and there is a great deal of empirical evidence about the lack of success of aid in promoting development.”

The problem with government aid, Booth explained, is “it is a top down process. On a fundamental level, aid rewards the governing elites in those countries where those elites keep their people poor. Aid also makes it more likely that incompetent, corrupt or brutal government will survive because aid provides the resources for governing elites to alleviate some of the internal problems caused by poor and unjust governments.”

Among his numerous examples of problems with this type of aid, Booth cited the example of a 2004 rural hospital program survey in Chad, where it was found that “only 1% of money intended to be spent on the projects actually reached the hospitals.” He added, “It is, therefore, not surprising, that 40% of Africa’s military spending is inadvertently financed by aid.”

“In fact, most of world that was underdeveloped at the time ‘Populorum Progressio’ was written are now, relatively speaking, developed, but it is extremely difficult to find evidence that aid was successful in that process of development.”

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