Response to the June JLE on “The Shock Doctrine”

[1] Kudos to the JLE and July authors who responded to The Shock Doctrine.

[2] When I first arrived at Bread for the World in 1978, the commonly held wisdom was that the cause of hunger was poverty. Simply stated, “If people had money or other resources (e.g. arable land) they would feed themselves.” As the Chinese saying goes “A person who has food has many problems, but the person who has no food has only one.” There was no doubting the policy priority of hunger over such popular issues as homelessness, HIV/AIDS or the environment. (Later, I would learn to think of hunger as a gateway issue, intrinsically intertwined with other related policies.)

[2] If poverty was the problem, then the advocacy strategy was to support programs that reduced poverty, such WIC, food stamps, raising the minimum wage, and funding for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). It was mind boggling to learn that so much effort had to go into getting increases in funding for such a noncontroversial and successful program as WIC. It took everything Bread and related interest groups could muster to effect changes on the margins. This political stuff was much more daunting than it had looked from the hallways of a seminary in Texas.

[3] The hunger/poverty community said that the reason the world was not achieving obvious goals was “lack of political will,” where that typically meant getting Congress and the Administration to do the right thing.

[4] We then asked: “If people are hungry because they are poor, why are they poor in a world of such great and growing affluence?” The initial answer was that they were poor because they were relatively powerless, and that money is, among other things, a form of power. Power is the ability to act, and the more financial resources you have, the more things you can do. If poverty is the sole issue, then continuously providing resources could imaginably solve the problem. But economic paternalism can be disempowering. So, poverty reduction policies needed to think not only in terms of aid but of domestic and international development strategies that empower. Stewart Herman’s closing comment was on track.

[5] The notion of empowerment as a policy goal was not new in U.S. public policy and could be traced at least as far back (not to mention “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.” Who? “We the People.”) as the War on Poverty with its requirement for participation of local citizens in shaping policies that affected their communities.

[6] The next obvious question was “Why are people so powerless?” and the answers to that were as legion as to why they were poor. A reasonable case can be made that underneath power questions, there are questions of existential values. Not value theory. Not lists of values, but those core commitments that people hold in their hearts and live out in their lives.

[7] It is still true that a child dies every six seconds of a hunger-related (some say poverty-related) illness. If we truly value human life, we would do the things that eliminate needless deaths and the deliberations of ethicists around private and public strategies to assure this result would be a first priority.

[8] While religious institutions have had a mixed and sometimes troubled relationship with politics, religious traditions have values and ethics as their step-sisters on one side and esthetics on the other. Religious institutions often avoided, or even argued against, political involvement (except in cases where it affected such policies as tax breaks for clergy housing). But, they cannot avoid discussion, even promulgation, of ethical views.

[9] Underneath questions of power are questions of value and it is here that we in religious institutions, with our ethicists at the forefront, should be contributing to a dialogue on macro policies such as is represented in the recent JLE.

[10] Early in my days at Bread, with all appropriate naiveté, I sent membership brochures to more than 100 SCE ethicists who were not listed on the BFW membership database. Surely, support for hunger and poverty policies were a slam dunk request and I viewed the 100 as merely a first tranche. The only person who filled out and returned the brochure with a check was a highly visible Lutheran ethicist. Some members of the SCE, were already BFW members, but not so many as one might think.

[11] It was not clear that either hunger or political will attracted the interest of a large number of members of the American Academy of Religion or the Society for Biblical Literature either, though more likely the latter than the former. There were always a few, including some with high visibility, who plunged into the muck of economic and political analysis. But, for the most part, professional meetings were dominated by issues marginal to the world’s neediest people.

[12] Hunger, poverty and powerlessness simply weren’t very appealing. Or, maybe they were too hard and we hadn’t been trained in graduate school to deal with the complexities of the IMF and The World Bank much beyond broad affirmations or criticisms. Or, for many other reasons, including the topic-setting power internal to disciplines, or the even stronger pull of middle class dailiness, significantly different than that recounted two weeks ago by a Nigerian student who said that back home, every night when she went to bed she had to fear that unknown persons might assault, rob or kill her before morning.

[13] As for the Bank and the Fund, when Art Simon retired (though he has continued to serve in a variety of ways), and David Beckmann was hired away from The World Bank to be the new President of BFW, some staff joked darkly that Beckmann would turn the organization into “Bread for the World Bank.” Many staff were adamantly opposed to the structural adjustment policies, and the director of BFW’s Institute resigned in protest. Over the ensuing years, changes occurred at the Bank and BFW staff moved toward more common ground, while maintaining enough differences of opinion to sustain a healthy internal dialogue.

[14] Within the development community, some argued that Bank and Fund policies were helping. Most argued that they made things worse. One person would cite relative success in one country while another would point out abject failure in another. It felt like those arguments where it is your Bible verses versus mine on some controversial issue. I got grew weary of hearing about the Narmada Dam and would ask the critics if they had ever talked to any staff at the Bank to get their point of view.

[15] Over time, the Bank did self-studies and admitted that many/most of its projects had failed. The critics said “I told you so,” while those who were less critical said, “See, the Bank learns from its mistakes and is determined to fix them.” The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper now insists on civic participation, though it’s not easy to say when that goal has been achieved. If 500 people go to a meeting to hear about proposed policies, is that participation? Or, do they need to have prior access to the relevant documents in their own language, voice and vote? And even if all that happens, are they all from the middle and upper classes and what about a nation’s other millions of people? How much do, or should, the voices of poor people count in formulating these national papers?

[16] We need ethicists who know enough about economics and politics that they are not simply at the mercy of professionals in those fields. We need ethicists who seriously engage in the policy issues that affect the poorest of poor people, e.g. ethicists who study both the Bank’s apologists and critics, who know about the Narmada Dam. The answers are more complex than the Summa Theologica or Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, in spite of the fact that I loved both.

[17] As for “lack of political will,” a broader understanding was implicit in Bread for the World’s ethos and operations from the beginning, though it wasn’t always shared by other interest groups that had more interest in influencing policies than spending a large portion of their resources mobilizing an educated and activist grassroots membership. At bottom, all the good policy ideas don’t make much of a difference if you can’t get them implemented in good policies, funding and practices.

[18] The problem of lack of will was (and remains) a problem of the larger public – mobilizing, educating and sustaining enough members of the body politic to insist that private and public officials do the right thing. Commentators have pointed out that the Americans are more consumers of government services rather than citizens who take an active role in shaping government policies. Grassroots mobilization is critical to democracy.

[19] And, we need ethicists who themselves model activism and teach it in their classrooms. The Washington Post (July 25) had an article on health care reform that included a picture of the executive director of a faith-based health care advocacy organization. Decades ago she was a student of mine. I don’t know whether I played any role in her choices, but if so, it probably was a greater contribution to church and society than all the book reviews, articles and professional papers I have written (including this one). My own efforts have been fumbling, at best. We need more and better.