We had worked for months to raise awareness, sign people up, get them educated and excited about…
We had worked for months to raise awareness, sign people up, get them educated and excited about doing something concrete about poverty, AIDS, and advocacy. And finally we were there, in a packed soccer arena on the outskirts of Edinburgh, raising our collective voice. It was July 2005 and I was among a crowd of thousands that had descended on that bit of Scottish earth for the G8 Summit taking place in Gleneagles.
On that day, eight men would make critical decisions about the future of the planet. Quite literally. They would decide whether to ignore or help alleviate global poverty for billions of people. And they would do it, because people like us stood up and demanded it. But the question in all of our minds was, would they? Would they listen to us, for real? No matter how many celebrities were present, or how many ordinary people, the reins that would lead us into the future were in the hands of eight powerful men.
But we hoped. We knew anything was possible. In front of us, artists lined up, ready to perform. Bono was in the wings with two iron-clad briefcases carrying nearly one million signatures that carried a strong message: “Don’t just sit there, do something – you represent us and we demand it.” This was an event to celebrate how far we had come – everyday people, not policy wonks, were finally talking about global poverty in concrete terms – and to galvanize future action.
It felt different to watch the videos we had seen many times before. All of our work had finally brought us there, across the globe, within spitting distance of the leaders of the free world, not to mention Bono, George Clooney, and Claudia Schiffer. We watched the screen behind the stage like we had never seen the ad before.
Gwyneth Paltrow… snap…. Brad Pitt…. snap…. Salma Hayak…. snap…. Jamie Foxx… snap.
”Every three seconds, a child dies of extreme poverty.” Four children since the video started. Twelve seconds ago.
“We’re not asking for your money – we’re asking for your voice.”
It seemed that we should have been somber, but people cheered. We were at a rock concert, after all. And though I found it hard at first, I knew that the ONE campaign needed celebrity, needed to be cool, because global poverty is not glamorous, is not cool, and we needed something else to turn our attention to as we heard the devastating statistics.
”Unless we do something today, there will be 25 million children orphaned by AIDS by 2010.”
”30,000 children die every day of preventable causes.”
”Many poor countries still spend more each year on debt than on health care or education.”
”One in seven people goes to bed hungry every night. Many of them are children, and will not survive past the age of 5.”
A week earlier, at Live8 in Philadelphia, only a fraction of the people who signed up for the ONE campaign had any idea that global poverty and advocacy was the reason for the gathering. Oh how different Scotland was. That stony town on the top of the world was sending a message that couldn’t be ignored any longer: “Make Poverty History.” Finally, the scandal was on everyone’s lips, in the headlines, on talk shows. Everywhere, ordinary citizens demanded of their government: cancel the debt, deal with trade inequities, and increase aid to the developing world.
And I sat there in a bit of disbelief: It’s actually happening? People are actually making a big deal out of this? Yes, they were. Finally! But that was three years ago, and enthusiasm for things like global poverty eradication dies fast. It’s not even a good acronym.
Despite the rally, despite the unprecedented media coverage of life cut short all over the word, things look much the same three years later. According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the rise in grain and food prices of the past two years has set back development progress by seven years. Life goes on, it appears, as normal.
Or does it?
In the US, PEPFAR was signed into law in 2003 and reauthorized in July of this year, allowing up to $48 billion to combat global HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria treatment. This will provide funds for HIV/AIDS treatment for at least three million people; prevention of 12 million new infections; and care for 12 million people, including five million orphans and vulnerable children.
The Roll Back Malaria Partnership is working hard to raise awareness of malaria at the global, regional, national, and community levels, keeping malaria high on the development agenda and mobilizing resources for malaria control and for research.
2.4 million Americans have signed up for the ONE campaign, an advocacy group that was instrumental in canceling the debt of 18 of the world’s poorest countries, and that continues to secure legislative and global institutional victories for the poorest of the poor.
And no wonder. People all over the world want to do and be more than disconnected consumers; they want to serve and fight for the cause of the least among us. Young people in churches around this country want to know how they can help serve their communities and their world. It is admirable and encouraging. The next question on our agenda is harder, though: do we have the desire and the will to do so when it means we must put aside our privilege for the benefit of the least?
This is the crux: to deal with worldwide poverty we have to deal with structural imbalances in the world that benefit us. We must tackle trade injustice (we can’t force countries like Zambia to open up to cotton imports, restrict subsidies, and cut services like health and education while at the same time paying our own cotton farmers $3.9 billion [in 2000/2001] so we can dump cheap cotton on their market), debt (who wants to be responsible for the faulty loans often given to dictators?), and aid (it does work, in the right circumstances). And that means we contend with our own habits and expectations, because these issues are inextricably linked. So, what must we do?
We need to give up having more and more at cheap and cheaper.
We must not accept falling wages for workers and windfall profits for executives.
We must not replace the power of walking alongside those who suffer for the ease of writing a check. And,
We need to let go of our belief that to be more we need to have more.
And we can do it, because all across the country, in the blogosphere and on city streets, there is a palpable desire to be a blessing and make a difference, to change the world we live in for the better.
We can believe in the power of our collective voice because we believe in the power of the one who calls us to be his hands and feet, to stand in the gap for those who cannot access the reigns of power; we can do it because we have the weight and power of a God who blesses humility over grandiosity, service over selfishness, and mercy over sacrifice. He may use celebrity to achieve his purposes, but he beckons us, ordinary us, to the grand story of the redemptive power of love.
God is working – let’s join Him.