Sometimes Poverty Smiles

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Editor’s note: This week, we will be sharing guest posts from the USCCB in observance of Poverty Awareness Month. LMH

Sometimes Poverty Smiles

January is Poverty Awareness Month. To help raise awareness among Catholics of poverty and its underlying issues, USCCB has updated its website, www.PovertyUSA.org, and launched a Spanish counterpart,www.PobrezaUSA.org. Our blog is also running a series of posts by guest bloggers reflecting on poverty in our country and the world today. Today’s post is by Carolyn Woo.

Carolyn Y. Woo. Ph.D.

Carolyn Y. Woo. Ph.D.

I have seen the faces of poverty as I’ve traveled with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), first as a board member and now as president, to visit projects around the world where we work with the poorest of the poor, trying to improve their lives.

Often the faces of poverty do not match preconceptions. For one, they often smile. Sometimes they sing and laugh. This is not the case after disasters have devastated communities or serious droughts have caused widespread hunger or violence has forced people into camps for the displaced. But quite often, when you visit a village where people are barely squeaking by – and more than one billion people live on less than $1 a day – while you see need, you do not necessarily see despair.

What you do see are people like you and me, who yearn for a good future for their children. You see people who want to know that they will have enough to eat, find treatment when they are sick, and be cared for in old age. But despite uncertainty, they still derive joy from the love of family, the support of a community, the depth of their faith. That is what puts the smiles on their faces, the joy in their songs, laughter in their speech.

Poverty is complex. That’s why we rely on an important tenet of Catholic social teaching: integral human development. It means we cannot ignore any part of the person: physical, psychological, political, spiritual. They go together.

How does that work on the ground? If you heard that children were not going to school, you might decide to build schools and hire teachers. Lack of education is a huge issue: nearly one billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their name. Over 100 million school-age children do not attend school.

But sometimes the way to get children to go to school is to drill a well. For children might not go to school because the family needs them to fetch water, which can take hours if the supply is far away. Drill a well nearby and it’s easier to get water. Children can go to school. And you take on another huge problem in the developing world: almost one billion people do not have access to clean water.

Children might not go to school because they are sick and need a health clinic. Every year six million children under the age of five die of preventable diseases like malaria and diarrhea. Their diarrhea might be due to the lack of basic sanitation facilities, the situation for over 2.5 billion people in the world today. Or it might be because they don’t have enough to eat, the fate of 800 million people every day.

Progress is being made. In 2011, an estimated 6.9 million children died before their fifth birthday, compared to around 12 million in 1990. It is still tragic, but we’re getting there.

Even with a school, children might also need a meal when they get there. Perhaps they need to learn about hygiene to help avoid intestinal diseases. All of these must be addressed to fight poverty. That’s integral human development.

You learn how to get this right by working among the poor. That is why CRS always partners with a local group, often a Catholic one. Local partners help us make sure that the programs and services CRS delivers meet each community’s needs. That requires accepting the poor on their own terms, as equals in this transaction, understanding that they know better than you what it is they must have to make their way out of poverty.

Carolyn Y. Woo. Ph.D. is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.

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