M&B: Would you please tell us a little bit about the current status of poverty and lack of development in the world?
The world today is very divided. There are more people than at any time in human history who have a decent life, who have wealth and prosperity. There’s also a large group of people in the middle, but there are about a billion people, a sixth of the world’s population that lives in great misery and maybe half the world’s population that lives at levels that are far less than they could be. When you look you can see good news and bad news. The good news is that there are fewer people who are poor than ever. It’s worth remembering that through most of the world’s history, most people have lived short lives, a quarter of children have died before they were five, very few people had education, very few people even were able to travel more than ten kilometers from where they were born. So today’s world is a very different world. It’s a world where vastly more people have opportunities and even in the last 50 years more people have a chance for a decent life than at any time in the past, and we have to remember that there has been extraordinary progress. Second, I think that there is an awakening of the moral conscience of the world that we see in the millennium development goals, in speeches of leaders all over the world that the situation, the historic reality that most of the world’s people were poor is no longer acceptable and is no longer necessary. The bad news is, today we know that this poverty is unacceptable. We know the kinds of lives that people live. We have images, we have data, we have knowledge, and we know that it doesn’t need to be. We know that we have the resources to change it.
M&B: How are the millennium development goals related to moral awakening?
Around the turn of the millennium, there was a great deal of reflection about what had come before and what should come in the future. One of the frustrations that many people had is that there had been meeting after meeting about the environment, about women, about health, about transportation, about every subject that you could imagine, and at each meeting there were promises made. Wonderful speeches given, wonderful texts written, declarations … but when you looked back the promises had very rarely been kept. So that when the United Nations organized a meeting of world leaders in September 2000 to mark the transformation to the new millennium there was an agreement that things should look different in the future. And so there was a historic moment, a historic declaration when all the leaders of the world, every one of them agreed to sign on to a millennium declaration to end poverty. But they also decided to use some of the tools that came from business. So they decided to set deadlines, they decided that if you can’t measure it nobody cares, nobody will look back, and so the millennium development goals that emerged were first of all just a few, just eight millennium development goals, so that people would not forget them. They all have numbers associated with them and there’s a date (the year 2015), and there’s an accountability structure - who’s responsible, who’s going to be held to account for the achievement of these goals. So these goals are a very exciting departure. In some ways they’re a very minimal. For example, they want to reduce poverty by half by the year 2015. How can you tell that to a group of poor people that only half of you will be out of poverty? It only says that all children will receive primary education. It barely looks at equality between men and women. It’s a very simple set of goals, but what it represents is a historic change and first a very clear determination to end poverty in our lifetime.
M&B: How can or should technology facilitate the transition from poverty to wealth? What role do you think technology should play in this process?
Technology plays roles in many ways. Perhaps the most dramatic is health. Many of the diseases that killed billions of people throughout human history now can be cured or prevented. Remember how many children through most of history have died of respiratory diseases, have died of diarrhea, those are important.
The changes in educational technology are also a huge advance, as are the changes in the understanding of how economies work, in the production of food, transportation, the ability to communicate. For example, when there is a disaster, the knowledge of it is transmitted within hours. Through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were famines in Cape Verde where literally hundreds of millions of people died, and no one knew until long after the fact. Today that doesn’t happen anymore. So many different threads of the progress of science and technology, engineering, and communications really have transformed the outlook of what we know and therefore what we can do.
M&B: Technology has an important role and surely change requires the investment of capital. But today economists are considering non-traditional capitals such as human capital, social capital, and spiritual capital in order to achieve social change. What do they mean? Are they interchangeable or related in some way?
One of the most important realizations of the development in the world over the past twenty years is that there is nothing more important than investing in human beings. The term that’s used is human development, human capital. It can be used in a narrow sense such as investing in education, investing in healthcare, making sure that when a young person finishes school, the whole investment is not lost when they cannot find a job. But human capital has a new meaning today. It means developing the potential of human beings to the fullest.
There’s a new dimension that’s been added more recently, and it goes perhaps in some circles under the name of spiritual capital, and it grows I think from a realization that living life without meaning, just living life to earn a living, eat, work, and sleep is a futile exercise. There has to be an appreciation of what the purpose of life is, and that’s what spirituality means for most people. That means looking for this meaning both individually for their own spiritual paths, but also for the spiritual life of the community. It is the virtues of compassion, caring, helping your neighbors. It is perhaps the most common theme through all the world religions-do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So people are starting to study what kind of investment goes into spiritual development.
M&B: There are also some important spiritual elements that have direct impact on the economy, such as trust and compassion.
The ideal of how traditional communities operate is this: people take care of each other, they know each other, and they’re compassionate. If someone is ill, the neighbors come and take care of them. The villagers or the community trust each other, they trust their religious leader. They trust their political leader. Sadly the realities in the past, but also in the present, are often very different. There are people in almost any community who are left aside. So the ideal of a community is not the reality. But the ideals, the ideals of compassion and the ideals of trust of believing in human nature are a very important spiritual heritage of human kind today.
Now faced with modernization, the ideals of traditional societies are much harder to practice. Today more than half the world’s people live in cities, and the projections are that this number will rise. In cities of tens of millions of people, trust takes on a very different meaning. People are often anonymous, and communities and individuals can be completely lost in the sea of humanity. No one knows your name, no one knows who you are. So in today’s world we need to build new kinds of trust, and new kinds of trust come in strange ways. I think it’s fascinating that young people today find trust in Facebook, in MySpace, and social networking, but they also find trust in a new found belief in a spirituality that they choose, that they have discovered in their adult life.
M&B: Today you lead Berkley Center's program on Religion and Global Development at Georgetown University. But you also led the World Bank’s faith and ethics work 2000-06. How did you get involved with that?
In the 1980s there was a period when the World Bank and the British Development Aid were at odds with many leaders and organizations from the world of religion. Religious people were demonstrating in the streets, and the development organizations closed their doors and ignored what was happening. But gradually there was in awareness that this made no sense because these were natural allies who should be working together, who were both inspired by a vision to poverty. So some leaders got together and started to have a dialogue, and their first conclusion was that they knew very little about each other and that there were tremendous misunderstandings. Second, they found out that there was a great common interest, a passion, and a commitment to dealing with the issues of poverty. And third, there were some very difficult issues. Different ways of looking at economic growth, different ways of looking at the meaning of wealth, different ways of looking at models. Therefore a dialogue about these complex issues was needed.
I worked for many decades on development, mostly on Africa but also on East Asia, on Latin America, and many different parts of the world, and one day the President of the World Bank, Jim Wolfenson asked me to help him with a project to bridge the worlds of religion and development, and so I was reluctantly drafted. This was in about 1999. I knew very little about the world of religion, but I knew quite a lot about issues of poverty and was very interested in the social dimensions and in the anthropological, social, historical approach, which I believed in very strongly. So I saw it as an opportunity to learn and to move into a whole new world.
M&B: Based on your experience, what can you say about the role of religions in progress and development?
I started to work the links and the overlap and the disjunctions between religion and development in about 1999. At first it seemed like a logical, relatively straightforward challenge because religious organizations, the Catholic Church, Muslim organizations, Buddhists, and Hindus play such active roles in providing social services, and they are so obviously important for poor people as well as for rich people in most parts of the world. We were surprised by how controversial this proposition has been to try to link religion and development. What it showed is that for many people there are many levels of hesitation about the role that religion plays in today’s world. For some people, there has been an assumption that with modernization and scientific progress, religion would simply die out or become an option for perhaps an occasional Sunday or Friday and that it would no longer play a significant role in people’s lives because they were at a different stage of development. Now that assumption has been very clearly proved to be quite false because today, if anything, religion is becoming more important in societies, rich and poor, than it ever was before, in a much more varied plural form, but it still is very clear that this hypothesis has been proved to be wrong. But people also have other concerns about the role that religion plays. For many, religion is seen as very political and divisive, particularly in societies where there are different religious traditions and some history of tension. Some people are still very nervous about the role that religion plays, and they sometimes forget the role that religion plays in social peace as well as in giving meaning to life.
Also in religious traditions as well as in politics, it is completely untenable that the poor people in the world would be expected to sacrifice so that the rich world can continue their consumption and that they would need to continue to live at a much lower resource level. For most people, the answer is first trying to curtail unnecessary use of resources, so much more conservation. And the second is there needs to be a much more energy put into the new technological developments so that people can benefit from the good of modernization without destruction of the earth. But I think there is a subject that needs much more attention which is the meaning of equity. The meaning of a kind of society where there is much more balance and where there is much more fairness. For me, it is impossible to imagine a future where we do not have a much more balanced world, much less divides between rich and poor, where we benefit from creativity, where we benefit from human development, but where these ideas are shared across all societies in the world.
M&B: What is the most efficient way to achieve the results?
In social change, people working together at the community level, those who know the situation, who know their realities, and who know their world are absolutely necessary to make change. That’s true in Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and the United States as well as in Europe. Communities really make the difference. On the other hand, there are also a million wasted efforts where communities start something, and then it fails because they’re frustrated by some kind of an obstacle that’s outside of their control. So we need also to recognize that leadership is an essential ingredient in change. Political leadership, having a vision of what’s happening in other places, and having ideas that cross boundaries are absolutely essential to change as well. So my formula, the formula that I believe in very strongly, is that to see the kind of changes that we’re looking for in the world you need the fire from above. You need the leadership, you need the inspiration, you need the policy framework, as boring as policy may seem. You must have the economic and social policy that’s from above. But you also have to have the drive that comes from the community, the fire from below, the organization, the ideas, and the knowledge. And the key, the place where you see transformation is when you have the two working and coming together.
M&B: Would you please give us an example where a problem is brought to the table and a community helps in planning? Can you give us some examples?
The easiest example where you see that is when a community has a wonderful set of ideas for marketing crops or for bringing new land under cultivation or for building a set of schools, but they don’t have the resources locally and someone from outside – whether it’s a foundation or a government or an organization like the World Bank – brings the resources and magically it’s transformed into some kind of change. Reality is usually more complex, and it’s a process of give-and-take because one thing we know is that money alone does not solve all problems. So that what you will see is an idea that comes from a community. Let’s take an idea for building a new school and from outside someone will raise the question: why are the girls in the community not going to school? The first answer that may come is that there are practical obstacles. The girls are needed at home or the girls are not safe when they go to school, and so an idea might be offered from another community in another place or from another country to solve those problems, and then perhaps the girls do go to school but they don’t succeed because the expectations in the community are that girls really are going to be married and so they shouldn’t go to school anyway. And then a political leader or a religious leader will give an inspiring speech or a woman leader will come to visit the village and will show the girls what is possible, that it’s possible to be a doctor or a political leader or an engineer and slowly through the alchemy of different ideas coming from different places, the understanding of what success is will change, and the resources will multiply, and we’ll transform the visions of what a good life is from a rather narrow traditional view to one that takes the genius of the community and builds it with other ideas that come from outside.
So the coming together of the practical technical side of benefitting from the advantages of modern technology with a revival of some of the best traditions of spirituality I think is part of the magic that we might look to in today’s world.
Interview conducted by Mustafa Tabanli for Ebru TV for the Emmy Award winning television series Matter and Beyond. For more information and the full episodes visit http://www.ebru.tv