Another World

The World Economic Forum, convening at the same time in New York, attracted movers and shakers from world governments and transnational corporations paying $25,000 each, and got the spotlight.

The WEF, founded in 1971 by a Swiss business professor to discuss the challenges of world trade, drew 3,000 invited delegates to the Waldorf-Astoria. With instability from terrorism and a slowing world economy the conference theme painted a picture one shade lighter than gloom: “Leadership in Fragile Times.” The philosophy of globalization that emphasizes deregulation, laissez-faire government, free markets and free trade, high technology plus corporate efficiency and profitability has delivered a report card of exaggerated winners and losers.

For example, the richest fifth of the world's population now consumes 86 percent of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth receives just over 1 percent. Between 1994 and 1998 the world's 200 richest people increased their wealth from $40 billion to over $1 trillion with the three richest people holding assets greater than the combined GNP of the 48 least developed countries. The life expectancy in these least developed countries remains 25 years less than in industrialized nations.

A continent away in Brazil the WSF marketed itself as a counter-conference “building a planetary society centered on the human person.” The conference theme: “Another World Is Possible.”

“Our struggles are the same with people around the world,” said Jerry Hardt, a participant from Salyersville, Ky. “The issues are similar: healthcare, living wages, a clean environment.” Jerry spoke as a resident of Appalachia where a celebrated land study showed that 72 percent of the surface land and 80 percent of the mineral rights in the survey were absentee owned, predominately by large corporations. The skewed ownership patterns affect the tax base for local services, and the choices for self-determination and community development.

While poverty in the U.S. and the rest of the world differs by material degree, the sense of vulnerability and powerlessness marginalizes the poor everywhere. Decisions made over cocktails at the Waldorf-Astoria can have dramatic effects on the marginalized of Appalachia or Brazil. But, alternative development efforts — those that promote open dialogue, democratic decision making and inclusion of the people affected — offer a process to create a different world.

An hour's bus ride from Porto Alegre, a cooperative organized by the Movement of the Landless provided 5,400 fertile acres of unused land for 100 families to farm together and share the proceeds. Working together, nobody gets rich, but nobody goes hungry. The Movement of the Landless, having settled over 300,000 families on millions of acres of land, represents land redistribution efforts long supported by the Catholic Church. These utilize the capabilities of the landless and affirm the dignity of the poor.

Although many throughout the world see the U.S. as promoting structures that keep people poor, Jerry responds, “Trade policies do not always reflect the will of the people.” At the same time he recognizes U.S. dominance in foreign affairs: “As citizens and consumers we have a serious responsibility to shape those structures and policies that affect people around the world.”

Bottom line: another world is possible, if the priorities favor the poor and include them in the process.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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