Missionary orders stay with the destitute long after every western charity has left

What is the best way to help the poor? This question is older than the Church, and probably as old as human society. But in modern conditions it has arguably become harder than ever to give a satisfactory answer.

Catholics have a moral obligation, arising directly from Christ’s teaching, to feed the hungry, instruct the ignorant, shelter the homeless, comfort the suffering and in general respond with practical compassion to the needs of others, both through our own efforts and by supporting those who devote their lives to serving the poor. All of this arises from a human engagement between the person in need and the one offering help, a relationship which is fundamental to Catholic spirituality and social teaching.

But is this enough? Don’t we also have a responsibility to “make poverty history”, that is, to fight for a radically transformed world order by opposing what the Honduran Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez has called the “structural causes” of poverty?

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There is no doubt that the world’s poor are often harmed by entrenched global policies, although views inevitably differ on which are the most obnoxious, or what exactly should be done. One obvious candidate for reform is the European Common Agricultural Policy, often cited as a prime cause of misery in the developing world. Other observers focus on the policies of United Nations agencies, especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Others again attack an international trading system which concentrates power in the hands of big business.

Few of us, I expect, feel confident that our opinions on these questions are reliable or comprehensive – and we are not alone. The fascinating literature on development demonstrates that there is little agreement on such questions, and many experts operate on altogether unconnected planes.

Perhaps a better approach is to consider the question of unjust structures from the ground up, adopting the rather different perspective of the poor themselves. For example, it is impossible to enter into their lives without pondering the destructive effects of war, corruption and bad governance. In some parts of Africa farmers avoid growing their crops within sight of the roads to reduce the risk that militias will plunder them. For the same reason, crops are cut down before they are ripe.

This fear of armed marauders exacerbates the common lack of access to roads or railways in Africa. To take one well-known instance, the roads from Nairobi to the west of Kenya are in a state of advanced disrepair, a situation reflecting the fact that the Luo, the dominant tribe in the region bordering Lake Victoria, have been excluded from national power since independence. The predictable result is not just the relative deprivation of the Luo themselves, but the increased isolation of Uganda, which relies on Kenyan roads to transport its products to the sea.

If unjust governance exacerbates poverty by excluding farmers and manufacturers from the export market, the petty corruption of policemen, school teachers, doctors and government officials is also a deadly reality for many poor people all over the world. A 2002 survey by the NGO Transparency International found that urban households in Kenya were paying on average 16 bribes a month, amounting to no less than 31 per cent of their income.

If anyone is inclined to dismiss the significance of this, the suicide of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi will serve as a reminder of what it can mean in human terms. Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and set himself alight in December 2010, after the police and city authorities demanded protection money from him. Bouazizi’s death will be remembered because it triggered the Arab Spring, but the circumstances which led to it are all too familiar to the poor around the world who remain invisible to the media.

The sheer intractability of these problems should serve as a warning against utopian solutions to world poverty. It may also remind us of the true basis of solidarity between human beings, which is spiritual and personal, not technical or economic. As Pope Benedict XVI has written, we cannot help the poor if we regard their problems in exclusively material terms. Lack of bread and abuse of power are real and must be addressed, but they arise in a human – that is, a spiritual and moral – context.

If we try to fix material problems in isolation, Pope Benedict argues, without recognising the “ordering of goods” which places God at the centre of human life, we will end up replicating the dystopian nightmare of Marxism or the relativistic nihilism of the contemporary West. It is hardly surprising that African Catholics such as Obianuju Ekeocha, the young Nigerian scientist whose open letter to Melinda Gates has been spreading across the internet, eloquently reject the prospect of such a dead end.

My new novel, Ten Weeks in Africa, explores the world of international aid and NGOs, and researching it has intensified my interest in these questions. One of the things that struck me repeatedly as I was working on the book is the generally unremarked, yet actually ubiquitous, presence of Catholic institutions in poor countries. Catholic religious orders run clinics and schools, orphanages and cooperatives in almost every country where there is hunger, war, terror and manifest injustice.

Given the financial scandals which are now coming to light in the development industry, it is interesting to notice that Catholic institutions have certain fundamental strengths. Their permanence guarantees the seriousness of their work. Speaking the languages and operating under the political conditions of the countries they operate in, they generally take a patient, long-term view and avoid bombastic claims about their work.

Permanence also creates the conditions for a profound solidarity, indeed for thoroughgoing assimilation into the host society, with a tendency to see the challenges and needs of the poor from the ground up, in terms the poor themselves share.

Religious orders’ vows of poverty protect them from the tendency to make a good living out of helping others in distress. Most fundamentally, the fact that their work arises out of, and is constantly renewed by the sacramental life of the Church, means that the poor are not seen as a problem to be solved or an opportunity to be exploited. From the point of view of Catholics living in the West, the missionary orders offer virtually unlimited opportunities to participate in their work.

J M Shaw’s new novel, Ten Weeks in Africa, is published by Sceptre, priced £17.99

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