Last month, for the International Day of Peace, I wrote about how crucial it is that we build a world where every child can grow up free from violence, safe and sound. But war and armed conflict are not the only forms of violence destroying the precious lives of our children. In fact, it can be argued that poverty is even more violent than war. It certainly claims a terrible number of lives, but the survivors suffer greatly, as well. There are an estimated 1 billion children living in poverty today. It’s difficult even to imagine what such numbers mean.
Simply put, that’s one out of every two children. Think of it as if it were a single family—one child is well-fed, well-dressed, immunized, healthy with regular medical checkups, and has a good school to go to; the other child is malnourished and wasting away, shoeless and sick from easily preventable diseases, with no access to a doctor, and has to work instead of go to school. What an absurd family that would be! We would question the very sanity of the parents! Yet this is the very picture of children in our world, and we—all of us—are the “parents.”
This year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty comes on a very special occasion, just after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the United Nations, the first goal of which is to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” I would submit that the highest priority—both ethically and pragmatically—must be on the most pernicious form of poverty: child poverty. First of all, we are morally compelled to come to the aid of those who suffer the most from it, and who on their own have the least capacity to fight it—the most vulnerable, the children. But practically speaking, as well, the shortest path to eradicating poverty in the long term is by starting with today’s children—building structures and empowering families to ensure that they escape the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty. I understand that there are many complex factors—not least of which is the presence of violent conflict in so many of the places where children are dying from poverty-related causes—but I find it difficult to believe that harm would be done by thinking first of the children in all of our efforts against poverty. I think this child-first orientation will help guide us all to address not just economic and systemic causes of poverty, but the root causes of poverty that lie in the human heart.
This is the conviction behind our End Child Poverty initiative, a multi-faith, child centered, global initiative that mobilizes faith-inspired resources to end child poverty. With End Child Poverty, we aim to create a world free of child poverty, by addressing both the spiritual and structural root causes of poverty—through theological reflection, prayer and action; interfaith advocacy and lobbying; and supporting partnerships and grassroots projects aimed at eradicating child poverty.
As the international community moves forward with its efforts to eradicate poverty, I would like to take this opportunity to call upon all religious people from all faith traditions to acknowledge and fulfill the special role you have to play in keeping the world’s moral focus on protecting children, on ensuring that every child gets to grow up safe and sound. Let us make ending child poverty the top priority that it already is in our holy books, scriptures, teachings and traditions. Let us keep it constantly before our communities, help our people to develop compassionate, engaged hearts, and devote all the resources we have available to achieving that wonderful first goal of the Agenda for Sustainable Development. What a celebration it will be when we have achieved it!
And this is a time to celebrate and be full of hope. On this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, let us remember that tremendous, historic progress was made against poverty under the Millennium Development Goals, with some 600 million people lifted out of poverty and, by some estimates, 14,000 more children getting to keep their lives every day. We have proof that great progress is possible when we work together toward a common goal. Let us not falter now, but redouble our efforts to ensure that every child can live free of deprivation and full of hope for a life well lived.
October 17, 2015