For many, the world in which they live is a better place than it has been for many years. Never have women been more likely to survive giving birth to a child. There are fewer children under the age of five dying because of treatable and preventable diseases. And more people have been taken out of extreme poverty: According to the World Bank, in 1990, there were 2 billion people living in extreme poverty. With a reduction to 705 million in 2015, this means that on average, every day in the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, 137,000 fewer people were living in extreme poverty. We have seen dramatic changes in the reach of global health and global education.
But we know that these achievements are not all that was hoped for, and there is concern that poverty, illness and hardship will be the way of life for so many. For too many. For too long.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been created to tackle the many problems that the world of the marginalised, vulnerable and disadvantaged are forced to face each day. These SDGs, also known as the ‘Global Goals’, ‘are designed to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment’. But what is that potential? The SDGs are ambitious, well intentioned and seek to get the United Nations (UN), Governments, charities and businesses to work together. But what is the potential that the SDGs speak of? The SDGs are a list of material needs with various ways of meeting them. But human flourishing is not just about fulfilling material needs.
Why should the UN, a secular agency, see the human race through anything other than humanistic eyes? Within the SDG initiative there is no mention of compassion, love, sacrifice, generosity, selflessness – or faith. Christian agencies and other faith-based organisations realise that a human is more than a sum of its parts. Fulfilment is not just a good education and income. These are critically important, as is good health and housing. But hope is deeper than food on the table. The SDGs are simply a means and not an end. Can we really achieve the SDGs without addressing people’s traditions and faiths? Worldwide, eight in every ten people identify with a religious group: 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and I billion Hindus. Faith is part of most people’s identity. Most people on earth are people of faith. We do not need to apologise for this, or defend it. Faith matters. Faith groups have been part of local communities for centuries. They have the power to change attitudes and behaviour bringing improvements to all aspects of society. Such groups and movements were involved in ‘sustainable development’ well before the UN or institutional relief and development.
All We Can recognises that the church and its partners offer something different – hundreds and thousands of small ‘agents of love’ who are humble, servant hearted even with a few resources. It is estimated that 40% of health services in sub-Saharan Africa are provided by Christian agencies, many of them small but faithful. Loaves and fishes comes to mind.
The problem with tackling poverty and injustice is that it is not simply a political or financial obligation; it is a moral one too. Christians have something to say about this. And it is something that should unite them. The church has a responsibility. A commitment. The challenge for Christian organisations is to be professional and prophetic. The citizens of rich countries are increasingly looking inwards with pessimism and self-preservation. The citizens of the Kingdom of God should function differently – With faith. With hope. With love.