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03 May 2013

Making poverty personal

Making poverty personal

Dhaka, Bangladesh in rush hour. (Wikimedia Commons)

Poverty cast a shadow over this week's news, locally and globally. Demand for food banks hit a record high, with 125,000 children among those receiving food aid last year. A trial of the Universal Credit began – perhaps the most ambitious and bold welfare reform in 70 years. Horrific pictures reached us from Dhaka, where more than 400 people were killed when their workplace collapsed around them.

They should do something. When we encounter poverty and suffering, who do we call on first? Often we call on government, the biggest they of all. Bishops encourage the coalition to think again on welfare reform. The Trussell Trust asked politicians to “create fresh policies” to address the growing demand for food banks. This week, in response to the Dhaka tragedy, many of us called on Primark to insist on higher safety standards from suppliers, and the Bangladeshi government to enforce them.

Laws matter, democratic structures are available and asking government to intervene is no bar to taking action yourself. But – and I confess here – armchair democracy can sometimes take the place of practical action. When I frame a problem as political, I am in danger of leaving it to them, avoiding personal responsibility, making demands of those I believe to be more powerful or better suited to the task. The Apostle John asks a great question: “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?”

Christian love for others – charity – cannot be outsourced or delegated. The government is not the charitable arm of the Church. Jesus says 'sell your possessions and give to the poor' not 'let Caesar tax us and help them himself'. The political response needs to be matched by the personal. Where we take responsibility, we can experience and share God's love in action.

Are food banks a wake-up call? Yes. They reveal need and shake us into action. They show the power of people like you and me, caring for our neighbours, to stop personal crises becoming full-blown disasters. Three new food banks are launched every week, mostly by churches. We should rejoice, not in the need, but in how far it is being met, and wake up to the untapped possibilities for doing more to serve each other. Is the disaster in Bangladesh on our conscience? Yes, we should be humbled by our power as consumers, and think hard about our personal stewardship of the resources God entrusts to us. We should take care, when we buy, to think what behaviours and processes we are commissioning every time we do our shopping.

Poverty is our battle. To fight it, we need to take care that true and positive stories are not drowned out. Consider this: in Bangladesh, a child born in 2008 can expect to live to 66; in 1970 it was 44. Headline poverty rates have fallen from 57 per cent in 1992 to 31.5 per cent in 2009, according to Save the Children. Globally, extreme poverty has halved in 20 years on World Bank figures, from 44 per cent to 23 per cent. Sub-Saharan Africa has been growing at five per cent a year, faster than the global average, reducing poverty over the last decade. In Britain, despite all its food banks, inequality has stayed broadly constant for 20 years. This week, I was inspired to see a new partnership between Oasis and Starbucks, providing "suspended coffees" to those who need a warm drink. I loved learning more about Stewardship, a community of givers transforming generosity from an act to a way of life. I listened to a friend filled with passion for building primary schools in parts of the world where there are none.

When we encounter a story or statistic that touches us, there is an instant emotional spark that drives and colours our reaction. It is a moment of danger, as our instincts, habits and prejudices leap in and short-cut our response. Reflecting and shaping reactions is an important part of developing character. When poverty seems insurmountable, will we remember how far we have come?

In those moments when we feel moved to demand action from others, can we also develop the will to act ourselves? Can we see injustice as a personal challenge, to stretch out our circle of concern, as far as love can extend it?

Neill Harvey-Smith is a consultant with Garnett & Simpson and a writer