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Responding to the urgent needs of the poor

· The role of the Holy See in reaching the Millenium Development Goals ·

The terrible earthquake that struck Haiti two weeks ago has shown not only the fragility of life but also the human instinct to help those in need.

When we see a mother grieving for her lost child, or a father desperate to find food and water for his family, it is our deepest human instinct to respond with compassion. Indeed the world has responded – not only through aid agencies and the UN but also through an enormous charitable effort, including by faith-groups and churches. [On Sunday, 24 January], the Pope commended those efforts.

The images from Haiti have reminded us of the very basic needs of human life: shelter, water and food. When the cameras leave Haiti, we must collectively ensure that aid and assistance do not.

Yet today there is another crisis that happens far away from the cameras. Its victims live in towns and villages around the world. Their needs are as urgent as they are basic.

This is the crisis of extreme poverty. A billion people going hungry. Seventy-two million children unable to go to school. More than a million people each year killed by malaria – a preventable, treatable disease.

Humanity has a moral obligation to tackle this crisis, and world leaders made a pledge to do so at the turn of the Millennium. The Millennium Development Goals (mdg) represent a commitment to halve global poverty, tackle sickness and end illiteracy by 2015.

Many lives have changed for the better since those goals were agreed. The Catholic Church has played its part and has been a crucial partner to the international community in helping to achieve the MDGs. It is estimated that one quarter of all health care in Sub-Saharan Africa is provided by Catholic agencies, and Catholic schools provide nearly 12 million school places providing opportunities to many on that continent. In 2006, the Pope purchased the first Immunisation Bond which raised over $1.6 billion to immunise 500 million children in 70 of the poorest countries by 2015, saving five million lives. Overall aid increases and debt cancellation have helped to get 40 million more children into school. The number of people with access to AIDS treatment has increased from just 100,000 to over four million. The proportion of the world's population living in poverty has fallen from a third to a quarter.

Yet we know that with just five years remaining to the 2015 deadline, the international community is still not doing enough to meet the MDGs. Now a convergence of global crises – food, fuel and financial – threatens to reverse some of the gains we have made, and divert the resources that are so desperately needed in the fight against poverty.

Where we show political will, we know we can make a difference. The United Kingdom's Department for International Development, which I have the privilege to lead, helps three million people to lift themselves out of poverty each year.

We are keeping the promises we have made to the world's poorest people, and we are enshrining in law the pledge we have made to dedicate 0.7 per cent of our national income to development assistance from 2013 – the first G8 country to publish such legislation.

International fora, from the G8 to the G20, must lead the way in ensuring that the world's poorest are included in efforts to achieve global growth. Yet tackling poverty is not a task for governments alone – however well intentioned.

We need rather to invoke the eighth Millennium Development Goal and create a true “partnership for development” that harnesses the talents of NGOs, businesses, faith groups and citizens everywhere.

The Catholic Church already plays an important role in this effort. Pope Benedict's latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate addressed the need to deliver global justice through development. In the difficult years ahead we need to be reminded of that message.

Faith communities are influential advocates for change. The Make Poverty History movement, just like the Jubilee 2000 Debt Campaign before it, was made up of people of conscience and goodwill who came together not to ensure that profits trickle down, but that justice flows like a mighty river. Those movements helped to deliver the aid increases and debt cancellation that have helped today to provide clean drinking water for families, schooling for children and immunisation for babies.

At the High Level Event in New York September 2010, we shall have a further opportunity to renew our commitments to the Millennium Development Goals, and to galvanize co-0rdinated action to achieve them by 2015. In the words of Ban Ki-Moon, “Time is short. We must seize this historic moment to act responsibly and decisively for the common good”.

History will look back on our generation and the choices we made. Extreme poverty is not inevitable – any more than slavery was 200 years ago, segregation 50  years ago or apartheid 25 years ago. Yet in order to end it we must not only see the world as it is, but imagine how it might be – and work together to make it so. The Holy See is in a unique position to help us do that.

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Nov. 19, 2019

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