‘Humanity Divided’: Inequality a Barrier to Development

Feb. 20 has been designated as the World Day of Social Justice. In establishing this commemoration in 2007, the UN General Assembly recognized that social development and social justice are indispensable for the achievement and maintenance of peace and security within and among nations and that, in turn, social development and social justice cannot be attained in the absence of peace and security or in the absence of respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The World Day of Social Justice coincides with the UN Commission for Social Development, in session from Feb. 11–21. The theme of the commission is “promoting empowerment of people in eradicating poverty, social integration and full and decent employment for all.” However, it is ironic that we address this theme of empowerment of people in a world in which inequality is escalating and social justice seems a far distant dream, at best.

The recently released report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) entitled “Humanity Divided: Confronting Inequality in Developing Countries,” provides us with the stark reminder that the world is more unequal today than at any point since World War II, and that there are clear signs that this situation cannot be sustained for much longer. Inequality has been jeopardizing economic growth and poverty reduction. It has been stalling progress in education, health and nutrition. It has been limiting opportunities and access to economic, social and political resources, and has been driving conflict and destabilizing an already fragile international community.

In 1971, the World Synod of Catholic Bishops published a document called “Justice in the World.” The following excerpt from the document is perhaps its most famous: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

In a globalized world too often driven by economic and financial engines, it is easy to lose sight of people and of the planet which serves as our one, common home. When wealth and power are sought as ends unto themselves, there is the danger that society can be reduced to a collection of nameless, faceless individuals, and the common good is reduced to fit the outcome achievable by private, for-profit firms. The market-based approach to development has tended to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, while countless numbers of our brothers and sisters have seen their economic power, and their real power to influence decisions that affect their lives, diminish.

While each one of us must struggle to determine how best we can “participate in the transformation of the world,” Pope Francis offered a clear challenge to the international community when he spoke of “ the scandal of poverty in a world of plenty… as a piercing moral challenge for the whole human community.” He continues,

“A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table… there must be a new stimulus to international activity on behalf of the poor, inspired by something more than mere goodwill, or, worse, promises which all too often have not been kept.”

None of us has to look very far to note the growing disparities within our own country—the proliferation of soup kitchens and food pantries; the growing number of the “working poor”; the perennial issues of comprehensive immigration reform and a living wage. And on a much grander scale, we cannot ignore the phenomenon of global climate change, which is driving inequality, poverty and an unprecedented massive movement of peoples across the globe in search of the bare essentials of life.

“Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel…” There is no time like the present to re-commit ourselves to this worthy pursuit, acknowledging our own need for ongoing conversion as we do so. A recent statement from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace might provide us with one of the best ways to engage in this struggle as individuals and as communities:

“Every individual and every community shares in promoting and preserving the common good. To be faithful to their ethical and religious vocation, communities of believers should take the lead in asking whether the human family has adequate means at its disposal to achieve a global common good.”

As communities of believers, are we asking the right questions? Are we contributing to the public debate? Do our local and national representatives know who we are and what we stand for? Or, does our silence and inaction contribute to the status quo?

“Cry out with a million voices, for it is silence that kills the world” — Catherine of Siena