Guest blogger Emily Winter is a PhD candidate at the University of Lancaster. Emily’s research focuses on Christian social action groups’ strategies to engage young people.
[Editorial Note 04/19: Sadly, the Make Poverty History site is no longer active. But you can read more about the current fight against poverty on the Compassion UK charity website.]
The Enough Food IF campaign last year sparkled quickly and quietly, like a damp firework, and made only a minimal appearance in the national media. This contrasts strikingly with the success, in terms of both publicity and mobilisation, of the two previous national global poverty campaigns here in the UK — Make Poverty History (2005) and Jubilee 2000. Whilst Jubilee mobilised 70,000 in Birmingham in 1998 and Make Poverty History attracted 225,000 people for the Gleneagles Summit, Enough Food IF gathered only 45,000 people for the Big IF event in London and 8,000 for the Big IF event in Belfast. Are we witnessing then, a declining public interest in, and energy for, global poverty? And what is the role of Christianity in this picture?
In all three global poverty campaigns, Christian organisations, agencies and churches have been crucial in providing movement leadership and centres of engagement and mobilisation. However, there is a sense recently that there has been some degree of “turning inwards”, leading to an increased focus on domestic issues both for the Church and the wider public. Simultaneously, recent years seem to demonstrate a “Christianisation” or “religionisation” of international development, where it appears to have partly remained an issue in the churches and other religious institutions, but diminished in the thinking of the general public. From my own experience, at the time of the IF campaign the only people with whom I had conversations about it were Christians. Of the 40 of my friends who “like” Enough Food IF on Facebook, I know 39 from Christian circles, leaving just one “like” to represent the interest of my extensive Facebook network of non-religious and politically-engaged contacts. This compares negatively to the wider buzz I remember experiencing as a teenager around the Make Poverty History campaign, which extended beyond churches and Christian circles to include conversations at school and in the work place.
How then can we explain this decline in interest? Firstly, the impact of the recession should be considered. Research carried out on behalf of DFID (Department for International Development) suggests that there has been a decline in public support for expenditure on global development following the recession. The report states, ‘declining support for increased Government action and spend has continued post-recession: the focus has also been on domestic issues in terms of expenditure’. We might perhaps, similarly assume that the recession has led to a “turning inwards” by the churches, as domestic problems, epitomised by the rise of the food bank, become prescient. Wider secular activism also demonstrates a turning inwards, as witnessed by marches against student fees, the anti-cuts movement and the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement’s slogan “we are the 99%”, for example, references domestic inequality, ignoring the fact that globally several Occupiers might find themselves part of the much-maligned 1%.
Secondly, whilst we should not ignore the fact that engagement with faith-based groups occurred under the New Labour government (and indeed before), this has taken new forms under Cameron’s government, shifting from an emphasis on community cohesion projects to faith-based organisations increasingly taking roles as service providers in order to fill gaps in the welfare state. Not only would we expect this to increase the number of faith-based organisations taking a role as social service and welfare providers and therefore shifting the focus to domestic issues, it has also understandably affected the terms of both journalistic and academic debate, focusing on Christian engagement with domestic poverty often at the expense of Christian campaigning on global poverty.
Finally, the global poverty sector is plagued with difficulties, problems and intense self-scrutiny to an ever-increasing extent. Popular books such as Moyo’s Dead Aid (2009) have lent credence in recent years – though such debates have a considerably longer heritage – to the sense of development as a troubled, even doomed, project, subject to increasing levels of scepticism. In this context, the Millennium Development Goals have failed to provide the impetus to action that might have been expected.
So, given the historic role of the churches and Christianity in both raising awareness of and alleviating global poverty, where next? I would suggest that significant attention should be granted to the following three areas, representing simultaneously areas of considerable potential and challenge: participation, partnership and propheticism.
PARTICIPATION. As witnessed by Occupy and its attempts to organise non-hierarchically and employ consensual decision-making, there is a trend away from top-down, paternalistic political mobilisations. Grass-roots mobilisation should thus not just be about getting local communities on board with a campaign, but enabling them to shape its parameters. The issue of participation also provokes challenges of who to engage: the public? “Dechurched” Christians? New mega Churches? All these areas demand new and novel approaches.
PARTNERSHIP. The development sector is particularly troubled by how to present, and relate to, the suffering “other” and partnership between NGOs in the Global North and local organisations in the Global South has emerged as a key strategy for alleviating global poverty. Whilst partnership functions too often merely as a handy buzzword, there must be constant awareness of the power relationships enacted in any development project and the ongoing legacies of colonialism. UK churches have a significant opportunity to create new partnerships for action and support, through the involvement of the diaspora communities that make up such a large part of new church membership.
PROPHETICISM. Jubilee is intriguing as a late-modern social movement for its use of the Old Testament concept of Jubilee as its inspiration. The coinciding of this concept with the Millennium year lent the Jubilee campaign a sense of moral imperative and Prophetic witness. In an era of scepticism about charities and aid, and a wider sense of “compassion fatigue”, in which many feel that nothing can be done to solve the seemingly endless list of world problems, there is a need to recapture such sensibility. Campaigning, and protest, like most activities, draw on a repertoire of tried and tested methods- the strike, the rally, the march, the petition. These methods, owing to their familiarity, may gain limited publicity; for example, recent protests in support of Palestine.
So the challenge now is to think outside these parameters and consider new ways of doing politics? Not just to capture media attention, but to spark conversation, inspire debate and get people involved.
William Temple helped to found the modern welfare state, but what would he make of it today? If we re-examine his seminal Christianity and Social Order in the light of the development of the modern welfare state, it seems clear that Temple would be deeply disturbed and disappointed. Not disappointed with the idea of the welfare state, but disappointed with what we’ve done to that idea.
Temple took his readers back to the very heart of the Christian tradition, and explored the kind of society that Christians should help build. His vision for the welfare state is a Christian vision, but it is also a vision that welcomes others; he claims no special place for the Church or for Christians. Instead, at its heart is love – love in the form of justice. Temple recognised that justice gives us rights and duties, but that we must also work to fulfil them in a spirit of equal citizenship. Our deeper purpose must be to ensure that we each have the freedom to develop to our full potential and this means creating communities with the necessary securities and opportunities to enable that development.
But, while Temple’s vision certainly helped inspire the creation of the welfare state, it is often difficult to see the relationship between that vision and the reality of today’s system. The early achievements of the welfare state are too often taken for granted, and we have moved into an era of ‘welfare reform’ when the word ‘reform’ has become code for ‘attack’. Politicians, journalists and the general public now accept without question a whole series of falsehoods or distortions:
“Welfare spending is unsustainable”
“Too many people are on benefits”
“Welfare fraud is a major problem”
“Public services need to be more efficient”
The welfare state has become an object of scorn and there are few prepared to provide it with a robust defence. How has this happened? How has such an important achievement become so problematic?
One culprit may be the resurgence of liberalism: the philosophy of individualism, consumerism and the growing power of business or ‘the market’. Yet, while there is some truth in this, there is a danger that blaming liberalism is too simplistic. If we are not careful we simply rehearse the hollow debates, from both the left-wing and right-wing, which have left us in this situation. We need to think more deeply about the kind of welfare state which is needed.
This is a problem that goes right back to the birth of the welfare state. For, while Temple’s vision certainly inspired its formation, the welfare state was rarely informed by that vision. The systems that were put in place in the 1940s, and in the following years were well intentioned, but they were also deeply paternalistic, meritocratic and bureaucratic. The design of the welfare state was somewhat blind to citizenship, to rights, to the value of diversity in our communities or to the full potential of every human being.
Keynesian economics helped to assure people work; but this was work as defined by the state and big business. The benefits system provided people with a minimum income, but it stigmatised those who needed it. The value of out-of-work benefits is now so low that the UK has become the third most unequal developed country in the world. Even those institutions, like schools and the NHS, which were designed to promote equality, are organised to put Whitehall in power. The UK has the world’s most centralised welfare state. One symptom of this extreme centralisation is the constant reorganisation of public services, each according to the latest political fad, yet each without any demonstrable benefits.
At a deeper level many of these problems may be constitutional. Today, as the country wrestles with ‘austerity’ we find that cuts in spending are actually targeted at the poor and disabled people. For instance, there are now 25% fewer people receiving social care (support for disabled and older people) than there were five years ago. Mortgage rates (which affect the wealthiest) have been slashed, but the poor are forced to rely on the likes of Wonga. The most likely explanation for this is not the wickedness of politicians, but the fact that the votes of the poor are much less important than the votes of those on middle incomes. The political rhetoric of the ‘squeezed middle’ is an inversion of the truth – politicians pander to the middle, because this is where elections are won or lost. We live in a “medianocracy” – a land where the median earner is king.
We are in grave danger of seeing much of what Temple and the Church worked to achieve being undermined and lost. There is very little sign that modern politicians or voters understand the need for equal citizenship; instead it is increasingly acceptable to buy your way to the front of the queue. We have forgotten that human beings are wonderfully diverse, and that all of us have a God-given potential to develop; instead we meekly accept the Government’s presumption that it can dictate the purpose and methodology of our children’s education. Instead of building welcoming and diverse communities together, we have subsidised the development of institutional services, like residential care.
But this is why there has never been a better time for the Church to act. When party political structures have evolved so that they can no longer protect minorities or the vulnerable, then the Church must speak out. When thinking is dominated by out-of-date and bankrupt concepts, then the Church must speak afresh the language of love and truth. When communities have lost heart and have begun to accept the fate handed down to them by the powerful, then the Church must help people to find renewed strength.
If William Temple came back today to examine the welfare state I am sure he would challenge the Church to remind people why we need the welfare state, and he would encourage us once again to imagine what kind of welfare state would really be true to the Christian vision of love, truth and justice.
Within and beyond my work at the William Temple Foundation, I am an active member of the interfaith movement in the UK and Europe. And there are many, many reasons why I love this work. But I have a guilty admission; one of these reasons is the food! Religious communities can be fantastically hospitable, from sangar at Sikh gurdwaras, to the feast of a Shabbat dinner, I have happily munched my way through numerous interfaith encounters. Recently the subject of food in religion has been on my mind for the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan began last weekend. It is a very special time for many Muslims; a time of reflection, spiritual renewal, and in my experience, delicious communal iftars (evening meals) at the breaking of the fast each day.
In the religious context, food and community are inextricably linked. As a Church of England Priest recently reminded, it is no surprise that eating and drinking is at the heart of the Christian liturgy. The bread and the wine of Christian worship, whilst food for the soul rather than nourishment for the body, demonstrate the power of sharing and eating together.
In the interfaith context food offers a handy stating point, as something which we can all discuss from our differing perspectives, thereby offering a space from which further discussions might grow. It is also an opportunity for giving, receiving, and sharing, thereby developing bonds of trust from the start. As such, members of British Muslim communities have developed all sorts of ways for none-Muslims to experience and understand their fasting, and (most excitingly for a foodie like me) to share in the breaking of the fast. One example is a project called Dine@Mine, started by one of my closest friends with the aim of matching Muslims who are eager to share their hospitality, with non-Muslims keen to learn more about Ramadan.
But whilst food can be a great source of celebration for many faith groups, in recent months, it has also been a great cause of concern. Food has become the junction where religion and politics meets. Responding to the dire needs of their communities, faith groups up and down the country have set up food banks. Whilst these projects might be seen as another example of the hospitality of faith groups, food banks rarely exist for the purpose of sharing communally; of eating and drinking and being together. For how can they? The rise of food poverty in Britain is a stark reminder of the most basic need of food. And what becomes clear is how poverty is not a mere matter of physical deprivation, but that it also robs basic dignities, diminishes spirituality, and limits the ability to be social (with inevitable impacts on mental wellbeing).
The invaluable social capital of faith-based organisations is undoubtedly filling vital welfare gaps. And for all we might celebrate these chances for outreach and service, as my William Temple Foundation colleague Chris Baker recently pointed out, the success of such programmes may come at the dangerous cost of normalising food banks. In doing so, we risk normalising the notion that the state no longer exists to assist in the most basic needs of its citizens.
Further, in responding to food poverty there is the risk that religious hospitality becomes a culture of giving, rather than a culture of sharing. And there is, of course, a distinct difference between the two. Unlike giving, which implies a one-way transfer, sharing is imbued with commonality, commitment and equality. In a society that has more than enough to go around, gaping inequalities risk starving us of more than just physical nourishment.
Charlotte Dando is Assistant Director for Communications & Development at William Temple Foundation