The Slow Motion Tsunami

Recently on a trip to Liberia I realized I was getting frustrated and even depressed. It was unexplainable. I love Africa. I was with people I really enjoyed being around. The work we were doing was important and challenging.

As I watched two young girls pull water from a well, lift plastic buckets onto their heads and walk off toward their homes, it began to dawn on me that I was reacting to the scene being lived out before me.

I’ve been writing about economic development and poverty for thirty years. I got into this work because I wanted to help change things. Living conditions for these girls haven’t changed much at all. Like their sisters before them, they are carrying water, searching for wood for fuel, cooking on open fires and facing grinding poverty every waking moment.

That brought on the frustration and depression. But, truth to tell, my reaction was indulgent and superfluous. These girls don’t need my sympathy, they won’t benefit long from short-term charity, they need our partnership. They need allies to change policies and practices that keep them poor and powerless.

Their lives do not have to be this way. We can change the economic and social policies that hold people back. It’s long past time when we should have done this. In fact, for people of goodwill, and certainly for people who follow the Christian way, it’s a mandate:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.

–Matthew 25:31.
The Message
Eugene Peterson

Now comes a UN report that projects by 2050 the world’s urban poor will grow to 3 billion people. This means a life of hardship, hunger, disease and early death.

…urban poverty
[is] “a slow
motion tsunami”
deadlier than
the giant
waves that
the Indian
Ocean in
–Ms. Anna Tibaijuka
UN Habitat

It means more unemployed, unskilled people concentrated in cities. It means more demand on municipal services that are already woefully inadequate; more shanty towns lacking in privacy, sanitation and safety; more families living below the poverty line, enduring pressures and stresses that tear them apart and contribute to domestic violence, child abuse and self-medicating use of alcohol among other drugs. It means more children in the city who should be receiving education but will be on the streets begging or running drugs or stealing to survive.

These are the conditions that are present in every major city in the developing world. Unable to survive in rural villages and lured by the hopes of a better life in the city, hundreds of thousands are making the move. It’s not because they lack character, desire or moral fiber, and it isn’t because they don’t want to work hard. In fact, being poor and surviving in the urban environment is incredibly difficult and requires enormous effort.

It’s because they are desperate and hopeful. It’s because they want a better life.

This is why the debate about the federal budget makes a difference. It prioritizes how we will distribute resources to help people lift themselves out of poverty.

It’s why the debate about John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the UN is important. Because our support and partnership with this agency in the world community makes a difference in the lives of little girls in Liberia, and in urban slums everywhere.

It’s why the talk about a “culture of life” is important. Because the sanctity of these lives is violated by the indignity of poverty and by the neglect of the world community.

I am haunted by the rest of the story:

“Master, what are you talking about?
When did we ever see you hungry and feed you,
thirsty and give you a drink?
And when did we ever see you sick
or in prison and come to you?
Then the King will say,
“I’m telling the solemn truth:
Whenever you did one of these things
to someone overlooked or ignored,
that was me–you did it to me.’
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.

–Matthew 25:31.
The Message
Eugene Peterson

This morning two young girls started their day by drawing water from a well, lifting plastic buckets on their heads and walking towards home….

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