World Council of Churches Office of Communication
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5 April 2000

Call for a just and moral economy - ecumenical team prepares for Geneva 2000

cf. WCC Feature of 24 February 2000

The goals set by the 1995 World Summit on Social Development cannot be achieved without fundamental changes in the operation of the world economy, an ecumenical team is telling delegates preparing for a review of the summit.

Poverty has increased in the five years since the political leaders of the world made their commitments to reduce it in the 1995 World Social Summit at Copenhagen, and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, team members say.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which have jointly sponsored the presence of church representatives at previous meetings preparing for the summit review to be held in Geneva 26-30 June, have brought an ecumenical, international team of some two dozen people to New York for the meeting of the preparatory committee 3-14 April.

Rogate R. Mshana, WCC executive secretary for economic justice, and Gail Lerner, WCC UN representative in New York, are assisting team members as they talk with government delegates about the views of the churches and gather information to take back to their home constituencies.

Explaining the goals of the effort as team members were gathering on 3 April, Mshana and Lerner said they were giving primary emphasis to the first of ten commitments in the plan of action adopted in Copenhagen: creation of an "environment that will enable people to achieve social development".

Church representatives are also stressing the basic importance of the second commitment: eradication of poverty, they said.

In such areas the team finds extensive "ecumenical overlap" with positions advocated by the Roman Catholic Church through both the UN observer mission of the Holy See and Catholic non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Mshana and Lerner said a key factor in creating the needed environment was turning away from the "neo-liberal" approach to development, and replacing it with a commitment to build a "people-centered economy".

The "neo-liberal" view holds that a free market economy and an absence of government intervention will bring growth and an end to poverty through "trickle-down" effects. But Mshana and Lerner said it was an "illusion" to think the markets were "free", when actually there was always control at some points, and that the experience of the poor countries since Copenhagen proved that neo-liberalism does not work.

In regard to overcoming poverty, the ecumenical team insists on going beyond conventional ideas such as a call by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for a 50 per cent reduction in poverty by 2015.

Mshana and Lerner said the world should not talk about reducing poverty, but should adopt a strategy to eradicate it.

They are calling for increased development assistance to poor countries. And they suggest that a "currency transaction tax", sometimes called the Tobin Tax (after the economist James Tobin who proposed the idea in 1978), could both help weak economies by limiting currency speculation and raise substantial sums for development.

In accord with the WCC Harare Assembly of 1998, the ecumenical team is also stressing the debt issue. But Mshana and Lerner said there would be a prior call of "reparations", returning funds that the wealthier countries had drawn from the poor. And the church representatives will call for outright cancellation of debts owed by poor countries, rather than negotiation of extended periods of repayment.

They also argued that the debts should be cancelled without demands by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or other bodies for "structural adjustments", which usually means reducing social expenditures and turning many government services over to private interests.

The ecumenical team will seek consideration of some fundamental moral and ethical issues, and the needs of Africa and of Indigenous peoples. But team members do not pretend to deal with every topic coming up at the summit review, called Geneva 2000, or to go deeply into some of the technical aspects.

Fundamentally, the representatives of the churches see their primary task as calling for a change of heart among those now dominating the world economy so that it can become "a just and moral economy... where resources are equitably shared, and where public and private institutions are held accountable for the social and ecological consequences of their operations".

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.