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16 August 2001

Good news to the poor?

cf. WCC Press Release, PR-01-27, of 9 August 2001

The WCC was mandated by its 1998 assembly in Zimbabwe to take up the challenge of globalization as a central part of the ecumenical agenda. Since then, the WCC has been working to promote better understanding of the impact of economic globalization and to provide an ecumenical platfom to respond to its consequences. It is also preparing for two upcoming global events: a UN Financing for Development (FFD) Summit in March 2002 in Mexico, and a September 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

A series of regional consultations on economic globalization are part of this effort. The first, on "Globalization and Status Confessionis", was jointly organized by the WCC and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) in Bangkok in 1998. A second consultation on "Globalization in Central and Eastern Europe - Responses to the ecological, economic and social consequences" took place in Budapest in June under the joint sponsorship of the WCC, the WARC, the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the European Area Committee of WARC (EAC). The theme of the present global consultation taking place in Nandi, Fiji, from 12-17 August, is "Economic Globalization: The Island of Hope". More regional meetings are planned for Western Europe, Latin America, Africa and North America in 2002 and 2003.

This article from the Fiji meeting will be followed by three interviews of participants and a final wrap-up story. The interviews will be available in English only. Those interested in receiving the interviews should contact the WCC media relations office (see e-mail address below).

People from over thirty countries from every region of the world are meeting in the warmth and beauty of Fiji. The conviction they share is the need to find alternatives to economic globalization. Each of them admits to the presence of globalization in their lives in its many forms. But each has stories of the negative effects of the economic expressions of globalization: increased poverty instead of economic growth, exclusion and hardship, decisions in the hands of fewer people, and those decisions pushing more and more people to the edges of their own society.

Of course it's not a new debate. It has raged in the streets outside World Bank, IMF and G8 meetings; it has occupied research institutes and taxed the wisdom of the intellectuals. It has also provoked deep concern from communities of faith.

Why must there be winners and losers? Why must competition be the preferred engine to prosperity rather than cooperation? Why must domination be the characteristic of the world economy and not solidarity? Why is there such seeming indifference to the fate of the poor instead of compassion for them? How did this race begin and where will it drive us?

The World Council of Churches (WCC), working with the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), called these people together and invited them to "Tell us your story. But in your story let there be the seeds of new beginnings and new ways of living." The fact that their stories are so similar has surprised the participants. They find that there is little need for debate about the increasingly perilous economic situation for millions of people throughout the world. But they are acutely aware that there is much to be thought through and discussed on strategies that will bring change and restore security and human dignity to those who have been marginalized.

"One of the ecumenical movement's mandates is to be in solidarity with the poor; a clear response to the great commission given us by Jesus Christ to preach the good news to the poor, the good news that sets the captives free and proclaims the year of the Lord," says Dr Agnes Abuom from Kenya, one of the presidents of the WCC. "Wherever forces of darkness, of death, have threatened life, the ecumenical movement has stood up to condemn, to speak and act against. In this particular moment, one of the manifestations of the forces of death to humanity, to life in its wholeness, is precisely the way economic management is being undertaken globally," she says.

Good news to the poor? US president George W. Bush obviously thinks that economic globalization is that. In a recent speech to the World Bank he said, "Trade is good for the poor and (therefore) those who are against trade liberalization are no friend to the poor." The voices at the Fiji consultation do not agree. In large economies, small farmers are squeezed out. What they once produced for their home market is now imported. In Kenya, raw coffee beans were profitably exported, but since they began to process the coffee beans, the markets of the North have been closed to them because of impossibly high tariffs. Such examples of economic injustice are many. Human labour is becoming cheaper and abused; small businesses buckle under the pressure of multinational exploitation.

"We believe in a faith which affirms life. Our faith will not allow us to stand by as people are destroyed, abused or manipulated," says Abuom. "The WCC can bring people together at all levels - global, regional and local - just as it has done here in Fiji. We have a particular analysis which other parts of civil society may not be able to articulate so clearly. The WCC, along with other faith communities, brings its ethical insights, a focus on the spiritual dimension of life which has been constantly negated. If you have watched the civil society protests of recent years, they have talked about life but they have not talked about the spiritual resources of people, the ethical questions. One of the major contributions of the ecumenical movement, including the WCC, is to raise these questions."

At the Fiji meeting, people from both the Pacific and Africa describe their key communitarian values - like justice, participation and solidarity - as part of the alternatives to the values that drive economic globalization.

In Africa, the World Bank especially has been seeking dialogue with the churches, speaking of partnerships and working together. For Abuom, such invitations bring new challenges. "Of course we have to build bridges with them. Dialogue is important. But they must know where we are coming from. We are people of faith. This gives us hope for a better future, but it also makes us strong enough to break the doors open so that the voices of all those who have become the victims of other people's greed or prosperity can be heard and respected," she says.

For more information contact:
Karin Achtelstetter
WCC Media Relations Officer
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6153 (office);
tel.: (+41 79) 284 5212 (mobile);
e-mail: media
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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, 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.