The fight against poverty.

The President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac made headlines recently with his speech in favour of a world tax which would enable fighting hunger.

The idea would be to tax stock exchange transactions for example and that would generate cash to help the developing countries.

Some have accused the President of courting popularity in view of the slim chance that there would be such a measure adopted in the countries of the west. Others question help to the under developed countries as a solution in the fight against poverty and caution the creation of a world organisation authorized to collect this money.

Meanwhile others have welcomed the courage of the President for addressing the “One Thought” of the liberal economy and a poll taken by the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCFD) showed that four French people in every five supported his initiative.

What should we make of it then? To learn about the debate we went to meet Jacques Matthys of the CCFD. Here is his analysis:

Our organisation is rather positive, at least a positive reaction to the stance of President Chirac. The idea of a tax based on things which can be well defined, because President Chirac has explained that clearly above, is an idea which has resurfaced from some 20 years ago, when an American economist called Tobin proposed what we call the Tobin tax. So I have the impression that President Chirac has taken up this ideas again. And this Tobin tax, we, we were rather, and now we are still in favour and so we are rather in favour of what President Chirac proposed. But the proposal of Mr Chirac, in our opinion, is not sufficient in itself. What we want to say is that it is fine that the people who suffer from poverty or hunger in the world today have help from elsewhere. Our position, what appears to us also as important is that these people can get themselves out of it by themselves, in a nutshell.

So, I believe that we must take from all this business that is called financing development which is based on the fact that eight hundred and fifteen or eight hundred and twenty million people today suffer from malnutrition by the fact that more than a billion people in the world today live on less than one dollar per day, that… well, I am not going to cite all the possible and imaginable statistics in this area. Financing development can come about with this tax, but it can also come about by cancelling debt, it can come about by public aid for development, it can come about by the integration of the poor countries into world trade. Today or tomorrow there will be the official launch of a campaign called “Europe fleecing Africa” and this campaign intends to explain to European, or western, public opinion the following thing: in our rich countries we are eating more and more what we call the chicken breasts and the turkey breasts. And what happens to the thighs, the parson’s noses, the wings? All the giblets have two destinations. The first is to make… in the end to be made into powder for animal feed, and the second is to be frozen and sent to African countries. So that poses two problems: the first is that… which is a problem purely of food hygiene – it is that you can imagine in what state these wings or bits of chicken or turkey arrive at the back of beyond in Ivory Coast or Mali or one of these countries and the second is that these products are sold at such a price that they undercut completely the price of chickens or turkeys raised locally. So that poses a fundamental problem, that is to say that when we are busy exporting the bits that we do not want to use here in France, we are busy breaking local agriculture completely.

The position of the CCFD is taking root in the body of the Catholic Church.

Well, the movement called “social teaching of the Church” tells us that we are all equal and that the earth belongs to all of us. So starting from that, we notice that in today’s world that the famous phenomenon of globalisation which no one is against, but, such as it is today, it does not satisfy us. It does not satisfy us because this globalisation such as it exists today leaves some places out of things: Africa in particular, but a good number of places in South Asia, in the South East, South Asia and South East Asia, and some places of the east today in Eastern Europe are left out of things. So what we are fighting is diehard liberalism because we think that liberalism, as seen by our western managers, works well in one direction but does not work well in the other. Let me explain myself: we preach a gospel of diehard liberalism about everything, but when it is about the world of agriculture for example, we are surprised that our farmers have help with exports, and this help for exports means that the countries of the south and countries of the east cannot compete as things stand, so that is true for chickens which is an interesting example… Why interesting? It is not as interesting as all that but in some big markets , I am thinking of the problem of cotton, I am thinking of the problem of rice, I am thinking of the problem of coffee… today competition – and liberalism- – see to it that some countries of the south cannot any longer get themselves out because… because the prices which are imposed by some international organisations are below the prices at which these countries can produce. Today the phenomenon of debt is another phenomenon which is important for these countries, some organisations like the IMF [1], like The World Bank, force these countries to open their borders to a good number of products which come from western countries, from our rich countries, force the people over there to have a rather intensive agriculture, that is to say that they force these people to repay their debts in dollars etc. so they force them to make some exports to export, well, they are forced to have large scale agriculture absolutely to the detriment of local agriculture. And we, we are reacting against that because we are convinced that this contributes to poverty today for a good number of people, and to the poverty of a good number of countries which cannot get out of it.

But if the redistribution of money by means of a tax is not in itself a miracle solution to poverty, M Matthys supports the political initiative which the proposal embodies:

Personally, I think that there are positive parts all the same, today in what President Chirac… or other countries… Today there is a little, a competition which is rather healthy, I would say, for these countries between for example President Chirac proposed this text and then the English who propose… who have proposed also recently to respond a bit to what Chirac was proposing…. who proposed an important tax amnesty for some countries. So that is rather positive for these countries. There are positive parts: you know, I don’t know if you do, the Millennium Declaration which took place in 2000 in which more than some one hundred countries, the figure, I think it is about 145 or 147, committed themselves that poverty reduce by half between now and 2015.

Well, I want to say that it is a rather positive aspect; there is a prick of conscience on that side. The negative aspect is that today in spite of good efforts we can see that it is not an track for 2015 but it is rather on track for 2060-2070 to reduce this poverty so that has to be a prick of conscience of all our governments, in all countries, I was going to say almost all of the NGO [2] so that this objective of reducing poverty by half, then, I would say, of eradicating poverty completely can be achieved in a reasonable time.

So, I sway between the positive and negative aspects, the positive aspects being that it is true that hunger is receding little by little in the world. In [19]90, 29% of the population was suffering from hunger, in 2000 there were more than 23%, but, on the other hand, there is also a considerable increase in world population which mans that in absolute numbers, the number of people who are hungry remains about the same.

The NGO themselves are not without their critics: their own management expenses are often so important that even if no one doubts their good intentions, they pose the question of knowing if they are really effective by comparison to their objectives. In this context the ultra-light structure of the CCFD is interesting.

As its name indicates, the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development is an organisation which was created by the bishops of France 40 years ago now to respond to the needs of the hungry in the world some forty years ago and unfortunately, I would say, who still exist today.

I believe that the characteristic of CCFD is that it sends nobody to the field. The principle is to establish partnerships with associations, with local NGO. And when we speak of partnership, it is not an empty word for us, it is really an exchange because we believe that these people also bring something to us. So we can maybe bring financial wealth, our cultural wealth, our social wealth, but they also have cultural wealth, and social wealth to bring to us.

[1] IMF – International Monetary Fund

[2] NGO – Non Governmental Organisations

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