Meeting of the Reference Group on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology
Meeting of the World Council of Churches' (WCC)
Alternative Globalisation Addressing People and Earth (AGAPE)
Reference Group on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology (PWE):
Impact of Economic Globalization (P306)
25-26 June 2007
Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, Switzerland
Synthesis of Discussions
The WCC AGAPE reference group on poverty, wealth and ecology met for the first time at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland from 25-26 June 2007.
The meeting had three main agenda items:
Discuss the theological bases for studying the links between poverty, wealth and ecology in the context of WCC's AGAPE process and the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC). The AGAPE process includes the follow-up of the AGAPE Call as mandated by the 9th General Assembly of the WCC following the recommendations made by the Programme Guidelines Committee in Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2006;
Receive the initial findings of the study on PWE in Africa and to advice accordingly how further work in this area can be further improved;
Provide guidance to the WCC on how to plan the churches' encounter on PWE with a focus on Africa that will take place in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania in November 2007 as well as advice the WCC on the overall PWE plan as outlined from 2007 to 2011.
For purposes of clarification, the meeting reiterated the terms of reference (TOR) of the reference group on PWE as well as considered the relationship between the PWE framework and the WCC's AGAPE process.
This report provides a synthesis of the discussions around the above mentioned four areas.
TOR of the PWE reference group and links between the PWE framework and AGAPE process
In response to requests for clarification, the meeting went over the expectations from the reference group on PWE, which will meet twice a year (February and June) and report back to the Churches' Commission on International Affairs (CCIA) of the WCC. It was explained that the reference group (as differentiated from ad hoc working groups that may be convened by the CCIA) has the following TOR:
Provide advise on how to implement the WCC project "P306 - Poverty, Wealth and Ecology: The Impact of Economic Globalisation", which falls under the programme "P3 - Public Witness: Addressing Power and Affirming Peace";
Plan for activities under this project including organising church encounters that will result in bridge-building and theological reflection on PWE;
Monitor the research on PWE that will be conducted in the various regions; and
Monitor the work on ecological debt and help in the preparation of the statement on ecological debt to be presented at the WCC Central Committee in 2009.
The meeting also explained the connection between the PWE framework and the WCC's AGAPE process in view of questions raised on possible repetition or duplication of work. It was pointed out that the former is aimed at deepening and strengthening the latter through a series of regional church encounters on PWE and the conduct of regional studies on PWE, among others. While it is essentially a continuation of the AGAPE process, the PWE framework has a number of new features:
It espouses a strong ecological dimension, especially focusing on the concept of ecological debt.
It analyses wealth creation (not just poverty); hence, the attempt to develop a "greed line".
It looks at the various interrelationships between poverty, wealth and ecology.
It feeds into as well as incorporates the concept of "just peace", which is integral to the IEPC.
And it aims to produce an ecumenical report on PWE (in conjunction with the newly-formed Act Development).
Participants made some programmatic and logistical recommendations to improve the general PWE work, among others:
The focus on the AGAPE Call should not be lost. Relatedly, efforts to raise resources for activities around the Call must continue.
The PWE framework's emphasis on ecological debt has to be visibly and intentionally linked to other pieces of WCC's work on ecology (e.g. climate change and water), which are located in other programmes.
The ways in which the PWE work will feed into IEPC (and vice versa) have to be further elaborated. A concern was raised that the broadness of the IEPC themes might dilute the concept of "just peace" which highlights the links between global economic inequalities and conflicts.
Wealth issues could be highlighted using constructive new instruments (e.g. ethical codes of conduct and research and advocacy on the skyrocketing salaries of chief executive officers), which, in turn, may be further linked to the work on developing a "greed line".
With the aim of strengthening coherence, PWE reference group meetings must include brief updates on the work from WCC staff and its partners.
Teleconferencing could be explored in bringing together PWE reference group members in some of the meetings.
Should financial resources allow, the PWE reference group could be expanded to include a representative each from China and Eastern Europe.
Theological bases of analysing the links between PWE
Following the presentation on PWE theology in the context of Africa, participants discussed the concept of ubuntu and its economic dimensions:
While the neoliberal market economy is based on principles of self-interest and competition, the ubuntu economy is based on cooperation and solidarity. The latter does not define wealth solely in terms of income. It is imbedded in relationships among and between peoples and the earth. More specifically, it advances a non-utilitarian connection with the earth. The ubuntu economy does not promote private ownership; everyone in the community has access to resources according to his/her needs. It is an economy of "enough". In addition to relationality (which is in line with feminist ethical thought), redistribution of resources and restoration are very much part of the ubuntu economy.
However, the ubuntu economy is not the same as communism and socialism. For one, it is not a state-imposed or legislated way of living. Rather, it is more of a consciousness of how one's way of living affects others.
In more practical terms, ubuntu is manifested in the community-based social security systems that still thrive in African villages. Without these systems, African people would not have been able to function and survive wars, famines and other natural disasters, the economic hardships accompanying structural adjustment imposed by international financial institutions, and the HIV-AIDs pandemic, among others. However, current government reforms - based on Western enlightenment and neoliberal economic thought - are increasingly undermining these community-based social security systems.
Notions of ubuntu are present not just in the continent of Africa, but in many traditional and indigenous communities and in other societies (including in the West). These expressions, however, have been weakened, resulting in today's clear and pressing challenges: rising inequality and massive ecological destruction.
A major limitation of the ubuntu economy is its present confinement to the micro level. Important questions arise: how do we translate ubuntu principles into macro structures, e.g. global trade and financial systems? How can we prevent the abuse of power especially at this level (e.g. in light of the Eastern European socialist experience and also from an ecological vantage)? How do we elaborate the concept of ubuntu given new developments in the international arena, e.g. emerging South-South relationships? In short, how can we be more innovative?
As churches, one of our key tasks is to find the signs of hope, and these are usually at the micro level. We must continue to raise and communicate these peoples' stories.
The meeting also considered orthodox theological inputs in analysing PWE linkages. Participants put forward a few observations, among others:
Is the ontological approach a preferred starting point for achieving metanoia (i.e. transfiguration) compared with the ethical approach? The former has both ethical and political impacts. That is: in the process of changing ourselves, families, communities and parishes, we may be able to change the world at large (i.e. political and economic systems). In any case, the two approaches are very closely interlinked and should not be dichotomised.
Metanoia begins with disclosure and truth-telling (i.e. telling and listening to people's stories) as well as lamentation and repentance (i.e. recognition and acknowledgement) of wrongs and injustices committed in the past. Canadian churches' ongoing process of reconciliation with First Nation Peoples is an important example thereof. Their experience could also helpful for the work on ecological debt, which is also about restoration and reparations.
"Economics", "ecology" and "ecumenism" are all rooted in the Greek word oikos. Oikonomie in particular translates to building houses and communities, which, interestingly, is mainly associated with the work of women.
Other than African and orthodox perspectives, the meeting underlined the need to carefully consider the perspectives of women, indigenous peoples and peoples of different faiths in the theological discourse on PWE. This is particularly important in framing the ecological pillar of the theological discourse on PWE since "domination (over nature) theology" in Christianity remains prevalent and merits challenging.
Preliminary findings of the PWE in Africa study and connections between the PWE in Africa study and the Overcoming Poverty in Africa initiative
The meeting received the preliminary findings of the study on PWE in Africa. The study presents initial attempts to develop a "greed line" for the African continent as well as sheds light on how resource-based wealth creation in the region has resulted in massive poverty and ecological destruction through four case studies, namely: agriculture and logging in Tanzania, copper mining in Zambia, and oil production in Nigeria.
Subsequent discussion focused mainly on points for further improvement of the study as well as on the question of the state's and churches' roles in responding to issues of wealth accumulation, poverty creation and ecological destruction:
The criteria and methodology for determining the "wealth and greed lines" in the study have to be further elaborated and strengthened.
The study must identify both formal and informal systems of wealth creation in the region.
As part of the study's recommendations, it would helpful to discuss taxation (as an explicit mechanism for redistribution of wealth and reparation for ecological damages) as well as measures to strengthen corporate accountability and responsibility (e.g. integrity pacts between corporations and communities).
The study highlights difficulties in gathering data especially at the corporate level. Churches in countries where company headquarters are based could help in securing the necessary information.
The study underscores the need for churches to play a stronger role in speaking against wealth accumulation in Africa as well as the underlying dominant neoliberal development paradigm that drives and motivates it. Churches have to develop ethical and ontological strategies to address the issues raised by the study. Churches have to take a self critical look at themselves and their role in wealth build-up. In this connection, there is a need to follow up commitments on ecumenical sharing made at the 1987 WCC consultation on koinonia in El Escorial, Spain.
In connecting the study on PWE in Africa and the All Africa Conference of Churches' (AACC) Overcoming Poverty in Africa (OPA) initiative, participants put forward a few recommendations, among others:
Both the PWE in Africa study and the report on OPA point to corruption and collusion among national governments, local elites and external actors (e.g. multinational corporations (MNCs) and international financial institutions (IFIs)). In light thereof, the study on PWE in Africa and the OPA initiative should highlight the critical role of social movements and civil society in organising and demanding for accountability from their governments even as they advocate for the same from MNCs and IFIs. Churches must encourage and support these calls.
At the global level, the existing policy incoherence between the United Nations (UN), IFIs, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and national governments (as reflected in the Millennium Development Goals, various UN treaties and agreements on environment, labour and human rights, poverty reduction strategy papers of the IFIs, the WTO's trade rules, etc.) has to be addressed with the aim of genuinely promoting the development of poor countries and eliminating poverty. Again, churches have to call attention to this concern.
The PWE plan from 2007 to 2011 and the African churches' encounter in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania in November 2007
The meeting was informed that regional church encounters with global inputs are being planned from 2007-2011 with the objective of engaging churches and ecumenical partners in responding concertedly with alternatives to the scandal of poverty and inequality. The encounters will also provide the space for sharing church actions, advocacy and accompaniment on PWE issues.
The African churches' encounter will take place from 07-09 November 2007 in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. It will be preceded by simultaneous Theologians', Women's and Youth Hearings (05-06 November 2007). The Latin American and Caribbean consultation is scheduled to take place in 2008; Asia-Pacific, 2009; Europe (particularly Eastern and Central Europe), 2010; and North America, 2011.
Participants made the following interventions with a view to enhancing the process of regional church encounters:
The regional church encounters should follow a broad set of guidelines and/or similar programme formats for ease of comparing results. In general, the encounters should: (1) update and integrate ecumenical analyses through the exchange of experiences; (2) link macro or global concerns with micro concerns; and (3) come up with best practices and/or signs of hope from the region (e.g. in the case of Africa, the story of how Cameroonian farmers organised to put a stop to the dumping of chickens imported from the European Union).
Feedback mechanisms between encounters have to be put in place to sustain analyses and to ensure that impulses from previous encounters feed into succeeding ones. There are a number of ways to go about this. The encounters should include a small number of participants/observers from other regions (preferably those who will be closely involved in the conduct of church encounters in their regions). The PWE reference group meetings to plan for the encounters must include a space for reporting back on previous encounters. A list serve among encounter participants in the various regions could be developed to enhance information exchange.
The encounters have to be actively co-organised with regional ecumenical offices (e.g. AACC, Council of Latin American Churches, Christian Conference of Asia, Conference of European Churches, etc.). In the case of the Dar Es Salaam encounter, the AACC will play a key role in drawing up the list of local participants and in identifying key regional issues that will feed into the programme. (The Christian Council of Tanzania will be mainly in charge of logistical preparations.)
The encounters should be seen as an important opportunity to reach out to and actively engage with women's groups (e.g. in the case of the African encounter, the African Women's Economic Policy Network and the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians), indigenous peoples and peoples of different faiths. The criticality of inter-religious dialogue cannot be overemphasised in these times.
The Middle East and their concerns have to be made visible in the process of regional church encounters on PWE, especially given the recognised connection between the PWE framework and the IEPC.
The roles of other ecumenical partners (e.g. Act Development and other specialised ministries) in the encounters have to be defined.
In addition to the ubuntu theology as well as the four case studies outlined in the study on PWE in Africa, the following (global) issues are suggested to be tackled at the Dar Es Salaam encounter: climate change and ecological debt; migration and trafficking of women; the role of IFIs in Africa; and human rights violations in the process of wealth accumulation, poverty creation and ecological destruction.
The Dar Es Salaam encounter could learn from and/or build on the poverty hearings that have been held in South Africa and the hearings of the World Court of Women.
Research is an integral part of PWE plan. The findings of the regional studies on PWE will be presented at the regional church encounters to deepen analyses of the linkages between poverty creation, wealth accumulation and ecological degradation. In this area, participants made a few suggestions:
Some possible research areas include: the impacts of speculative capital and placing limits to the growth of capital; gender-differentiated effects of growth, poverty and environmental degradation; energy, climate change and ecological debt; examples of ex-ante distribution of wealth; and attempts to redefine the gross national product to include social (e.g. women's unpaid work) and environmental considerations (e.g. pollution costs).
Finally, the competence of ecumenical research institutions should be utilised, particularly in defining the "greed line".
Next meeting of the PWE reference group
The next meeting of the reference group on PWE is planned to take place in Geneva in February 2008 as per the attached ecumenical calendar.