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How a lone missionary found a way to defeat poverty

Fr Opeka (Getty)

“Poverty is not inevitable!” So declared the Holy Father on his visit to Madagascar, the poor island-nation of some 26 million people in the Indian Ocean. Pope Francis made his declaration when visiting Akamasoa, a community built upon a former garbage dump where people once foraged for food. Now there are nearly 30,000 people who live in 5,000 locally built homes in a combination of entrepreneurship and philanthropy organised by an extraordinary missionary from Argentina, Fr Pedro Opeka.

The Holy Father’s declaration is remarkable. Pope Francis spoke truly, but it has only been true relatively recently. For most of human history, for most people, poverty was inevitable. Only recently, in the 17th-century, did mass populations achieve sustained economic growth; economic stagnation was the norm before that. Actually, economic stagnation only became a concept when there was an alternative, namely economic growth.

When Pope Francis was born in 1936, it was still widely thought that poverty was inevitable for the many, and prosperity was restricted only to a few. Widespread prosperity was for the northern nations, or for the colonial powers, or the white race, or Protestants, or those countries rich in natural resources, or with large armed forces. No one thinks that way any more; recent experience has shown that southern countries can grow, that Catholics can prosper, that countries without any natural resources can become very rich and that other races are no less creative and productive than whites when given the opportunity.

Pope Francis knows this from direct, inverse experience. He is widely admired for being a “bishop of the slums” when he was in Buenos Aires, with a heart for the poor. He often visited the slum-dwellers and assigned priests full time to the slums, living among the poor they served. It’s probably why he chose to visit Akamasoa. That’s a pastoral priority.

From an economic point of view, there should be no slums in the great cities of Argentina. After all, there are no such slums in Canada, and when Jorge Bergoglio was born Argentina and Canada were roughly comparable in prosperity. That’s why Argentina attracted European immigrants like the Bergoglio family.

Why are there slums in Buenos Aires but not in Toronto? Because generations of bad political leadership and catastrophic economic policy made it so. Poverty is not inevitable; it follows bad economic policy. In Argentina and many other places, poverty is government-made.

Pope Francis said as much in Madagascar. He warned listeners against the social perils that he has denounced elsewhere – “corruption”, “speculation”, “exclusion” – but then he insisted that “development cannot be limited to organised structures of social assistance, but also demands the recognition of subjects of law called to share fully in building their future”.

“Subjects of law called to build their future”: it’s an interesting formulation. It stresses that people need to be subjects of law in order to participate in the economy; arbitrary power and corrupt political structures make and keep people poor. And those subjects are to be exactly that – subjects of action, not passive objects. Development of the poor will be accomplished by the poor, if they are permitted the opportunities that “endemic corruption” and exploitation deny them.

Pope Francis expanded his vision to the environment itself – our “common home”. Knowing that “poaching, contraband and illegal exportation” threaten both the forests and animals of Madagascar, the Holy Father said that “for the peoples concerned, a number of activities harmful to the environment at present ensure their survival”.

“It is important to create jobs and activities that generate income, while protecting the environment and helping people to emerge from poverty,” Pope Francis said.

The poor must have an economic interest in protecting the environment. The alternative is government mandates that may appear fine on paper, but are circumvented by the corrupt – profiting the powerful and the rich, and serving to exploit the poor as they are forced into the underground economy where no protections exist.

Pope Francis is often misunderstood as a statist, who thinks poverty exists until the government steps in to ameliorate it. But the problem in Madagascar, or in Africa generally (and in Argentina, for that matter), is not a lack of government, it’s bad government. Officials deny subjects the rule of law under which they can exercise their creativity and productivity.

“We have eradicated extreme poverty in this place thanks to faith, work, school, mutual respect and discipline,” Fr Opeka said. “Here, everyone works.”

Akamasoa works largely because Fr Opeka has managed to carve out a place where a functioning, benign, competent government works – namely, himself and the structures he has built over 30 years.

“We showed with Akamasoa that poverty is not fate, but was created by a lack of social sensitivity among political leaders who have turned their backs on the people who elected them,” Fr Opeka said.

And not only in Madagascar.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca