“Today we invite you to come with us on a special journey; to open your eyes and look at poverty. Open your ears and listen to the voices of poor people! Open your heart and meet people! Open your mind and understand that we are all human persons!”
With these colourful words, the president of Caritas Europa launched his organisation’s campaign “Zero Poverty”. At a time when personal insolvencies, housing repossessions and unemployment figures are at extremely high levels, one should assume that such an initiative must be a worthy endeavour.
So what exactly is Zero Poverty about? The presentation on the campaign website is ambitious:
“Our vision is Zero Poverty. No one should live in poverty. [...] Anyone can help to make the ZERO POVERTY vision a reality. You can find out how on our website.”
The “how” refers to 13 missions specified by the initiative. Supporters are advised, for example, to buy Fair Trade coffee and flowers. They are also asked to buy local products, both because it “guarantees jobs in the area”, and because “they are often organic products”. Further, saving energy is recommended, because the world’s poorest are most affected by climate change. Suggestions include “one minute less in the shower every day” and to “use less water for cooking”.
Nobody denies that Caritas’ work on the ground is extremely valuable. However, their attempts to appear fashionable by sounding like a campus workshop are less impressive. We learn from their campaign materials that minimum wages and welfare payments are too low, that globalisation leads to downward-pressures on wages and working conditions, that executive pay is excessive and therefore a strengthening of corporate social responsibility is required, and that the “female perception of the role of women is not matched by an equivalent change in attitudes among many men”.
Caritas’ targets are not just potential volunteers or potential donors. While the importance of civil society actors is mentioned, this is immediately qualified by adding that “this does not mean that governments can leave it up to ‘everybody’ to alleviate poverty; on the contrary they have to take up their role.”
This role is a highly extensive one, according to Caritas. Governments should increase child benefits, sickness benefits, welfare benefits, pensions, plus spending on healthcare, social housing, homecare, public employment and many other programmes.
With its impressive network of social service providers, the unique strength of Caritas is their vast local knowledge and long-standing experience in the day-to-day practice of poverty mitigation. In their field, there could hardly be a more authoritative voice. That is precisely what makes it so disappointing that Caritas engages in a campaign which reminds one of a school teacher who attempts to imitate teenage slang to appeal to his pupils.