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Global impact of financial crisis

NewsNotes, March-April 2009

Maryknoll Sister Luise Ahrens writes from Cambodia, Some of the garment factories are beginning to close (Wal-Mart and GAP). That means those young women will either go back to their villages, or if the family really needs money, turn to the bar girl, prostitution areas for ways to make money to support their families. For some time, the money from these young, mostly women, people has been the first disposable income many village families have ever had. So, this downturn is going to change the way things are happening -- enrollment rates in school, better fertilizers, etc.

President Obama moved into the White House in the midst of an economic meltdown of unprecedented proportions. While in the United States the pain has been real and visible, people around the world – millions of whom were already dangerously close to the edge of survival – have been affected in devastating ways. Maryknoll missioners live in these marginal communities and saw the potential for disaster. Seven years ago, Maryknoll leadership, in a public statement on trade and investment, wrote:

We speak as people of faith who have watched with care the impact of economic policy decisions on the people and the natural environment in the local communities where we live and work. We are committed to upholding the right of all people to meet basic needs and to live in dignity and harmony with the rest of creation … Investment intended to build sustainable local communities, whether rural or urban, in order to create opportunities for work, in contrast to speculative investment, is essential to protect the dignity of the people who live there.

They said they were profoundly skeptical that many benefits of globalization would accrue to the poor without significant transformation of its assumptions, goals and process.

Yet, rather than investing in local capacity to meet real needs in a sustainable way, the increasingly integrated global economy was built on the unrelenting pursuit of tremendous profit for a very few by minimizing production costs and accountability to local communities and the earth; concentrating decision-making power; and maximizing flexible access to cheap labor and resources. Unregulated, excessive speculative investment in a wide and increasingly risky array of financial products, rather than investment in a real economy that provided more local job security and protected the earth became the norm. While a small percentage of the global population was experiencing enormous prosperity, human communities on every continent, and increasingly the earth herself, remained exceedingly vulnerable.

Clear values for economic life flow from the Gospel and Catholic social teaching. Echoed by many other faith traditions, these norms have been universally violated, but should become the basis for the new international economic order that is so desperately needed. The U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy written over 20 years ago said:

The quality of the national discussion about our economic future will affect the poor most of all, in this country and throughout the world. The life and dignity of millions of men, women and children hang in the balance. Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people, especially the poor. … human dignity, realized in community with others and with the whole of God’s creation is the norm against which every social institution must be measured.

Thus far, attempts to bail out crashing financial markets, restore capital and lending capacity to major banks, support the failing auto business and slow mortgage foreclosures have failed to adequately reflect our concern for those who are extremely poor or our fragile earth. While we support serious efforts to rescue the U.S. middle class and to invest in a greener economy, we are deeply concerned about the well-being of factory workers in Phnom Penh and hundreds of millions of others who are even more vulnerable.

We are equally concerned about the future of our planet. We know now more than ever about the earth’s limited carrying capacity and about the intrinsic interconnection between humans and others in the earth community. We cannot go back to business as usual.

To pull out of the ashes a national and global economy that ensures the dignity of every person and the integrity of creation will challenge the most creative thinkers in the Obama administration and beyond.

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