Misery of poverty rooted in immorality of economic system

Douglas Roche


June 27, 2016

I have been reflecting on U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and the World Humanitarian Summit. What, you may ask, is the connection?

The U.S. political establishment treated Sanders as a fly in the ointment they use to smooth over the violence and injustice that racks America today.

Unexpectedly, Sanders touched a nerve with young people, who sensed his commitment to build an economic system based on the common good. He may have lost the battle for the Democratic Party nomination for president, but he's obviously still pressing the powers-that-be.

Sanders is much more than an anti-establishment hero. He has pinpointed the reason there is so much anger and distrust of politicians the world over: "In the year 2016, the top one per cent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 per cent, while the wealthiest 60 people - 60 people - own more than the bottom half - 3.5 billion people. . . . We must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable."

That quote comes from Sanders' speech to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome. In the midst of his primary campaign, he was invited to speak at a conference marking the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus, the landmark social justice encyclical of Pope John Paul II.

Of course, the mainline media didn't report what Sanders said; they were too busy figuring out if he had one-upped Hillary Clinton by meeting the pope.

A woman begs on a roadside in Kabul, Afghanistan.


A woman begs on a roadside in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Pleading for modern society to express more compassion and justice for the poor, Sanders called for policies based on the common good.

Then he rejected the idea that the intense misery in the world is not our responsibility: "Pope Francis himself is surely the world's greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism. He has opened the eyes of the world once again to the claims of mercy, justice and the possibilities of a better world. He is inspiring the world to find a new global consensus for our common home."

You don't hear such vision expressed by your average politician. Clinton undoubtedly has presidential qualities, but, as an establishment figure, she doesn't come close to Bernie's dissection of the economy of greed and prescriptions to make a level playing field.

It was the senator's use of the words "incapable of feeling compassion" that brought to my mind the World Humanitarian Summit.


Of all the places where compassion should stir action, you'd think a world meeting dedicated to curing poverty would do the trick. Instead, the summit revealed that the compassion of the rich and powerful is extremely limited.

The first World Humanitarian Summit in May in Istanbul, convened by the United Nations, brought together 9,000 participants from 173 countries, including 55 heads of government, hundreds of private sector representatives, and thousands of people from civil society and non-governmental organizations.

In all its 70 years, the UN had never convened a meeting on this scale to discuss the pressing challenges that are resulting in so much suffering today.


The summit made it emphatically clear that humanitarian assistance alone cannot reduce the needs of over 130 million of the world's most vulnerable people. A new and coherent approach is required based on addressing root causes, increasing political diplomacy for prevention and conflict resolution, and bringing humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts together.

But there's little political will to do this. The leaders of the five permanent states on the Security Council didn't even show up. The lower-level officials could only talk about a better deal for refugees and displaced people, not put into action plans for stabilizing the world.

I was surprised to note that Doctors Without Borders, which runs battlefield hospitals, shunned the summit, calling it a "fig leaf of good intentions." It seems that this great humanitarian organization knew beforehand there would be no binding political commitments to do more to prevent war, uphold human rights and distribute the burden of resettling refugees more equitably.


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cried out: "We have reached a level of human suffering without parallel since the founding of the United Nations."

Senator Sanders says: "Our challenge is mostly a moral one, to redirect our efforts and vision to the common good."

Are we incapable of feeling compassion? Are the richest countries looking the other way when confronted with growing misery? Something in the world political system is terribly wrong, and I think we should listen more to what Bernie Sanders is trying to tell us.