This month we look at two critically different approaches to helping the Third World’s poor taken by churches in the West; and at Nicaragua’s attempts to achieve food self-sufficiency and political freedom after the revolution.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
The poor as liberators
Poor, Yet Making Many Rich
by Richard D. N. Dickinson
WCC (pbk) £5.75/$7.50
Christians and the Third World
by David Edgington
Paternoster Press (pbk) £4.00
In the medieval church everybody knew that you ought to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, harbour the stranger, visit the sick, minister to prisoners, bury the dead. These were ‘the seven corporal works of mercy’, read off from Matthew Chapter 25. So when Christians of the 20th century are confronted with the problems of the Third World, they have a long tradition upon which to rely. For some people, however, that tradition of giving charity has now become questionable. Just how far contemporary theology has moved is made explicit in Richard Dickinson’s hook.
He sets out to review the ideas on ‘development, liberation and global justice issues’ that have evolved in secular society and in the thinking of the World Council of Churches over the last two decades.
The ‘works of mercy’ approach assumes that the rich should give to the poor: it says nothing about how the two groups arrived at their relative positions. Once development moves behind economics to questions of justice, it becomes a much more explosive subject than the advocates of ’charity’ ever realised. The rich are soon unmasked as the source of the injustice. Changes in the patterns of power and liberation are then on the agenda.
‘Development is essentially a people’s struggle in which the poor and oppressed should be the main protagonists, the active agents and immediate beneficiaries. Therefore the development process must be seen from the point of view of the poor and oppressed masses who are the subjects and not the objects of development. The role of the churches and Christian communities everywhere should be essentially supportive.’ (1977 report of the Commission on the Churches’ participation in development — our emphasis.)
In such an understanding, the poor then become the educators and sometimes the liberators of the rich , giving them what they cannot acquire for themselves, a vision of the way forward,
This approach which has slowly developed in the WCC, is approved by Dickinson. He backs it up with practical case-studies of working alongside the poor. Yet he is no starry-eyed idealist. He recognises that there is a need for a tough look at the jargon of development: ‘solidarity with the poor’, ‘participation’. He argues for a study of power. to see how the churches exercise influence within political power structures and how they can confront the secular claims of militarism and national security which seem to lie at the heart of all international dilemmas,
This important and profound book takes the debate on to the question of what makes the church. Does it exist on the basis of a set of theological beliefs or is it a society validated by its Christ-like involvement in the needs of the world and its theologically-informed lifestyle and use of power?
By contrast, David Edgington’s book stands more traditionally within the assumptions of the church-based missionary enterprise.
There would be plenty of disagreement over fundamentals between the two authors. When Edgington talks of learning from the Third World, the example he gives is the participation of Lois Palau, the ‘Argentinian Evangelist’, on a British. ‘Youth for Christ’ platform. He fails to recognise that Palau, whatever his origins, is a product of Western culture and theology. This book has emerged from an area of church thinking which has traditionally dealt in certainties about doctrines and attitudes which it believed it should, as its missionary task, convey to others.
Michael Hare Duke
Michael Hare Duke is the Bishop of St. Andrews, Scotland
Food first in Nicaragua
What Difference Could a Revolution Make?
by Joseph Collins with Francis Moore Lappé and Nick Allen
US: Institute for Food and Development Policy (pbk) $4.95
UK: Distributed by Third World Publications £4.50
Now We Can Speak: A Journey through the New Nicaragua
by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins
US: IFDP (pbk) $4.95
UK: TWP £3.95
When the Somoza dictatorship fell, on July 19th 1979, the Sandinistas inherited a country in which 1,600 people owned almost half the land and infant malnutrition was running at 60 per cent.
What Difference Could a Revolution Make? is the story of how this cruel legacy is being transformed in a ‘new Nicaragua’, in which ‘the logic of the majority’ means equitable land distribution and an adequate diet for everyone.
Co-author of the classic Food First —Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, Joseph Collins invites us to look at the Sandinista achievement through ‘food glasses’. What we see is very different from the popular image of revolutionaries. In place of gun-waving ideologues, we find conscientious government officials and hard-working campesinos dedicated to achieving food self-sufficiency — and to ridding Nicaragua of the crippling $1.6 billion foreign debt which Somoza bequeathed.
The new government courageously resisted the simplistic doctrine of ‘land to the people’, realising that a cash-crop economy cannot be dismantled overnight. Instead, it saw increased export-earnings as the best way to buy time for the development of a ‘basic foods programme’. So, the slogan was pragmatically modified to ‘land to whomever works it’ — a policy which still leaves a surprising 66 per cent of arable land in the private sector,
Achievements have been dramatic. Since 1978, the production — and consumption — of maize, beans and rice has soared; infant mortality has declined by 30 per cent and exports of coffee and sugar are up by 10 and 20 per cent respectively.
But it’s not all a success story, Private landowners have been largely uncooperative — using cheap government loans to line their own pockets and allowing farm land to lie idle. And attacks from Honduras by ex-National Guardsmen both foster a nervous siege mentality and divert scarce resources from the agricultural sector.
The balance of pluralism is a delicate one. And Collins shows how it may yet tip under the pressure of propaganda from Washington — a hostility which threatens daily to become a military reality.
If What Difference . . .7 gives us ‘food glasses’, the companion volume Now We Can Speak tries to give us the vision of the new Nicaragua. As the title suggests, the text is a lively patchwork of conversations with women and men from all walks of life —peasants, politicians and priests. Photographs eloquently portray the mixture of determination and excitement which characterises the new-found voices. Asuncion, a cooperative leader, says, ‘I began to understand what human rights are all about. There are no limits on what human beings can do once you understand what human rights are all about.’
Both books present refreshingly humane accounts of post-revolutionary Nicaragua. And the society they describe is striking for its principled lack of political dogmatism. In the words of a former brigadista: ‘In Nicaragua today I don’t believe in anyone simply because they expound this or that philosophy. I look at what he or she is doing.’