Churches Together in Britain and Ireland

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland

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inherit the earth?

book review


Alice famously thought a book without pictures and conversation was useless: she would like this one. In it, Barbara Butler, Executive Secretary of Christians Aware, assesses the world's progress towards the goals set by the United Nations at the millennium for 2015. She has peppered her account with both pictures and stories (if not conversations) from those at the sharp end.

Her conclusions are that progress has been mixed. Initially I thought her over-optimistic, but the current New Internationalist includes a graphic confirming Barbara's account. Sub-Saharan Africa lags dramatically on most scores, but in other areas, particularly the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), there is clear evidence of improvement. Economic growth is bringing with it some of the benefits that the UN had originally envisaged for an improved world order.

The main chapters systematically address the eight goals - from ‘eradicating extreme poverty and hunger' to ‘develop a global partnership for development' - and most of the 21 targets. The use of stories helps the reader understand the human impact of the work; and each chapter ends with a reflection - a story, prayer or meditation reinforced by impressive images.

I turned to things I know a little of - I remember the slums in Nairobi, Kenya from my teenage years in the late 1960s, and it seems little has changed in 45 years, except in those days we hadn't heard of AIDS. "...roughly 50 shacks share one hole in the ground as the only lavatory... At least 50,000 of the children are AIDS orphans." In Sierra Leone, Methodist Janice Clark, who a few years ago was based in Edinburgh spreading the good work of Habitat for Humanity, is promoting literacy. Barbara includes Janice's account of supporting teachers across a wide area who struggle with pupils' health problems, poor transport links, and limited resources, yet with positive results.

With the rich resource of stories and illustrations, it is sometimes hard to follow the logic of the narrative. Some gems are hidden: it took me a while to find the underlying critique that I felt was needed. The millennium goals are vital, and have true potential to improve lives - but work towards them is hobbled by the context of global capitalism with its dependence on growth and material enrichment.

In the final chapter we are reminded of the work of Fritz Schumacher, Paolo Friere, and my particular hero Julius Nyerere: those who recognised that ultimately salvation lies not in corporations and global institutions, but in people, and their mobilisation. We need drugs manufacturers and roads infrastructure to carry out mass vaccination against measles and other preventable illnesses. But if 60 cents in every aid dollar goes back to the corporations instead of to the communities that are being helped, the targets will recede into the distance.

Barbara quotes Sri Lankan activist Bernadine Silva: "We must be alert, we must not allow capitalism to programme us into conformity."

Barbara Butler has written an informed, passionate, reflective account that makes a massive undertaking understandable. She creates links between the familiar world of the west and the majority world where basic sanitation cannot be taken for granted, where giving birth is a major hazard, and where girls and women are at constant disadvantage. She shows the strengths of community organisation and creativity in combating such conditions. And she cries out with the urgency needed to turn the aspirations of the millennium to reality. We only have two years to go.

Alastair Cameron
Chief Executive, Scottish Churches Housing Action

Inherit the Earth

Full book details
Find out about Barbara Butler's book examining the progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals
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