Poverty and hunger are worse than the economic crisis

The United Nations General Assembly elects a president every year. For the 63th session which began on September 16, the world’s nations elected the former Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann. Father Miguel d’Escoto, to be precise. He uses the presidential podium not only to anounce the next speaker, but also to anounce that another world is possible. ‘Humanity is not condemned to continue to sink deeper in the quagmire of insane and suicidal selfishness.’


A colleague from the diplomatic community noted that the president prefers to be called “Father”. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann is a Maryknoll priest with a profound pride and respect for his vocation to the priesthood that he does not hide. He was born in Los Angeles in 1933, the son of a Nicaraguan diplomat.  As a young enthusiastic Maryknoll priest in New York, he founded Orbis Books, the publishing arm of the Maryknoll community. The stated aim of Orbis was to make the writings of liberation theologians such as Gustavo Guttierez, Juan Luis Segundo, Jon Sobrino, and so many other previously unknown scholars available to a wider, global English language readership. What made him really famous throughout the world, was the fact that he was asked to be the minister of Foreign Affairs in the revolutionairy Sandinista governement of Nicaragua from 1979 on. He stayed in that position until the Sandinistas lost the election of 1990 to the conservative opposition.

Miguel d’Escoto was not the only priest in that governement. Priest-brothers Father Ernesto CardenalCultural Minister, and Father Fernando Cardenal, Education Minister, also took part in what many around the world saw as a new experiment of social revolution.
Father Miguel is a man who has known the plight of war as well as peace, and he is deeply commited to resolving the major issues of today, including world poverty, hunger, disarmament, disease, democratization, education, housing, and now the eonomic crisis. 
Since the coming year 2009 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Reconciliation, what better year for a prophetic priest like Father Miguel d’Escoto to preside over the General Assembly.
We spoke to the president in his office on the second floor of the UN building in New York.

The highest priority for your presidency has been “democratizing the UN” Could you explain that for us?
Miguel d’Escoto: To democratize means making the will of the majority count. A diplomat from one of the most powerful countries within the UN asked me what could be more democratic than the one nation one vote rule. My answer is: as nice as such a rule may be, it is useless if those votes don’t count in reality. For example, for the past 17 years now the General Assembly has been voting every year on a resolution regarding the US embargo against Cuba. This year only three countries out of over 190 nations voted to maintain that embargo: the US, Israel and Palau. In other words: almost the entire world rejects the embargo, but that does not make the embargo dissapear.
The will of the majority is neglected and the dictatorship of the most powerful persists. The same logic is at work in the financial world, which is in a deep crisis today. Rich nations are players who do as they wish without taking into account the expectations of the rest of humanity, even though that majority has to pay for the consequences when things go wrong. One of the pillars of this dictatorship of the minority is the way the Security Council functions.
Do you mean that the veto power of the permanent members within the Security Council is undemocratic in nature?
Miguel d’Escoto: You know, I could even live with the abuse of veto power by some countries. What’s really unacceptable, is the fact that this privileged position has gone to some members’ heads. They believe they can do whatever they want, whatever the consequences. How many people do you think have died as a direct consequence of the war against Iraq? The well respected medical publication The Lancet  calculates the number of such casualties at 1.2 million now. The Security Council has never approved the aggression on Iraq, but that has not stopped one of it’s permanent members to go ahead with the war and to continue the occupation. That shows that the Security Council cannot even control it’s own members. And what is worse is that there is no guarantee that the same cannot happen again tomorrow–which even holds true after November 4th. Although it is not impossible that the imperial dream of planetary domination will be shelved now that Obama is elected president.
Would you say, then, that the Security Council is useless?
Miguel d’Escoto: No, certainly not. We need a Security Council. But the way in which democracy has been treated within the Security Council is responsable for the current state of affairs, in which the level of trust in and prestige of the SC is at its lowest ebb ever. One could say that the United States, which dropped in international standing in an unprecendented way, pulled the UN down with them.  That could happen because of the sacred principle in diplomatic circles: “Thou shall never say anything that could make the powerful uncomfortable”. I believe, though, that all those who work within the UN are not here to comfort each other, but to realize the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, to serve the peoples mentioned in the opening sentence of the Charter.
Would the expansion of the Security Council with some of  the emerging powers from the Global South make the institution more democratic?
Miguel d’Escoto: There is a working group within the General Assembly, working on proposals to reform the UN. That group has been functioning for 17 years already and it has been a complete failure up to now. The crucial questions of democratization have not even been touched upon and even the more limited agenda of a more equitable representation of different regions of the world within the permanent membership of the UN has not gotten anywhere. And one could even question if that inclusion would make a real difference.
If the US can defy 189 member states in the General Assembly for their embargo against Cuba, then why would they be impressed even by twenty permanent members in the Security Council? The imperial ambitions and practices of the US are in fundamental contradiction with the founding principles of the UN. Some people tell me cynically that this is the way empires handle power. Well, the point is that the purpose of the United Nations from the very beginning has been precisely to prevent that kind of imperial behaviour.
You not only criticize the Security Council, but also blame the Bretton Woods institutions for the lack of global democracy. What kind of reforms would you like to see in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund?
Miguel d’Escoto: Reforms? I think these institutions should disappear. John Maynard Keynes, the inspiration for the Bretton Woods conference where WB and IMF were born, would turn over in his grave if saw what “his” institutions are doing in reality. The founders of the UN were convinced that peace, international security and the development of democracy would be impossible as long as people continued to die from hunger. That is why they founded IMF and WB, to combat poverty. But in reality these institutions often contributed to a deepening poverty by imposing policies of privatization and deregulation.
The very ones who formulate policies at IMF and WB would themselves never put such prescriptions into practice in their own countries, because they know they are lethal policies. One scholar who understands this exceptionally well is Professor Joseph Stiglitz, former vice president of the World Bank and later Nobel Prize winner for Economy. He is now coordinating a team of specialists within the framework of the United Nations to come up with proposals for a new economic architecture for the world.
How does this Task Force relate to the G-20 initiative of presidents Sakozy and Bush?
Miguel d’Escoto: To be honest, I’m getting tired of all those Gs:  G-8, G-14, G-20, G-what have you. There is no G-grouping that comes near to the G-192: the United Nations. Just last week, on October 30th, we hosted a top-level panel discussion on the financial crisis. Even countries that form that so-called G-20 confirmed that the United Nations is definitely the very best place to design such a new architecture. If the whole world has to pay for the insanity of financial capitalism, then that same whole world has to be part of formulating an alternative. This is far too important to be left to the twenty powerful nations to decide.
At the end of November, another high priority on your agenda will take place: the International Conference on Financing for Development, to be held in Doha, Bahrein. What would you expect as an outcome of that conference?
Miguel d’Escoto: The previous meeting of this Conference, in Monterey, Mexico, in 2003, saw the rich nations promise to spend 0.7 percent of their GNP on development aid. That is hardly more than crumbs falling from the table of abundance. And even that minimum commitment  has not been met these past years. I hope the rest of the world will find the courage to peak the truth in Doha and say that the minimum is not enough.
We often talk about the destruction of life on Earth by ecological drama or nuclear weapons, but the worst nuclear bomb is poverty and hunger, that kill millions. Togeyther hunger and poverty also constitute the biggest sin on earth. And that is exactly why we should aim for more than the 0.7 procent, because it will not suffice to eradicate poverty. For me, the Conference in Doha is not an end, but a start. We hope to receive the mandate from the General Assembly soon to organize a World Summit on poverty in the spring next year.
Prior to the end of November you will have already organised a summit of world religions, following a request from Saudi-Arabia. What do you hope to accomplish with that conference?
Miguel d’Escoto: I would hope that we all reconnect with the fundamental values of our different religions.  Up to now, all religions have failed by accepting the neoliberal dogma that states that human ethics and religious morals are not meant to be applied in the sphere of economy. ‘Let the business of business be business’, was the slogan. Corporations, it was believed, were meant to make a profit, not to make justice happen on earth.
Morality was the reserve of the Sunday service.  For the rest of the week people were free to behave as economic or political animals that do not recognize and take into account the human dignity and human rights of other people. So it is no surprise that the current crisis has often been described as the consequence of greed. What we should do now, is to replace the greed at the center of the system, with the principles of brotherhood and sisterhood.
What would an economy driven by solidarity and love look like?
Miguel d’Escoto: It would be an economy that doesn’t strive for profit maximalization, but for social responsability and the common good. We are not necessarily condemned to sink deeper in the quagmire of insane and suicidal selfishness. That does not mean I am against profits, but it does mean that I am for a system that make people share those profits. The world we live in today makes it possible that some individuals who play by the rules accumulate more wealth than the 26 least developed countries combined. That is not sustainable.
This year we’ve seen different crises: climate, food, energy, credit… Maybe those crises will awaken us from our ethical slumber. Who knows? If we could just do what our Lord Jesus Christ gave us as his parting words: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ We have not followed the example He set, and I don’t know how much more we have to suffer the consequences of our infidelity to our Lord before we will reform ourselves.
Are the Latin-American governements showing the way?
Miguel d’Escoto: Let me tell you, some of the greatest preachers and practitioners of justice today are among the Latin American leaders, including Fidel Castro and President Evo Morales of Bolivia. When he speaks, the wisdom and values of centuries of indigenous experience start to blossom. Latin-America has been through the worst of times before, we have seen the darkest coners of human experience, but today we are living through the brightest times of our history. The dream of Bolivar, to see a united Latin America that would provide dignified lives for all its inhabitants, is no longer only a dream. It is a task, a project that is being realized bit by bit.
You almost make it sound as if Latin American leaders are nearly saints.
Miguel d’Escoto: The optimism that we are living should never stop us from fighting the corruption of ideals. That is a struggle from which there is no vacation possible. We have to strive for purity of intention. We have to distance ourselves from an egocentric agenda. If we keep the larger goal before us, we can keep that purity of intention. But as soon as one permits the intrusion of a personal agenda, of personal advantage, then corruption of ideals sets in. It is a danger that will always be there when humans are involved.
As we concluded our hour-long interview, Father d’Escoto pointed to portraits of the three heroes who watch over his shoulder when writing speeches or drafting resolutions: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Dorothy Day from the Catholic Worker. “They help me see what Christ’s message means for us today,” he humbly explained.  Another framed portrait that hangs on his office wall is that of Leo Tolstoi.  “It was Tolstoi that converted Gandhi to Jesus Christ and to non-violence. What makes Tolstoi so special, is that he was not trying to preach his own vision of society, he only wanted to understand more what Christ really wanted. He discovered that to understand that message, one has to turn to the Sermon on the Mount”. 
The connection that Miguel d’Escoto makes with his historic heroes results in a language that is full of references to love, brotherhood, and satyagraha -the power of truth that is stronger than violence. “We are all brothers and sisters”, Father d’Escoto said at the closing of the General Debate of the 63th session of the UN  General Assembly on September 29th. “And if we hope to climb out of this terrible mess we have created, we must treat each other with respect and love”.  

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