How a lone missionary found a way to defeat poverty

Catholic Herald, 12 September 2019

“Poverty is not inevitable!” So declared the Holy Father on his visit to Madagascar, the poor island-nation of some 26 million people in the Indian Ocean. Pope Francis made his declaration when visiting Akamasoa, a community built upon a former garbage dump where people once foraged for food. Now there are nearly 30,000 people who live in 5,000 locally built homes in a combination of entrepreneurship and philanthropy organised by an extraordinary missionary from Argentina, Fr Pedro Opeka.

The Holy Father’s declaration is remarkable. Pope Francis spoke truly, but it has only been true relatively recently. For most of human history, for most people, poverty was inevitable. Only recently, in the 17th-century, did mass populations achieve sustained economic growth; economic stagnation was the norm before that. Actually, economic stagnation only became a concept when there was an alternative, namely economic growth.

When Pope Francis was born in 1936, it was still widely thought that poverty was inevitable for the many, and prosperity was restricted only to a few. Widespread prosperity was for the northern nations, or for the colonial powers, or the white race, or Protestants, or those countries rich in natural resources, or with large armed forces. No one thinks that way any more; recent experience has shown that southern countries can grow, that Catholics can prosper, that countries without any natural resources can become very rich and that other races are no less creative and productive than whites when given the opportunity.

Pope Francis knows this from direct, inverse experience. He is widely admired for being a “bishop of the slums” when he was in Buenos Aires, with a heart for the poor. He often visited the slum-dwellers and assigned priests full time to the slums, living among the poor they served. It’s probably why he chose to visit Akamasoa. That’s a pastoral priority.

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