Category Archives: Social justice

The Expansive Vision of Martin Luther King

 By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

King speaking to an anti-Vietnam war rally at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, April 27, 1967. (Photo: Wikipedia)

 King saw his commitment to racial justice and his opposition to the war in Vietnam as integrally connected aspects of a single moral and spiritual demand: “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.” He joined the dots to see the triple evil of racism, poverty, and militarism as three manifestations of a pernicious scheme of values that prizes wealth above people.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known as the civil rights leader who, in the late 1950s and 1960s, led his fellow African Americans in their nonviolent struggle to end the oppressive Jim Crow policies that reigned throughout the South. His crowning achievement, in this period of his life, was the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In recognition of his role in leading these campaigns, King was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

King’s victory in the fight for civil rights did not bring an end to his commitment to social justice. The same inner calling that drew him to the struggle for civil rights now beckoned him into new arenas that called for a conscientious response. One cause to which King devoted himself was opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, which had surged in the late 1960s, with a devastating rise in casualties. The other was the persistence of crippling poverty, which was particularly endemic among African Americans but also beset people of all races throughout the U.S. and around the world.

King saw these manifestations of human suffering—racism, militarism, and poverty—not as isolated and disconnected phenomena, but as overlapping, interconnected violations of inherent human dignity. In his view, they all sprang from a fundamental distortion in values that infected the depths of the soul. Thus the remedy for them—for all three at once—was not merely a change in political and economic policies but a far-reaching moral transformation of human consciousness that extended down to its base.

King is best remembered for his poignant “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the famous March on Washington in August 1963. The speech envisioned a future when people would embrace each other without regard for the color of their skin, when even in Alabama, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Despite its popular appeal, however, in my view “I Have a Dream” was not King’s most potent and incisive speech. That distinction belongs, rather, to the speech he gave at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assassination.

It was in the Riverside speech that he publicly announced his opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. For a long time, he had inwardly opposed the war but had never previously spoken against it in public. Now he felt his conscience demanded he speak out, and he thus titled the speech “A Time to Break Silence.”

King’s decision to declare his opposition to the war drew pointed criticism. Many of the American political leaders who supported him on civil rights turned against him; some even tried to smear him as a communist agent. But criticism also came from his fellow leaders in the civil rights struggle. They pleaded with him to reverse his decision, asking him not to risk jeopardizing their cause by stepping outside his proper domain. In their view, further progress in securing civil rights required that, with regard to the war, King continue to remain silent.

King, however, had a different view about his responsibilities. He saw his commitment to the cause of racial justice and his opposition to the war as integrally connected aspects of a single moral and spiritual demand, a demand that swelled up from the depths of his being as if by divine decree. In the speech he offers seven reasons for his decision to speak out against the war. Of these, the one he felt most pressing was his conviction that as a preacher and a man of God, he was obliged “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy” (p. 234).[1] Whether it was Black Americans denied their civil and political rights or Vietnamese peasants decimated by U.S. bombing raids, it was the need to defend the full humanity of the victims that pricked King’s conscience and brought forth words of eloquence from his mouth and pen.

After explaining in detail his reasons for opposing the war, he next offers a sharp but salutary diagnosis of the underlying forces that drive American policy. This diagnosis takes us beyond politics into the spiritual domain, into “the soul of America,” which makes King’s critique even more cogent in relation to our own time. He decries the war, not only for the violence it inflicts on innocent lives, but because it is “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” He identifies this malady as a pernicious scheme of values that gives priority to “things” over people; specifically, a code of values that endorses the quest for wealth, profits, and property rights even when these pursuits lead to the oppression, death, and devastation of millions of our fellow human beings.

King locates, at the root of our cultural pathologies, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” The unity of these three evil forces figures prominently in King’s thought throughout his later years. He declares, in his Vietnam speech, that “this business of burning human beings with napalm … of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.” Then he delivers a stark warning: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” (p. 241) This message is especially crucial for us to heed today. Here in America we falter over a bill that would provide urgently needed programs of social assistance to poor and low-wage families, on the grounds that they are “too expensive”; yet we gladly heap close to $800 billion annually on our bloated military machine. Such a disparity is surely an offense to the moral consciousness and a betrayal of our constitutional obligation to provide for the common welfare.

In the final portion of his speech, King lifts his gaze from its focus on the immediate crisis of the Vietnam war and extends it to the broader dimensions of the human situation as he viewed it under the conditions of his own time; these conditions are still very much with us today. He speaks of how, all over the globe, people are turning against old systems of exploitation and oppression and are aspiring for new models of governance marked by justice and equality. He denounces the role of the Western nations, whose leading philosophers first envisaged the ideals of revolutionary justice, but which have now become the defenders of oppression, the foes of systemic transformation. He declares, with a provocative flourish, that “our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism” (p. 242).

King goes on to sound the call for “a genuine revolution of values,” which entails that “our loyalties must become ecumenical [that is, universal] rather than sectional.” To preserve the best in our societies, he contends, “every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind [that is, humankind] as a whole.” And that means we must heed the call “for an all-embracing and unconditional love” for all people everywhere. King clarifies that what he means by the often-diluted word “love” is not “some sentimental and weak response,” but “that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life, the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality” (p. 242).

Despite the passage of 56 years since King delivered his speech at the Riverside Church, the message he conveys still rings true, indeed with astonishing prescience. Particularly astute was his insight into the deep, hidden, inextricable connections that unify the multiple crises we face in today’s world, even right here in our own country. King’s triple scourge of systemic racism, poverty, and militarism has to be extended to include ecological devastation (especially climate change), the drift toward authoritarian forms of government around the world (even here in the U.S.), and the rise of repressive, reactionary religious sects that encourage violence and seek domination through political alliances.

Even the supreme triumph of the civil rights era—the gain of voting rights by Black Americans—is now in grave danger. These gains were already weakened by the Supreme Court decision of 2013, which removed the need for “preclearance” of changes to voting rules in states with a history of racial discrimination. Over the past few months, the right to vote is being seriously eroded by new laws that permit voter suppression, election subversion, and partisan redistricting in ways that diminish the impact of voters from Black and other minority communities.

Another major Supreme Court decision, the Citizens United ruling of 2010, also delivered a blow to genuine democracy. The ruling lets corporations and wealthy individuals spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, thereby giving disproportionate weight to the interests of the ultra-wealthy over the concerns of ordinary citizens. The result has been to hand control over our political system to giant corporations and moneyed groups, with a corresponding reduction in the role the people have in determining who represents them and what kinds of programs are enacted. This has allowed vast disparities in wealth to grow still wider, such that here in the U.S. roughly 40% of the population is poor or low income, while just six men possess between them over $900 billion.

With the increasing rise of autocratic tendencies in American politics, the replacement of the rule of law by the rule of wealth, and the persistence of poverty and new manifestations of racism, our situation becomes increasingly dire, the future of American democracy ever more fragile. Since currents in American politics do not remain confined within our own borders, the impact of an autocratic takeover of the U.S. would inevitably spread across the globe, encouraging other aspiring autocrats to take control of their countries. Already strange partnerships are emerging among autocrats in distant lands.

All these worrisome developments call for a determined moral response, a response ultimately grounded in compassion and the affirmation of human solidarity. Delay is not an option. Here King’s words, toward the end of his Vietnam speech, become especially piquant: “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time” (p. 243).

The question we face here in the U.S.—as we flounder in our struggle against poverty, racism, devastating climate change, the erosion of voting rights, and the drift toward authoritarianism in politics and religion—is this: “Will we act in time, or will we look back, as King put it, ‘naked and dejected with a lost opportunity,’ forced to admit that we let the chance slip by and now it’s simply too late?”


[1] All references are to the text of the speech in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington (HarperSanFrancisco, 1986).

Can a Doughnut Help to Heal Our World?

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

DOUGHNUTS
Photo by Viv Lynch on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The dominant economic model followed by virtually all major economies is inflicting severe injuries on the planet’s fragile ecosystem and causing glaring economic and social inequalities. Can a diagram of a doughnut offer us a key to resolving our predicament?

The human community today faces two momentous challenges that will loom ever larger in the years ahead. One is to establish the social and economic conditions necessary for everyone on this planet to flourish: to live with dignity and purpose and fulfill their life’s potentials. The other is to safeguard the natural environment on which we depend from the harm caused by an economy dependent on unrestrained extraction and consumption. These challenges to our collective well-being are bound to grow in severity and urgency over the coming decades. To meet them successfully calls for a transformation in the vectors that drive the economy both nationally and globally. Our current dominant economic system is pushing us toward a precipice, and we’re careening forward with hardly a thought for the plunge that lies ahead. It’s as if we’re in a car drawing ever closer to the edge of a cliff, and we continue to press down on the gas pedal while we argue over which station to listen to on the radio.

To resolve the double crisis facing us we must trace it to its roots, which means that we must look at the premises that ground the dominant economic system. The economic policies our governments pursue operate within the parameters of an economic model, which posits goals for the whole economy and prescribes what it believes to be the most effective means to realize them. This model is shared by the world’s major economic powers, whether they operate in capitalist or state-controlled modes. An economic model exerts a powerful influence over almost all our ways of thinking about our common lives, yet the validity of this model, its objective truth, is tacitly assumed, accepted almost as inevitable as the succession of day and night. Thus it’s left to stand unnoticed in the background, like the screen against which a movie is projected: omnipresent, indispensable, yet not seen in itself.

If the model conforms to the contours of the real world, the policies that flow from it will be realistic, constructive, and socially benign. But if the model is rooted in a distorted picture of the world—a picture that omits some crucial features while giving excessive weight to others—it will lead to unwise policies that damage both the social fabric of our lives and the natural environment. That the model we currently work within involves serious distortions of the actual world, distortions in both its human and natural dimensions, is the crux of our present predicament.

The model that reigns today is that of an industrial growth economy, which measures “development” in terms of expanded industrial production and increase in gross domestic product. The model is powerful, compelling, and logically rigorous, but as we can see from the global crises it repeatedly triggers, it is also terribly flawed, harboring inherent pathologies that infect both our social order and our relationships with nature. It fails to recognize that an economy that thrives by devouring the Earth’s natural resources undermines and debilitates the planet’s finite supporting capacity. And it fails to recognize that at the core of every economic model there are real people who are subjects of experience—people with hopes, fears, and aspirations who, by reason of their humanity, are entitled to the basic requisites of a dignified life.

The results of such oversights can be disastrous. In the social dimension of our lives, the model leads to glaring inequalities in wealth and income, to violations of basic social equity, to pockets of deep poverty in the midst of plenty. It consigns hundreds of millions of people to the edge of survival, perpetually struggling just to avoid destitution and premature death. It divides the world into rival military camps that spend billions on weapons of deadly power while millions in their own lands live in utter poverty.

Our relationship to the environment is just as vicious. This model promotes a purely utilitarian orientation to nature, an outlook that compels us to chip away at the fragile geophysical and biological pillars that sustain human civilization on this precious planet. If the destruction continues, everything we cherish is bound to collapse, and we ourselves will join the crash.

To successfully resolve these two problems—rampant social injustice and environmental exploitation—we need an economic model that can promote social equity and the protection of the natural environment. The model must be governed not by mere quantitative measurements of production, growth, and financial profitability, but by standards that reflect a moral point of view.

This calls for an expanded conception of ethics. It’s not enough merely to promote ethics as a code of individual behavior. Ethical principles must guide the larger systems in which our lives unfold, including the dominant economic model. This means that ethics must govern our relationship to each other at every level of our shared existence while also regulating our relationships with the physical and biological systems in which we are inextricably embedded.

But to invoke ethics as a critical factor in the economy, we have to ensure that ethics shapes economic and social policies that promote the common good. This is where the current system repeatedly falters. While individual companies and institutions may adopt codes of ethics for their members—and while some companies may adhere to codes of social and environmental responsibility—the dominant model operates with an ethics-neutral source code. The prevailing imperative for a corporation to succeed, especially one with a global reach, is to maximize profits, to increase returns on investments, and to provide higher dividends to its shareholders.

To meet these goals a corporation, even while espousing ethics for its workforce, may exploit the natural wealth of the Earth without constraint: clearing primal forests for timber and monocrop agriculture, polluting lakes and rivers with toxic chemicals, belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The drive for higher profits has profound human costs as well. It encourages giant companies to pay substandard wages, pressure politicians with lobbying campaigns, and transfer their bases of production to countries where labor is cheap and regulations weak and unenforced.

British economist Kay Raworth has proposed the outline of an alternative economic model that captures, in a clear visual image, the goalposts we must pursue to overcome the two interlocked hurdles facing humankind today. A Senior Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, where she teaches Environmental Change and Management, Raworth has designed a model she calls “doughnut economics.” She has presented this model at various conferences, in YouTube videos, on her website, and in a full-length book called Doughnut Economics, which the Financial Times selected as the best work on economics for 2017.

The “economic doughnut” has gone through several iterations. Here is a version on Wikipedia:

Like an actual doughnut, the circular model has two circumferences: an outer rim and an inner rim. The outer rim is what Raworth calls the “environmental ceiling.” It consists of nine “planetary boundaries,” among them climate change, environmental pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and land conversion. To pass beyond these boundaries is to push environmental degradation to dangerous levels, to push the Earth’s geophysical systems along damaging trajectories. The inner rim defines the “social foundation” on which a just society rests. It involves a set of twelve essential social standards that include such material goods as nutritious food, potable water, adequate housing, and energy; social goods such as health care, education, work, social equity, and gender equality; and political goods such as political representation, freedom of expression, and peace. Between these social and planetary boundaries, Raworth writes, lies the doughnut, “an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.” The task for the 21st century, according to this model, is to bring all of humanity into that safe and just space

This task, however, is not at all easy. It clashes with a political system that permits corporations and their lobbyists to write laws and block inconvenient regulations. It runs up against the reigning economic model, which is relentlessly propelling us across both the inner and the outer rims of the doughnut. The policies that flow from this model have given us a world in which a privileged few enjoy enormous power and material wealth while billions struggle just to survive—indeed, where millions fall through the cracks, unable to escape degrading poverty, hunger, illness, and early death.

If we are to achieve the common good, a world of economic justice and environmental health, we must place Raworth’s doughnut at the center of economic and social policy. Any viable, sustainable economy must be built around the recognition that true human value does not lie in rising amounts of wealth and power for the few and misery, poverty, and crippling anxiety for the powerless many. It lies in a stable natural world, thriving and regenerative; in fulfilling human relationships based on trust and equity; and in the leisure and opportunity to pursue our cultural interests and spiritual callings.

These are the goods that enrich and dignify human life, yet it is these that are being ignored and expunged by the system that prevails today. If we are to recover, we must seek out and expose the malignant forces that have infected our societies and are tearing away at our planet’s delicate geophysical and biological support systems. At the same time, with courage and determination, we must strive to create a future in which all have access to the sources of true human value and can thrive together in harmony with the natural world.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is the founder-chairperson of Buddhist Global Relief.

An earlier version of this essay was published on Common Dreams. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

We Are All Interconnected

By Kim Behan

On October 15, the Nagarjuna Training Institute (based at Nagaloka in Nagpur) presented the Dr. Ambedkar Prabuddha Bharata Peace Award jointly to BGR’s chairperson, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, and our executive director, Kim Behan. The award is given, according to the Institute, “to appreciate those who have made significant contributions to the development of Buddhism and the welfare of humanity, not only in India, but throughout the world.” The award is named after Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an Indian jurist, economist, politician, and social reformer, who inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement and campaigned against social discrimination towards the Dalits, formerly known as the “Untouchables.” A Dalit himself, Dr. Ambedkar became independent India’s first Minister of Law and Justice and is considered the chief architect of the Indian Constitution of India. On October 15, 1956, at Nagpur, he led a mass conversion of 500,000 Dalits from Hinduism to Buddhism. The Award Committee requested Kim Behan to give a short talk on the occasion. There follows here the prepared text of her talk.

It is a great privilege for me to join you today as we celebrate Dharma Chakra Pravartan Day. What an inspiring day of remembrance, on this anniversary of the conversion of Dr. Ambedkar, and of hundreds of thousands of people who found the Dharma under his leadership!

As we celebrate the dawn of the Buddhist revival in India under the guidance of Dr. Ambedkar, we see so clearly how the gift of the Dharma transforms not only our individual lives but the world. This is a beautiful example of the interconnection of all beings, and an opportunity for us to recommit to the work of “compassion in action.”

Dr. Ambedkar had a vision of a society, and a world, free from inequality and discrimination. As a leader, he also recognized that this vision of true compassion in the Dharma is not separate from the struggle for justice in our societies. The impact of the Dharma Revolution (dharmakranti) has resonated across time and around the world, sounding a call for all to act against oppression and injustice.

Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of action guided by love offered India a path toward equality and progress, and his notion of “compassion in action” has given Buddhists everywhere an example of how to build a better world. We see that aspiration continued at the Nagarjuna Training Institute, where you are bringing the dream of Prabuddha Bharat—an Enlightened India, an enlightened world—into reality.

At Buddhist Global Relief, our vision statement says:  “We are inspired by the vision of a world in which debilitating poverty has finally been banished; a world in which all can avail themselves of the basic material supports of a meaningful life—food, clothing, housing, and health care; a world in which everyone can achieve a satisfactory level of education and freely pursue that which gives their life value and purpose; a world in which all people dwell in peace and harmony with one another and with the natural environment.”

Just as Dr. Ambedkar guided India toward greater justice through the Dharma, we at Buddhist Global Relief allow the teachings to guide us in seeking to transform the material conditions of those who are left behind by unequal societies—in the U.S., in India, and in many other nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

For example, a project with our longtime partner, the Bodhicitta Foundation, provides housing and schooling for thirty young women in Nagpur. These are young women, ages 14 to 23, who are at risk of having their education cut short due to poverty. Many belong to the Dalit caste and other groups with high dropout rates. Following their completion of the program, the young women are supported in returning to their home villages to create their own businesses and share their knowledge with other girls and young women.

At the Garden of Peace School in Kurumbupalayam, Tamil Nadu, our partner Lotus Outreach International provides nutritional support twice a day for 175 children, half of whom are girls. The school is located on a small organic farm, and the children and their families are involved in farm activities, helping to grow a portion of the food served to the students.

In Punjab state, our partner Building Bridges India works to support and empower the widows of men who committed suicide because of poverty and indebtedness, leaving the debt to their widows. One Buddhist Global Relief project provides training in organic farming methods to 300 widows; another offers vocational training in sewing to 125 women.

In Diyun township of Arunachal Pradesh, BGR partners with the Mahabodhi Maitri Mandala on a project that provides 245 poor children with three nutritious meals a day as well as uniforms, health care, and school supplies. The children are from tribal clans and more than half of them are girls.

The coronavirus pandemic has created tremendous hardships and suffering for many of the people we serve. This pandemic reminds us that we still have much work to do to achieve Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of equality. Around the world, those most harmed by the pandemic’s impacts continue to be those who are already disadvantaged, while the wealthy and powerful remain largely protected.

And yet the pandemic also teaches us about the interconnectedness of all life. If highly-resourced countries do not make vaccines available to those with fewer resources, the virus will continue to spread and mutate, threatening all of us. Only when vaccines and other medical care are shared with all people will we be able to lessen the destructiveness of this pandemic. Our fates are powerfully intertwined with those of our sisters and brothers in our communities and around the world.

When Buddhist Global Relief provides a Covid-care ventilator to the hospital of the Mahabodhi Society in Bangalore, as when the Buddha Charity Covid Care Centre distributes food and sanitary supplies to poor communities during the pandemic, we act not only from compassion but also from an awareness of our profound interconnectedness.

The Dharma moves us to recognize and act from this interdependence. It offers a path to safety, peace, and contentment that we must travel together with others, realizing that all beings are worthy not only of our love but of having their fundamental needs met.

Our desire for happiness is not separate from our commitment to helping others who face hunger, poverty, injustice, illness, and any other form of suffering. And so we work, side by side, to build a world in which all people live in peace and harmony.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Kim Behan Win Prestigious Award

By Carla Prater

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This month our Chairperson, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Executive Director, Kim Behan jointly received the prestigious Dr. Ambedkar Prabuddha Bharata Peace Award, granted by a Buddhist organization in India called the Nagarjuna Training Institute. The institute, based at Nagaloka in Nagpur, continues the heritage of Engaged Buddhism started by the Dalit leader, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956).

For those who do not know of him, Dr. Ambedkar was an Indian jurist, economist, and social reformer who rose up from poverty to become one of the foremost leaders of independent India. He was born into a poor family of the Dalit community, the people previously referred to by caste Hindus as “Untouchables”—those whose very shadow was considered inauspicious and whose touch was thought to pollute. In his youth, Ambedkar suffered the indignities inflicted upon Dalits by reason of their birth, but he was a bright and diligent student who overcame the obstacles he faced in pursuit of his education. He excelled in his studies and went on to earn two doctorate degrees, from Columbia Univerity and the London School of Economics. After independence, he became India’s first Minister of Law and Justice and the principal author of the Indian Constitution.

Dr. Ambedkar deeply opposed the Hindu caste system, with its degrading treatment of the Dalits, and he vowed that though he was born a Hindu, he would not die one. He embarked on a thorough study of the world’s major religions and in the end decided that Buddhism best met his aspirations. On October 15, 1956, at a large ceremony in Nagpur, he formally undertook the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, the twin gateway to the Dharma. Immediately afterward he led 500,000 Dalits in renouncing their Hindu heritage and adopting Buddhism.

Sadly, just two months after his conversion, Ambedkar died due to chronic poor health. But the revolution he started continued to roll on. In the years and decades following the initial mass conversion ceremony, millions of Dalits have followed Dr. Ambedkar in embracing Buddhism, and thus in India today there is a large Buddhist population drawn mainly from the Dalit community. Nagaloka in Nagpur is one of their primary religious and educational centers.

The Nagarjuna Training Institute (NTI) was established at Nagaloka to provide training in Buddhist teachings to young Buddhists from all over India. After completing the training program, the trainees return to their home communities to help in propagating Buddhism. Through its programs the institute strives to promote the ideal of Prabuddha Bharat—an Enlightened India—and to play a part in the global Buddhist family. 

Every year the institute confers the Dr. Ambedkar Prabuddha Bharata Peace Awardwhich it presents on October 15, the anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism. This date is also considered the anniversary of King Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism. The Peace Award is presented “to those who have made significant contributions to the development of Buddhism and the welfare of humanity, not only in India, but throughout the world.” This year the award committee saw fit to confer the award on Bhante and Kim Behan—to Bhante for his scholarship and contributions to human welfare through BGR and to Kim for her role as executive director of BGR.

The time that the celebration of the mass conversion ceremony took place in India was too late for Bhante to join online, so he recorded an acceptance speech, which was played at the ceremony. But Kim, in Colorado, participated online and submitted a short address, which will soon be published on the BGR blog. In accepting the award, Kim writes: “I would like to share the Dr. Ambedkar Peace Award with the entire team at Buddhist Global Relief in recognition of our work together in the Dharma.”

Carla Prater is Assistant Director of Buddhist Global Relief.

 

 

It’s Time to End Our Collective Insanity

By Adam Parsons & Sonja Scherndl

Photo from http://hellemanworld.blogspot.com/2017/09/the-insanity-of-war.html

It’s time to end the insanity of colossal military spending and reallocate funds to basic economic and social needs. Imagine what could be achieved if just a portion of the money spent on military expenditures were pooled into a global fund and redirected towards ending hunger and massively investing in public health systems.

If nations had a referendum, asking the public if they want their taxes to go to military weapons that are more efficient in killing than the ones we currently have, or if they would prefer the money to be invested in medical care, social services, education, and other critical public needs, what would the response be? 

Probably the majority of people would not have to think long and hard, since for many life has become an endless struggle. Even in wealthy countries, the most basic social rights can no longer be taken for granted. Social services are increasingly being turned into commodities, and instead of helping ordinary people they must serve shareholders by providing a healthy profit margin.

The United States is a prime example, where seeing a dentist or any medical doctor is only possible if one has health insurance. Around 46 million Americans cannot afford to pay for quality healthcare—and that is in the richest country of the world.

In less developed nations, a large proportion of people find it hard to access even the most basic resources to ensure a healthy and dignified life. One in nine of the world’s population go hungry. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this crisis of poverty amid plenty, with the number of people facing acute hunger more than doubling.

There are now 240 million people requiring emergency humanitarian assistance, while over 34 million people are already on the brink of starvation.

But the United Nations’ funding appeals are far from being met, condemning thousands to unnecessary deaths from hunger this year. With aid funding falling as humanitarian needs rise, aid agencies are being forced to cut back on life-saving services.

Does it make any sense for our governments to spend billions on defence while fragile health systems are being overwhelmed, and the world is facing its worst humanitarian crisis in generations?

Global military spending continued to reach record levels in 2020, rising almost 4 percent in real terms to US$1.83 trillion, even despite the severe economic contractions caused by the pandemic. The United States spends two-fifths of the world’s total, more than the next ten countries combined, and still cannot afford to prevent 50 million of its own citizens suffering from food insecurity. Most shamefully, the United Kingdom is massively boosting its arms budget—the largest rise in almost 70 years, including a vast increase to its nuclear weapons stockpile—while cutting aid to the world’s poorest by 30 percent.

Consider what a fraction of military budgets could achieve if that public money was diverted to real human needs, instead of sustaining the corrupt and profitable industry of war:

  • Meeting Goals 1 and 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals— ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’ and ‘Zero hunger’—would barely exceed 3 percent of global annual military spending, according to the UN’s Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.
  • With the U.S. military budget of $750 billion in 2020, it could feed the world’s hungry and still spend twice as much on its military than China, writes peace activist Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK.
  • The annual nuclear weapon budget worldwide is 1,000 percent—or 10 times—the combined budget of both the UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO), according to the Global Campaign on Military Spending.  
  • Just 0.04 percent of global military spending would have funded the WHO’s initial Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, according to Tipping Point North South in its Transform Defence report.
  • It would cost only 0.7 percent of global military spending (an estimated $141.2 billion) to vaccinate all the world’s 7.8 billion inhabitants against Covid-19, according to figures from Oxfam International.

These opportunity costs highlight our outrageously misplaced priorities during an unprecedented global health emergency. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed just how ill-prepared we are to deal with real threats to our societies, and how our ‘national security’ involves a lot more than armies, tanks and bombs. This crisis cannot be addressed by weapons of mass destruction or personnel prepared for war, but only through properly funded healthcare and other public services that protect our collective human security. 

It’s time to reallocate bloated defence budgets to basic economic and social needs, as long enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Article 25 points the way forward, underscoring the necessity of guaranteeing adequate food, shelter, healthcare and social security for all.

There is an imperative need for global cooperation to support all nations in recovering and rebuilding from the pandemic. The United Nations and its frontline agencies are critically placed to avert a growing ‘hunger pandemic’, and yet are struggling to receive even minimal funding from governments.

Imagine what could be achieved if just a portion of the money spent on military expenditures were pooled into a global fund, and redirected towards ending hunger and massively investing in public health systems, especially in the most impoverished and war-torn regions.

The common sense of funding ‘peace and development, not arms!’ has long been proclaimed by campaigners, church groups and engaged citizens the world over. But it will never happen unless countless people in every country unify around such an obvious cause, and together press our public representatives to prioritise human life over pointless wars.

In the words of arms trade campaigner Andrew Feinstein:

“Perhaps this is an opportunity. Let’s embrace our global humanity, which is how we’re going to get through this crisis. Let’s put aside our obsession with enemies, with conflict. This is an opportunity for peace. This is an opportunity to promote our common humanity.”

***

Adam Parsons is the editor at Share The World’s Resources, (STWR), a London-based civil society organization campaigning for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations. He can be contacted at adam@sharing.org

Sonja Scherndl is the campaigns coordinator at Share The World’s Resources and can be contacted at sonja@sharing.org

Originally published on Thursday, April 01, 2021 by Share the World’s Resources

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
3.0 License
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Covid-19 and Hunger: A Double Crisis of Inequality

The coronavirus pandemic is causing a hunger crisis, and at the same time revealing vast wealth inequality

By Randy Rosenthal

Buddhist monks distributing food parcels at a temple in Sri Lanka

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a recurring headline that hardly anyone is talking about. It has never been the main story, up at the top and in large font. But it’s been there on page two or three, first in April, and then again in June, and more recently in September. I’m referring to the impact of COVID-19 on hunger, both in the U.S. and globally.

Before the pandemic began, there were about 135 million people in the world who faced crisis levels of hunger. According to a report by the UN World Food Programme’s executive director, David Beasley, that number will double over the next year, to some 270 million who will be “marching towards the brink of starvation.” In a briefing to the UN Security Council on September 15, Beasley stated that the World Food Programme (WFP) needed about $5 billion in order to prevent 30 million people from dying of starvation. Not over the next few years, but by the end of this year. Now.

Back in April, Beasley warned the Security Council that the world was on the verge of a hunger pandemic. People in India, Colombia, and Kenya were more concerned that they would die from hunger than from the coronavirus. Donors and countries heeded the call and passed a $17 trillion fiscal stimulus package, and the UN was able to help 100 million people in 88 countries. For this work, the World Food Programme was recently awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet in September Beasley warned that a new wave of hunger would sweep the globe and overwhelm already unstable nations reeling from violent conflict, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. Specifically, he mentions the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Yemen, currently the site of the gravest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Along with food insecurity, overall poverty rates are also drastically increasing, a reversal of three decades of progress. Nearly every nation’s economy has shrunk since April, but it is the poorest countries that have been hardest hit, those that cannot afford large setbacks. India, for example, suffered a 24% shrinking of its economic output between April and June, with about 120 million jobs lost. The Asian Development Bank estimates that 160 million people in Asia alone will be under the poverty line this year. Latin America, too, is seeing hunger rise due to economic disaster. There, according to a UN study, 45 million more people will fall under the poverty line, prompting warnings that Latin America must brace for “a lost decade.”

Yet most of the news we read regarding the pandemic is about the U.S. and Europe. There are reports on unemployment and death tolls, but many articles have headlines like these: “Can our summer vacations still be saved? What will restaurants do to stay in business once winter comes? Is it safe to fly? Or to take a train?” These questions and topics are all valid concerns, as the virus has affected each of us in our own way, and we’re all just trying to survive and stay sane. And yet these lifestyle issues clearly pale in comparison to the threat of starvation faced by 270 million people.

Seeing that nations have hesitated over committing more funds, David Beasley pivoted and addressed individuals to help. Specifically, he appealed to billionaires to pitch in, calling out those who have made “billions upon billions” during the pandemic. What does he mean by this reference? Well, just recently, a survey by the Swiss bank UBS and consultancy group PwC showed that the combined worth of the world’s 2,189 billionaires now stands at $10.2 trillion. The survey also showed that since March, when the coronavirus lockdown began, their wealth has surged to ever higher levels. How can this be possible, when so many people around the world are unemployed, sick, and suffering? The answer is stocks. Most of the gains are due to investments in technology and healthcare companies involved in developing vaccines and therapies against the coronavirus. The gap between the wealthiest .01% and everyone else has been steadily growing over the past decade, but in the words of the survey’s authors, “the COVID-19 crisis just accentuated the divergence.” In fact, the wealthiest Americans have become 170% richer.

Interestingly, and somewhat reassuringly, there has been a corresponding increase in donations by billionaires to charitable causes, with $7.2 billion given between March and June. Nearly $5 billion came from U.S. billionaires, who dwarfed their counterparts in China, India, Australia, and the UK—the survey made no mention of Russian billionaires, despite Russia having more billionaires than any other country. This philanthropy is perhaps why Beasley emphasized that he is not criticizing billionaires—after all, he’s only asking for $5 billion. “I am not opposed to people making money,” he said in his UN briefing, “but humanity is facing the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes.”

And yet for many of us, it doesn’t feel like the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Why is that? Is it because we don’t actually see hunger? That our news media endlessly covers Donald Trump and political pundits, but not devastated areas in Africa? If we saw just a few of the 20 million people in crisis in Yemen, would we demand our government do more to stop the fighting there?

Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming the media, especially because these stories on hunger are out there—that’s how I’m compiling this article. But these are not sexy stories. The crisis is often happening to other people, people far away, in parts of the world that are in dire situations anyway. And the causes of the global hunger crisis are complex—a combination of lost wages, disruption of food supply chains, the collapse of oil prices, the evaporation of the tourist industry, and continued disasters arising from climate change such as droughts, floods, and locust plagues are all contributing factors.

It’s so complicated, it seems like there’s nothing we can do. So, we think, we might as well meditate, read more articles about politics, watch sports, and plan our next vacation. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we can also donate to organizations like Buddhist Global Relief, which since the COVID crisis erupted has been providing monthly donations of $3,000 to Feeding America, a central hub for U.S. food banks. This is in addition to its regular projects assisting poor communities around the world.

We can share stories about global hunger on social media. We get ourselves riled up at systemic racism and political maleficence, but we can express outrage about the hunger crisis too, condemning the larger economic system that allows a few to live in luxury while millions starve. We may not be billionaires, but each of us can help in our own way.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.

The Persistence of Poverty is a Political Choice

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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In a report issued on behalf of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, explodes the comforting myth that humanity is finally on the verge of eradicating extreme poverty. The report, titled “The Parlous State of Poverty Eradication,” insists that the belief that we are making good progress in eliminating poverty “is unjustified by the facts, generates inappropriate policy conclusions, and fosters complacency” (p. 1). The author maintains that our good intentions to promote greater economic justice are constantly being undermined by false assumptions about the extent of poverty and stymied by flawed decisions about the most effective means to vanquish it.

The report points out that the optimism among policy professionals and thought leaders rests on the use of a deceptive standard to define extreme poverty. The official standard, the World Bank’s international poverty line (IPL), is arrived at by averaging the national poverty lines employed by the world’s poorest countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The line, currently set at U.S. $1.90 in purchasing power parity, is “a standard of miserable subsistence rather than an even minimally adequate standard of living” (p. 1).

On the basis of the IPL, the U.S. in 2016 had a poverty rate of 1.2 percent, though the rate was actually 12 percent. On the IPL South Africa would have a poverty rate of 19 percent vs. a real poverty rate of 55 percent, and Mexico a poverty rate of 1.7 percent vs. a real rate of 42 percent. Setting the line so low, the report maintains, is bound “to guarantee a positive result and to enable the United Nations, the World Bank, and many commentators to proclaim a Pyrrhic victory” (pp. 4–5).

The report points out that much of the progress in eliminating poverty under the Bank’s IPL is due not to any upward global trend but to developments in China, where between 1990 and 2015 the number of people below the IPL dropped from over 750 million to 10 million. If a more realistic poverty line of $5.50 were adopted, the number of poor people globally held almost steady between 1990 and 2015, declining merely from 3.5 to 3.4 billion. That is hardly a reason to proclaim an end to extreme poverty.

Even under the Bank’s line, between 1990 and 2015 the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East rose by 140 million (p. 9). Using this weak criterion, some 700 million people worldwide live under $1.90 a day, which is morally abhorrent in itself, but if we were to take a more realistic measure the extent of global poverty would turn out to be vastly higher and current trends discouraging.

According to the report, efforts to eliminate extreme poverty are bound to run up against two factors that will inevitably increase the numbers of the poor. One is accelerating climate change, which we are hardly addressing with the urgency required. Over the next decade an altered climate is projected to push 100 million more people below even the weak standard of the IPL.

The other major threat is COVID-19, which over the next three years will drive 176 million people into poverty at the $3.20 poverty line. The report calls COVID-19 “a pandemic of poverty” which lays bare the parlous state of social safety nets for low-income people around the world. Rates of illness and mortality expose racial and class divisions, and access to health care and financial assistance is also skewed along racial, gender, religious, and class lines. Those hit hardest by the pandemic are the “essential workers” who do not have the luxury of “sheltering in place” but are compelled to work under precarious conditions, becoming “sacrificial lambs” to keep the economy functioning (p. 9).

The primary guideposts the international community relies on for tackling poverty are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The first of the goals is an “end to poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. Taken in isolation the goal sounds ambitious enough, but the specific targets proposed to meet this goal are “patently inadequate to actually end poverty, and the prospects of achieving them are rapidly receding” (p. 10). The tenth goal calls for reducing inequality, but the plan of implementation relies on the premise that the key to reducing inequality is continued economic growth—a shaky assumption, since history shows that the benefits of unregulated economic growth disproportionately go to the affluent.

The only viable way to end poverty, according to the report, is wealth redistribution, which would require more aggressive governmental control over the economy. However, the reigning paradigm of neoliberal ideology dictates that the market must be allowed to operate on its own, without government interference. Current attempts to achieve the SDGs therefore marginalize government action in favor of private investments and “public-private partnerships,” which usually optimize the interests of the investors over the needs of the poor (p. 12).

The report does not reject the SDGs themselves, but calls for reflection on “ways in which the overall package, including targets and indicators, can be re-shaped and supplemented in order to achieve the key goals which otherwise look destined to fail” (p. 14). One flawed premise that underlies the formulation of the SDGs is the idea that the most effective way to achieve them is through economic growth. While this premise is considered sacrosanct in neoliberal economic circles, the fact remains that the benefits of growth disproportionately go to those in positions of wealth and power. While the poor may see some small improvements in living conditions, economic disparities widen to a still greater degree and thus the old bugbear of inequality remains.

The staggering levels of wealth and income inequality in today’s world should dispel any inflated notion that the world is moving toward greater economic equity. The bottom 50 percent of the world’s population now owns less than 1 percent of total global wealth, while the top 1 percent holds 45 percent of the total (pp. 15–16). Reduction in economic inequality requires a redistribution of wealth, but figures like these remind us how far we have to go to overcome global poverty.

The report recommends global debt forgiveness as a critical factor in establishing a just international economic order. Another measure the author proposes is fair and equitable taxation, which “must be front and center in any set of policies to eliminate poverty.” Fair taxation has a significance that transcends mere economic pragmatism, standing as “a symbol of solidarity and burden sharing” and “a reflection of deeper values” (p. 16). Just tax policies would call upon wealthy individuals and successful corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, and this would require an end to tax evasion through the use of tax havens, for which the U.S. has been “the global trendsetter.” At present there are hundreds of thousands of tax havens worldwide, depriving states of as much as $650 billion in tax revenue (p. 16).

On the positive side, the project of ending poverty calls for the implementation of programs that provide universal social protection, helping people deal with the adversities brought on by sickness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Shockingly, four billion people—over half the world’s population—completely lack any level of social protection, while for many others the support available to them is far from adequate. This, according to the report, is “an extraordinary indictment of the global fight against extreme poverty” (p. 17) Continue reading

From Tragedy Springs Hope: Reflections on the Killing of George Floyd

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis, ignited protests and marches around the country under the banner of Black Lives Matter. To fulfill this aspiration will require extensive changes both in our institutions and in our ways of thought.

Photo: Samuel Wagner, Flickr

The police killing of George Floyd this past Memorial Day has set off a stream of protests in cities and towns across the U.S., and even around the world, united under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.” The murder, captured on video by a passing pedestrian, reveals the horror of racism in its terrible immediacy. Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” followed by his silence, leave us shocked at witnessing such a naked display of cruelty taking place in broad daylight in a major American city, committed by an officer of the law.

Anyone who attends to the news knows that such killings are not rare. The names of the victims repeatedly flash across the media, each time setting off a wave of public revulsion. Where the murder of Mr. Floyd stood out was in the rawness of the visual imagery that revealed the slow agony of his death. Continue reading

Whose Lives Matter?

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Even though Covid-19 has been taking a heavy toll on workers in the meat industry, late last month President Trump issued an executive order demanding that meat-processing plants must resume operations. The effect of this order is to confront workers with a horrendous choice: either risk losing their jobs or risk losing their lives. With meat-processing plants becoming hot spots for Covid-19, many workers are terrified about going back to work.

The Priority of Profit

The well-known saying of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” might be reformulated with regard to the economy: “The economy should serve the needs of people; people should not be made to serve the economy.” Yet the logic of modern corporate capitalism often dictates just the opposite, that people be subordinated to the demands of the economy, an omnivorous giant that feeds off a steady stream of human sweat, blood, and tears.

With the profit motive as its driving vector, the mammoth corporation directs all the components of its complex operational system toward profit maximization. When profits stagnate or decline, the company may freely adopt whatever measures are needed to change course and push earnings back on an upward curve, often without regard for the physical well-being of its employees. While labor unions earlier formed a bulwark against corporate abuse, the decline of unions has given corporations license to get their way without fear of resistance.

A particularly egregious example of this inversion of ethical priorities came to light at the end of April when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat-processing facilities to resume operations. In March and April, these plants had become hot spots for Covid-19. By the end of April, at least twenty workers had died from the disease and over 5,000 were infected. Since then even more workers have been infected and died, but a shortage of testing equipment prevents us from knowing the exact numbers.

As infections spread, state and local authorities used their power to order some of the most badly contaminated plants to close, a measure considered necessary to protect public health. In sum, during those two months, thirteen meatpacking and food-processing plants shut down, including some of the nation’s biggest. In response, the executives of the giant meat corporations mounted a campaign of opposition, claiming that the closing of the meat plants would endanger the national food supply. John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor, published a full-page ad in major newspapers, including the New York Times, warning that “the food supply chain is breaking.” Continue reading

The Coronavirus Forces Us to Fix the Flaws of our Food-Supply System

By Randy Rosenthal

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The coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system in at least two ways. One is by compelling retail food staff–grocery workers and delivery “shoppers”–to put their health at risk. The other is the widespread destruction of fresh food.

Next to the fragility of the medical industry, the coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system—especially the vulnerability of the people who make it possible. Grocery-store workers and delivery “shoppers” in particular have found themselves taking on the first-responder risks of doctors, nurses, and EMTs. Dozens have died of COVID-19, and thousands have gotten sick. Understandably, they’re afraid to go to work. But they have to, because in order for the rest of us to eat, someone must deliver food to grocery stores, and someone must stock the shelves.

Many grocery stores have automated checkouts, but most still have clerks. And so while many of us can work from home and observe physical distancing guidelines, grocery-store workers are forced to come in proximity with hundreds of people a day. Due to this sudden and dramatic uptick in risk, the lack of safety and security that grocery companies provide their workers has become starkly apparent. Continue reading