Tag Archives: Bhikkhu Bodhi

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

A Buddhist Perspective on Women’s Liberation

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Kisa Gotami asks the Buddha to heal her dead son.

This winter, BGR chair Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi spent two months in India. During this time he was invited to give the keynote address at a conference on “Buddhism and Women’s Liberation,” held in Bodhgaya on January 30 and 31, 2019, under the auspices of the Maha Bodhi Society of India. Here is a lightly edited version of his address.

Obstacles to Women’s Freedom

When we speak of “women’s liberation,” we first have to determine what women are to be liberated from. What are the obstacles to their freedom? Perhaps the most pervasive—and the most subtly disempowering—is the limitation placed on the opportunities available to women for personal expression and achievement. In traditional cultures, and even in the West today, these limitations are considered almost intrinsic to the social order. An unspoken consensus prevails that casts women into stereotyped roles that severely hamper their freedom to realize their creative potentials.

Women are seen assigned by nature to be wives and mothers. They are caretakers of the family whose role in life is exhausted by the tasks of finding a good husband, bearing children, and maintaining the household. If women do get the chance to take up a career, the general view holds that they should serve in the caring professions—as nurses, teachers, or social workers—but beyond these, when it comes to the more demanding professions and positions of social leadership, the gates are largely closed against them. Continue reading

Poverty Is Both a Political and a Moral Choice

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty reports that “the American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion.” Isn’t it time to wake up, discard both dreams and illusions, and act on the basis of the truth?

AThe U.S. views itself as the exceptional nation, the beacon of freedom and justice for the world. In the popular imagination, it is the land of plenty where everyone can thrive, the land of opportunity where anybody who works hard enough can realize the dreams of their heart. But is this really so or just a comforting illusion?

For two weeks this past autumn, Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, sought to find out, traveling over the U.S. to assess the state of extreme poverty in this country and its impact on human rights. His travels brought him to California, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., as well as Puerto Rico. His report, published in mid-December by the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights, pulls the curtains on the illusions this country cherishes about itself and reveals the startling truth about where we stand and where we are headed. Although the extent of poverty and income inequality in the U.S. has been documented several times in the past, it is still telling that the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty would undertake such an investigation in America, of all places, and expose the U.S. as an outlier among the economically advanced countries.
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Moral Vision as the Foundation for Global Well-Being

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

All the classical spiritual traditions of humankind are confronted by the simple but undeniable fact that we are living at a critical time when the future of human life on earth is in serious jeopardy. Dark clouds have gathered on the horizon, and we can see them in every direction. One dark cloud is the ever-widening inequality in wealth between the rich and the poor—the inequality that is driven by a neoliberal economic system that funnels more and more of the world’s wealth into the hands of a small powerful elite, who manipulate governments and international law for their own advantage. Another dark cloud is the volatile financial system, which treats the world’s vital resources such as food, water, and land as objects of financial speculation, leaving millions of people around the world hungry, landless, and homeless, burdened with oppressive debt. Still another is the persistence of wars: regional wars that are seemingly interminable and generate new terrorist groups almost as soon as the older ones bite the dust; the specter of all-out nuclear war just the press of a button away. And still another cloud takes the form of the all-seeing surveillance state, which uses the new electronic technologies to snoop into every aspect of our private lives.

Perhaps the darkest cloud of all is climate change, which has been transforming the natural environment in ways that imperil the future of human civilization. The accelerating changes to the planet’s climate, and the rapid depletion of our natural resources such as water, soil, and food, call not only for pragmatic remedies but also for a robust moral response. Our moral responsibility now extends beyond the narrow confines of our national borders to people throughout the world. In every continent people are already being bludgeoned by the impact of a warmer, stranger, more violent planet. Indeed, those who face the harshest consequences of climate change are the people least responsible for it: the simple farmers and villagers of of southern Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa. The impacts of climate disruption occurring now extend down the line to future generations, who will have to inherit the legacy of planetary devastation that we leave behind. Our responsibility also extends to non-human beings, to the countless other species that face the loss of their natural habitats and the threat of imminent extinction.
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BGR Meets World Food Program USA

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Twice over the past several months, BGR made emergency donations of $10,000 to the World Food Programme to help address the humanitarian crises in four countries—South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen—all of which are suffering from severe food shortages bordering on famine. Stephen O’Brien, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has called this “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.” More than 20 million people across the above four countries face starvation and famine.

The World Food Programme, a United Nations agency, is the world’s largest body tackling hunger around the globe. Last year WFP assisted 76.7 million people in 81 countries with nutritional aid and related forms of assistance. They have been consistently effective in delivering aid to the four countries tottering on the brink of famine.  

World Food Program USA builds support and resources for the UN’s World Food Programme. Shortly after we submitted our donations, Zeenia Irani, Major Gifts Officer of WFP-USA, wrote to thank us and asked if we would be available for an in-person meeting in New York City. We replied positively and fixed the meeting for June 27th. On Tuesday afternoon BGR Board member Sylvie Sun and I met Erin Cochran, WFP-USA’s Vice President of Communications, and Zeenia for tea at the Roosevelt Hotel in mid-town Manhattan.
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A Decision Cruel and Callous

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Much has been written over the last several days about the political and economic repercussions of Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out from the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s been pointed out that the decision will diminish our standing in the world and cast us in the role of a rogue state, a pariah among nations. Our economy will languish, overtaken by other countries that make the leap to full reliance on clean energy. The mantle of global leadership will pass to Europe and China, and we’ll find ourselves increasingly isolated on the international stage. To be an American abroad will become a mark of shame.

The decision to leave the Paris Accord, however, should be seen not only as an act of foolishness, arrogance, and delusional thinking, but also as an appalling expression of cruelty. The decision is cruel because it reveals a glaring deficit of compassion—a callous lack of concern for the billions of people around the world who are endangered by a more hostile climate. Sadly, it is those nations and peoples with the lightest carbon footprint that are being hit the hardest. Even before freak weather events began to multiply and inflict horrendous harm, smallholder farmers and day laborers in the developing world faced an uphill struggle just to put food on the table and get enough clean water to meet their daily needs. Now, assailed by ever more frequent and destructive climate disruptions, these same people find their very lives suspended over an abyss. Continue reading

Buddhists Roll On Together to the People’s Climate March

Stepping off the Buddhist retreat bus in D.C. on Saturday, two things were apparent: the 2017 People’s Climate March was going to be huge, and it was going to be hot. The record-breaking 92-degree heat seemed to enhance the energy of the staggering crowds that had convened to march from the foot of the Capitol Building to surround the White House.

I’d chosen to march with the Buddhist contingent as part of the Faith Bloc, situated between the Science bloc and Fossil Fuel resistance groups that gathered to surge down Pennsylvania Avenue. It was Trump’s 100th day in office, and over 200 Buddhists from around the world had shown up to make their voices heard with another 200,000+ people. The common message was clear: we know the climate is changing, and we want to address this.
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BGR Provides Emergency Relief to Countries Facing Food Crisis

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, announced that the world is facing the most serious humanitarian crisis since the beginning of the United Nations. More than 20 million people in four countries—Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria—are suffering from extreme food shortages, with millions at risk of starvation, a large percentage of them children. Speaking to the UN Security Council last Friday (March 10), O’Brien warned that “without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death” and “many more will suffer and die from disease.”

Photo: World Food Program

The gravest  crisis is in Yemen, where  17 million people are facing dangerous levels of food insecurity and will fall prey to famine without urgent humanitarian assistance. Seven million people are deemed to be in a state of emergency – one step away from famine. In South Sudan more than a million children are acutely malnourished, including 270,000 who will die if aid does not reach them in time. In Somalia close to 3 million people are struggling with severe food shortages and need immediate help to survive. Close to a million children under five in Somalia are expected to suffer from acute malnourishment this year. In northeast Nigeria, a seven-year uprising by the armed group Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people and driven 2.6 million from their homes. Malnutrition in this region is so severe that some adults are too weak to walk and some communities have lost all their toddlers.
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