Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Regardless of one’s religious persuasions, Pope Francis’ views on poverty are quite progressive. He insists that as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

In his first major speech on the financial crisis, Pope Francis called on people to restrain their obsession with materialist consumption and wealth accumulation. He exhorted world leaders to serve the poor and not allow themselves to be deluded by blind market forces.

Encouraged by this I downloaded his apostolic exhortation – Evangelii Gaudium and I was pleasantly astonished to discover its hidden passion and analytical depth. Although it was aimed at Catholics, I venture to suggest that Pope Francis was addressing the whole of humanity … irrespective of people’s religious or secular affinities.


Most astonishing to me was his reference to the structural causes of poverty. I had not expected that. Mainstream writers on poverty seldom (indeed, never) refer to structural causes of poverty, not even the Nobel Laureates Amratya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. As for Marxists, they think they have a kind of monopoly on inquiring into the structural causes of social injustice. The Pontiff is no Marxist, but in some ways he is deeper, for he has another level of consciousness – divine or spiritual consciousness – that most Marxists lack. I will come back to poverty again, but let me first elaborate on the last point.


I believe that there are (at least) six levels of consciousness, only some of which we as ordinary mortals are aware.

First is self-awareness – consciousness about one’s own self as a physical mortal being and about one’s identity.

Second is other awareness – consciousness about the other, not as an enemy but as another human being.

Third is nature awareness – consciousness about the environment including trees, bees, butterflies and tigers.

Four is system awareness – consciousness about the global system of production and distribution of the means of personal and social existence.

Five is divine consciousness – awareness about the supreme being, defined either as an ontological something out there, or as a spiritual experience inside the person.

Six is awareness of the subconscious – the hidden impulses behind the conscious that a psychoanalyst might help one to become aware.

The reason I go into this is to underscore the point that while most of us are aware of only some of the above layers of consciousness, the politicians, especially when in power, are usually aware of only the first one – self-awareness, in particular their power and how to sustain it. For them the other is the enemy; the environment is to be exploited for profit; the system is the one that serves as something called national security in whose name horrendous acts of cruelty are inflicted on the other; the divine is either non-existent or a religious ritual to justify acts of cruelty, and the unconscious is simply left to the psychoanalyst, or to bad dreams.

There are some rather exceptional people who are aware of all six dimensions of consciousness. Pope Francis, I think, is one.


The Pontiff has said repeatedly that life for ordinary people has become worse, not just in the countries of the south but also in the rich countries of the north. People struggle to survive, often an undignified existence. In his Evangelii Gaudium, this is what Pope Francis says:

‘188. The Church has realised that the need to heed this plea is itself born of the liberating action of grace within each of us, and thus it is not a question of a mission reserved only to a few … it means working to eliminate the STRUCTURAL causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.’ (Emphasis added)

Pope Francis then expounds on the word solidarity. ‘The word solidarity,’ he says, ‘is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset, which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.’

The theme of structural causes of poverty is reiterated.

‘202. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness, which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.’

The Evangelii Gaudium goes on to elaborate on what Pope Francis means by structural causes. I will leave this for the curious reader to explore. It is important that we read this document for our enlightenment and in solidarity with the people for whom it is written – The Wretched of the Earth (a phrase I borrowed from the French-Martinique psychoanalyst, Frantz Fanon).


In our time, the other is defined by the West’s political leadership and the dominant media as the Muslim fundamentalist. For Pope Francis this is nothing short of a fraud committed by the spin doctors of Western politicians and Christian fundamentalists.

‘252. Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries, where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society. We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day”… They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.’

And, further down:

‘253. In order to sustain dialogue with Islam suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition… Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations for AUTHENTIC ISLAM AND THE PROPER READING OF THE KORAN ARE OPPOSED TO EVERY FORM OF VIOLENCE.’ (Emphasis added)

I have read the Koran (Qur’an), and I testify to the Pontiff’s claim that contrary to the oversimplified view of the teachings of the Prophet Islam is not a violent religion. I will not go deeper into this very significant issue of our time. Contrary to biased historians, Islam spread from the 7th to the 11th century not by the sword but by word. Of course, there were many Muslims who violated the Prophet’s word namely that “There should be no compulsion in religion.” (Qur’an 2:256). And yes, there were many wars during this period. But these wars were unleashed mainly by Christian Crusaders blessed by the ruling Pontiffs of the time – a historical irony given Pope Francis’s position on this matter today.


I don’t know. Whatever one might say about the Pontiff’s future, one thing is certain, poverty will not end unless its structural causes are analysed and dealt with.

I give a little historical note to make this point. In the 1960s the developing countries of the south attempted to challenge the structural causes of poverty in their countries. They called for a new dispensation, a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which led to the creation of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1964. Its creation was also associated with the ideas of Raul Prebisch, its first secretary general. He, among others, had developed a theory to counter the mainstream growth theory. This counter-hegemonic theory, known as the underdevelopment theory, or the centre and periphery theory, and or the Latin American dependencia theory, analysed the structural causes of enduring underdevelopment of the south.

What happened to that alternative vision? It died. With the rise of the neo-liberal ideology in the 1980s the idea of NIEO died. The dependencia school was marginalised and with it the UNCTAD issues, such as technology transfer, terms of trade, and the scrutiny of transnational corporations, were taken out of UNCTAD. The present dominant structure on issues of trade is the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which without the UNCTAD issues, has become a club of the rich and powerful.

The entire UN system is hostage to the agenda of the rich and powerful, although from time to time, the countries of the south are able to express their independent opinion in its general assembly (GA), such as on the issues of Palestine and Cuba. But the GA (unlike the Security Council) has no teeth; it cannot enforce its resolutions. The result that positive initiatives taken by the countries of the south get watered down. A good example of this is the ill-fated Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which reduced a structural problem into a statistical numbers game. At the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, the UN launched the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as its post-2015 development agenda. Once again, this did not address underlying structural causes of continuing underdevelopment of the countries of the south. The UN simply changed the goal posts from MDGs to SDGs. Take a lesson from history – SDGs are a smokescreen just like the MDGs.

Take Pope Francis’ wisdom in order to chart out the future of humankind, address and deal with the structural causes of poverty, and do not treat the other as enemy. I know this is easier said than done. But the first step is the most difficult. This step was taken by many before Pope Francis. But Francis has added his significant voice to delegitimising a market-based, neoliberal ideological growth model of the rich and powerful. Now it is for the rest of us to take further steps. It is time for Intifadah, for Chimurenga, for struggle against oppression, exploitation, and injustice. (For a definition of these terms see my first blog Global Intifada and National Chimurenga. (Posted on 27 September 2013.)

* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.