Poverty and The Millennium Development Goals. Can we make a difference?

Poverty – Who Cares?

These goals – clean water for all; school for every child; medicine for the afflicted; an end to extreme and senseless poverty – these are not just any goals; they are the Millennium Development goals… And they are more than that.  They are the Beatitudes for a globalised world.

(Keynote address given by Bono at the National Prayer Breakfast, 2nd February 2006, Washington D.C.)

In a world where so many people seem to have lost interest in Christian faith, we need to ask ourselves one simple question – ‘Why?’ Perhaps it is because the church has very often lost its own way. Particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, we have too often allowed ourselves to become obsessed with those things that we think are so morally important, at the expense of the things that actually matter. Is it possible that in losing our prophetic voice and in becoming obsessed with what goes on in the bedroom, we have lost the attention of the world? Is it possible that our failure to engage in issues of justice, serving the poor and reaching out to the marginalised, we have forfeited the right to be heard on any other issue? I think it might be. What is more, when we fail to stand up for the poor, we fail to stand up for God. Challenging words may not often be comfortable, but they are nevertheless very important:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy .

(Proverbs 31:8. All Scripture translations, unless stated are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International bible Society. Used by Permission)

The Millennium Development Goals are eight key objectives that range from halving world poverty to defeating the scourge of HIV and Aids are an attempt by the United Nations to unite the countries in the world in fighting injustice, starvation, hunger and disease. They are perhaps the most visionary and demanding goals to have flown from the UN. (For More information on the MDG’s see www.un.org/millenniumgoals or go to www.micahchallenge.org.uk )  The goals are high, some would say too high – but surely the church must recognise that these are goals that could have been issued from God’s own heart? It might just be that the UN has played the role of prophet in their challenge to the world to:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

These goals could truly change the world. If we, for a moment, allow ourselves to believe that change is possible, we might also become agents for that change. Edmund Burke once said that there was no one as foolish as the person who thought they could not change the world because they could only change a little. The Millennium Development Goals may seem like an impossible mountain to climb, but for Christians they provide an opportunity to pray, to serve and to act.

These goals are not attainable by human effort alone. In September 2005, Gordon Brown commented that on then current trends, the MDG’s would take 100 years to honour. (For more information see http://www.ippr.org/pressreleases/archive.asp?id=816&fID=61) And according to the World Bank, the cost of achieving the MDG’s will be between $40 billion and $60 billion a year. (For more information see www.worldbank.org/html/extdr/mdgassessment.pdf) In human terms, these are just not going to happen. But what if God is in this? What if he has presented his people with an opportunity to pray change into the world? It is certainly in keeping with his will and plan for the world that pain, disease and despair are eradicated. Is that not at least part of what we pray for when we ask God that His Kingdom might come, His will might be done?

In prayer, we open ourselves to God’s priority, especially His charge to feed the hungry, to reach out to the poor, to bring aid to the widow or the orphan. By surrendering our will to God’s will, we learn to serve His eternal purposes. Through prayer, our faith is strengthened, our hearts are humbled and our lives are transformed. Prayer encourages us to go out into the world and serve.

(George W. Bush, welcome to the National Prayer Breakfast, 2nd February 2006, Washington D.C.)

The MDG’s present us with a remarkable opportunity to pray for the broken, the poor and the oppressed. But in praying, they present us with an opportunity to do something – not just something that will bring change on the other side of the world, but something that will bring change in our own communities, on our own doorsteps, in our own lifetime.

Poverty is close at hand. It lurks behind closed doors in Britain. We see it in faces that look like our own. Despite the government’s valiant efforts, hundreds of thousands of children in the UK still live in poverty. The challenge to the church is not just to pray, tick a box and think we have played our part. It is to be committed to eradicating poverty and fighting marginalisation in our own communities and in our own streets as well as on the other side of the world. Of course we must pray, and give. But we must look at the MDG’s as something more than a programme, a project or a pet morality crusade.

These goals bite at us. They are the unfulfilled promises and obligations that reach out hungry hands to those of us who have so much. They are the eyes of abandonment that ask us why we do so little. They are the cry of the mother at a graveside as she buries her young child; they are the silent emptiness of abandonment felt in the heart of the child who has buried his mother. They are the impossible longings of the might have been that spring from so many young women whose potential was dashed and hope crushed because nobody cared enough to act. We must each choose to do something:

One of the wonderful things is how God depends on all of us, which is actually mind boggling because here you have God who is omnipotent and yet waits on human creatures to be God’s partners and collaborators.  Each one of us has a contribution, each and every one of us.

(Archbishop Desmond Tutu) 

These goals call us to act. They call us to do something in our churches, in our communities and in our consciences that is a commitment to not only demanding an answer, but to being part of the answer ourselves.

Lastly, the MDG’s call us to act. To do something. To make a noise. To say enough is enough. This is not just a case of filling in a postcard and sending it to a politician. It is about that, of course, but it is about so much more. It is about recognising our shared humanity across this planet and being committed to being the change we want to see, then seeing the change we want to happen. This task demands our hearts, and our lives, but it is worth it.

The hope of a secure and liveable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood. 

(Martin Luther King Jr.)

We must act because justice lies at the heart of God and justice should matter to us. Augustine once said that charity is never a substitute for justice withheld. In all of our serving and praying, we must remember the command to act justly.

Explore, commit and do.
Over the course of a series of articles, I want to explore the spiritual and theological significance of each of the Millennium Development Goals. I want to think out loud with you and ask some key questions, questions like:

· What does the bible have to say about this issue?
· How can I pray sensibly about this?
· What can I do to make a difference about this personally?
· How can I act in solidarity with others?

The journey may not be comfortable  – but the best journeys are worth making because they take us to places where we have not been. Perhaps by engaging in this issue we will feel the touch of He who was hungry. Perhaps we will hear the voice of the One who has no clothes or shelter or home? Maybe the MDG’s can be God’s vehicle to change us as much as they are his means of changing the world.

Change starts right here…

What do yu think? I am proud to be one of the Directors of Micah Challenge UK – take a look www.michachallenge.org.uk

©Malcolm Duncan


  1. Perhaps, one day, we will remember that a light, to be at its most effective, must shine from the middle of a room.
    The Church and christians seem to be constantly pulled to one side or the other on these issues. Do we concentrate on serving the world first, or saving it? Are we here to try and improve the world around us, or prepare the world for the one to come?
    My own view is that yes, the development goals are important and we should do all we can to achieve these, but we should also remember that we will never achieve these, simply because we live in a fallen world, a world where evil does play a large part, and will do so until Christ returns.
    Because of that, all that we do must be balanced by the knowledge that in doing it, we must do it as a witness to Christ, which means supporting His ways in everything. I know of one orphanage in India that was faced with a choice. Funds were short, and one person, a Hindu, offered to rebuild the orphanage, enlarge it and provide funds for it for years to come. But only on condition they removed Christ’s name from all their work.
    Thankfully, they chose to reject that offer and they did get through that time of short funds. they haven’t grown massively, they don’t have new buildings, but they do still provide a great witness to Christ in that area, and a number of people have come to know Christ through their work.
    In all the ways we serve people, it is worth remembering that in doing so, we must first serve Christ.


  2. Thanks for the comments Steve. I think you raise a really important point about remaining faithful to God in all that we do. I think the MDG’s are objectives that we can, as Christians, fully support and get behind, because they fit with part of the promised coming of the Kingdom.
    For me, the Kingdom question has to be spiritual, physical, emotional, pyschological and material transformation. In other words the Good News is Good News at every level and must start with spiritual transformation in the hearts and lives of individuals, who then become agents of whole change and transformation in the world. That way promises of the Kingdom and its establishment in passages such as Isahai 58, 61, 65, Amos 1-5, Micah 6, the teaching of Kingdom in the Kingdom parables of Jesus in Matthew, the injunction of the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11 and the picture of a redeemed and transformed earth and creation in Romans (particularly chapter 8) and Paul’s warnngs around idleness and over spiritualising our purpose etc in Thessalonians and Colossians and John’s vision of the new and redeemed world in revelation all make sense.
    Kingdom has to be already, but not yet and we are called to live out Kingdom principles of proclamation and presence, word and witness, in the world as a light but not of the world etc. And as we do that, we are part of the vanguard for this amazing Kingdom where the Good News is trully Good News to the poor, the borken, the hurting and the lost.
    I also wholeheartedly agree with you around funding etc. One of my mantras in all of the stuff I do in preaching, teaching and writing for and with churches and other groups is do not abandon your Christian distinctiveness and never accept funding with strings that threaten your identity and faithfulness to Christ. He has not been embarrassed by us, we must not be embarrassed by Him. And He will always provide what we need – even if it is in ways that we don’t expect.
    The MDGs are about the church making use of these goals to take more seriously our responsibility to speak outon behalf of those who cannot speak out for themselves and about helping the church understand the much more biblical picture of life as joined up rather than dualistic. Poverty, disease, pain and death are spiritual as well as material issues and we have a responsibility to engage in challenging them and seeing God’s will and best be done.
    Thanks again and trust you know God’s best in your life


  3. “Is it possible that in losing our prophetic voice and in becoming obsessed with what goes on in the bedroom, we have lost the attention of the world?”
    Judging by the number of comments on this post compared with those on posts about equality legislation, yes!


  4. “Is it possible that in losing our prophetic voice and in becoming obsessed with what goes on in the bedroom, we have lost the attention of the world?”
    Judging by the number of comments on this post compared with those on posts about equality legislation, yes!
    Isn’t it more likely that after a number of years of thinking that we can do what we like in the smaller areas such as what goes on in the bedroom, rather than being obedient to God; that we are now ‘growing’ into thinking the same about the larger areas.


  5. That;s a possibility Steve – but we could be just beginning to re-emerge into understanding ourselves as people called to change the world, serve the poor and live out the Gospel! Whichever way round, the more Christians commit their lives to service of others and the agenda of justice and fairness and speaking out the heart of God in words and deeds the better


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