Saturday, October 9, 2010

Very different interventions

"In rural areas poverty leads to a lack of the basics: food, water, primary schools, simple health care. Conditional cash-transfer schemes are good at providing those because, however small the stipend, it gives children an incentive to go to school and encourages markets to develop in the goods and services that were lacking before. In cities, by contrast, the problems of poverty are compounded by violence, drugs, family breakdown and child labour. These require different interventions: in law and order, in programmes to stop domestic abuse, and so on. And they require more than just the state to step in: commerce and churches are just as important. Such problems will become greater in future because the largest concentrations of poverty are no longer in the backward rural areas but in the anarchic megalopolises of developing countries."

The Economist
, July 31st 2010.

It is nothing new to articulate the rather obvious differences between urban and rural poverty, but I extract the lengthy quote above (from the Leaders page, no less) because of the nod it gives not only to the growing importance of the private sector in resolving “the problems of poverty”, but also for the reference it makes to the church. It remains one of the reasons I am called to this creaking, messy, urban context: the peculiar problems that arise when communities collide in their search for a better life.

I recently flew over that great planned city (and capital) Brasilia, on my return to São Paulo. It its 50th year, I see nothing to celebrate in its stagnant rows of uniform streets, fanning out symmetrically from starchitect-designed municipal monoliths. It was just before 5am and in the night (darkest just before the dawn) the street lights only went to outline the insipidness of it all. I found myself pining for the plane's descent into the beautiful chaos of the city that I now call my second home.

Gorbels, Glasgow (1948)

Most third world cities separate neatly into poor and rich areas like a sunny-side-up egg, with slums spreading out from the rim. São Paulo is more like a scrambled egg. This adds to the complications of a ministry to children in situations of risk (in recent weeks the street kids have become increasingly peripatetic), but in other ways the city is no different to any other megacity. Indeed, Conan Doyle described London as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the empire are irresistibly drained.”

It is a truism that “[a]ll have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Romans 3:12), but it is nonetheless intriguing to observe at first hand urban idiosyncrasies that are somehow beyond the traditional remit of state and private sector. What might be described as outsourcing a problem to God.

Something perhaps we should all do.

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