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British Baptist Leaders Support ‘Make Poverty History’ Campaign

Last week Baptists from some of the poorest countries in the world met with those from some of the richest to celebrate their unity and affirm their common cause and identity at the Baptist World Alliance Centenary Congress in Birmingham, England.

Earlier, the Make Poverty History campaign staged a demonstration that was in many ways the focus of the campaign: A march of almost a quarter of a million people through the streets of Edinburgh, asking the G8 nations for fair trade, more and better aid and debt cancellation.

Unlike in some western nations, the campaign was embraced by Baptist churches and organisations in the UK. An observer might be forgiven for thinking that the British attitude to the Make Poverty History campaign is just a manifestation of a generally more politically liberal country than, for instance, the United States. Do British Baptists only support such campaigns because it is seen as the thing to do?

Few would deny that compared to their American cousins, British evangelicals seem less likely to be the stalwart supporters of conservative politics on every issue. British evangelicals generally stand with their American counterparts on the issue of abortion, for instance, or on the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus in questions of salvation.

But recently, a Southern Baptist said: “the ONE Campaign is not just misguided, it is actually harmful.”

Certainly that view is not only held by Southern Baptists either. So why are so many British Baptists behind the aims of the campaign known in the UK as Make Poverty History?

David Coffey, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and incoming President of the BWA, identifies his reasons for supporting the campaign on solid Baptist foundation in Scripture: “I can’t read my Bible and read the prophets and not see this tremendous emphasis there is on how it’s no good leaving worship in the temple and then coming out and living as if life can go on as it is. What I do in the temple of my day somehow has to be translated into deeds and that’s how I show my faith. That’s the great passage of James. A compassionate and caring community bears the marks of Jesus Christ, so whatever other motivations people have for Make Poverty History (and I’m sure that not all would have that Christian motivation) that’s my Christian motivation.”

Roy Searle, president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, supports the campaign because: “Christians should be at the prophetic forefront of addressing issues of justice, mercy and compassion, speaking as a voice for the voiceless.”

He is echoed by Liz Russell, BMS World Mission regional secretary for Asia and former missionary to China, who understands why there might be some concerns: “I would say supporting any kind of campaign is likely to make Christians nervous. We don’t want to compromise what we see as the crux of the gospel. But if we want to see the love of Jesus shown in practical ways, by joining this campaign we can do something as part of a big, global community of people. If we think there’s something that doesn’t have the scent of the gospel in it then let’s challenge that part of the campaign. Look at what the campaign is doing, take it seriously, and then when you are convinced that the campaign holds within itself kingdom values, get alongside others.”

BMS General Director Alistair Brown makes the point, however, for more urgent support: “The price of more analysis and more time to think about it is not paid by us, but by those who are dying now. They can’t wait until we’ve got every question answered and every bit of analysis done. This is the moment.”

But the issue of acting responsibly is one that concerns many critics of Make Poverty History too. There seems to be a perception–and indeed, the argument is made in one form or another in many forums–that aid, particularly to Africa, is more often than not wasted through corruption.

Some suggest that the prevalence of corruption means debt relief or aid will help no ordinary Africans.

“Say that to 500,000 kids in Mozambique who have now received inoculations,” David Coffey says. “Say that to the approximately 30,000 new teachers in Tanzania. Say that to the children in places like Uganda who are now receiving primary education.”

David Kerrigan, BMS director for mission, cites more examples of where debt relief and aid have worked.

“We mustn’t think of all aid as being from government to government,” he says. “The best aid is actually being applied at grassroots and is actually working from the bottom up. Today, many western governments are being encouraged to allow a significant proportion of their aid to be channelled by NGOs. And it’s at the NGO level that we are seeing some amazing results from good delivery of quality aid. Not doing things for African people, but doing things with African people.”

For example, BMS has been involved in micro-enterprise, raising pigs and chickens–giving small-scale farmers a small amount of investment to get work started. Within months the project no longer needs aid, because it’s been directly applied into a sustainable project. Another example of sustainability of course, is to invest in education for people.”

Kerrigan identifies this sustainable, empowering approach as essential: “There are occasions, even in Africa today, where food aid is needed, but this is pure sticking-plaster stuff. The real answer is to give people the opportunity to work their own way out of their poverty. But as they do that, sooner or later they will hit the issue of fair trade.”

Jonathan Langley writes for BMS World Mission in Didcot, England.