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Popular movements as the catalyst for economic transformation

Commenting on a Vatican meeting with popular movements in late October, Stan Muyebe OP observes that economic justice and overcoming inequality are at the heart of Pope Francis’ social teaching. The Holy Father’s first encyclical Evangelii Guadium and a recent letter to grassroots organizations point to a consistent message of hope by calling on communities living on the peripheries to become catalysts for the transformation of global economic systems.

On 24 October 2020, Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, and Cardinal Michael Czerny held an online meeting with popular movements on five continents. The purpose of the meeting — held annually — seeks to examine ways in which grassroots movements can “resist injustice and transform reality.”

Pope Francis has supported popular movements since the start of his pontificate. His encyclicals regularly return to the theme of economic justice and the chasm that exists between the rich nations of the world and the planet’s poorest people. In 2019, Pope Francis wrote the preface to a book published by the Vatican that encourages people who live on the peripheries of the economy to become agents of social change and transformation.

There is a great deal that popular movements can teach the world about greater equality, human dignity, and the transformation of political and economic systems so that they can truly be at the service of all people. This is the heart of Catholic social teaching.

Pope Francis has returned to this theme numerous times, beginning with his first encyclical Evangelii Gaudium. This text continues to provide a powerful reflection of Pope Francis’ social teaching on the global economy (EG 50-75). Instead of accepting the world as it is, he proposes creative dialogue with the social movements of the poor. There is therefore something that we can learn from such peripheral perspectives.

Viewing the world from the periphery

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis notes that economic globalization generates immense wealth and human progress in both established and developing economies (EG52). Greed, however, concentrates this wealth in the hands of a small elite and mostly benefits rich nations. Despite promises of a trickle-down economy, wealth has not sufficiently filtered down to the peripheries, especially in developing nations (EG 54). Instead, large stakeholders at the centre continue to wield economic power but “the excluded are still waiting.” (EG54). 

Greed concentrates this wealth in the hands of a small elite and mostly benefits rich nations.

It is precisely this “economy of exclusion” that the Holy Father rejects (EG 53). He says that “such an economy kills” because it is grounded upon the idolatry of money and the rejection of the role of ethics in an economy. It is a system that places money at the heart of the economy instead of the human person (EG 57-58).     

This unequal distribution of wealth creates two conflicting world views. Evangelii Gaudium provides several examples: those at the centre throw away food, while the people at the peripheries are dying of hunger. The world of power balks at news that the stock market has lost two points, but the death of an elderly homeless person does not even make it onto the news (EG 53). These contradictions should be a cause of concern. 

The massive concentration of wealth at the centre is the root cause of extreme economic inequalities. Resistance to these inequalities is shown in the outpouring of the cries of the poor against what Pope Francis calls “the globalization of indifference.” This resistance, often described as ‘terrorism’ by some governments, frequently takes on the form of violent confrontation between the peripheries and the centre.

Instead of examining the real and underlying frustration on the part of the poor, centres of political power typically blame poor nations and social movements for inciting violence. Ironically, those at the centre of globalization believe that the solution to global violence and migration is education “that will tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless.”(EG 60). The only solution to any forms of resistance is structural justice.

Resisting injustice and transforming reality

The struggle for economic justice and greater equality does not need to end in violence. But it must begin with dialogue. That is the purpose of the social movements.

The vast inequality in South Africa — made worse by the pandemic — will make economic recovery almost impossible unless we address the global issue of injustice. There are many grassroots movements in South Africa that work to achieve greater transformation of the economy, to overcome the legacy of inequality and provide opportunities for the millions of citizens who remain at the peripheries of our society.

The vast inequality in South Africa — made worse by the pandemic — will make economic recovery almost impossible unless we address the global issue of injustice.

Social movements that fight for economic and social justice reject the loss of human dignity, which Pope Francis describes as a “throw away culture” (EG 53). All people have value, not just the members of society who are producers and/or consumers. Unemployed youth and the elderly are among the most neglected persons in societies. Yet, the young hold the potential of what the future could be if they were given the opportunity to reimagine a different kind of society. The elderly are the voice of experience and wisdom that tempers excesses in every aspect of society.

Some social movements focus on challenging the power of multinational corporations. Others reject neo-colonialism, which see developing nations solely as a source of raw materials and as markets for new consumers. For many, the struggle is against neo-liberal globalization that pressurises developing nations to privatize public services that are of greatest benefit to the poor: e.g. sanitation, health care, education, social security. Such privatization is sometimes used as a prerequisite to access investment funding, which in time is believed to benefit the poor, making social services unnecessary.

Each of these popular movements have an important role to play in eliminating systems of oppression that continue to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. In his letter to popular movements in April 2020, Pope Francis described these organizations as “an army whose only weapons are solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone.”

The peripheries present the model for a new economy

Meetings like the one held on 24 October, give fresh encouragement to social movements to fight for and imagine a better future. They are called to redraw the terms of engagement in a globalized society. Their first-hand experience of the human and environmental cost of capitalist-driven globalization becomes the canvas on which to paint a different picture of reality.

The popular movements presented a vision of a fairer, more humane globalization that is possible despite the cracks in the neoliberal model of globalization.

During their meeting with Cardinals Turkson and Czerny, the popular movements presented a vision of a fairer, more humane globalization that is possible despite the cracks in the neoliberal model of globalization. Their proposal focuses on five areas:  integral ecology and the common good; economic democracy; land, shelter and labour, education and health; communication and technology; sovereignty, human mobility and peace.   

Pope Francis has encouraged social movements, in South Africa and abroad, to see themselves as “the indispensable builders of this change that can no longer be put off.” His letter is a timely reminder that “change is possible” and that the voice of the peripheries is “authoritative.” He challenges the members of popular movements and organizations to transform crisis and hardship into a “promise of life for your families and your communities.”

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.