At a time when Iraq, terrorism and the domestic economy dominate the national agenda, the need to combat global poverty is more pressing than ever, humanitarian leader Peter Bell told a Princeton audience Saturday.
Bell, president of the international development and relief organization CARE USA, said that both pragmatic and moral arguments demand a response to the fact that half the world population is living on $2 a day or less and 40 percent of those face the extreme poverty of $1 a day.
"People in extreme poverty live in a world severely circumscribed," Bell said in a talk that marked the start of the University's annual Alumni Day. "They reside in the flimsiest houses on the most precarious sites; they are hit hardest by natural disasters; and they are most exposed to infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. They are balanced every day on a razor's edge of crisis."
Bell, who earned a master's degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs in 1964, was on campus to receive the James Madison Medal, the University's highest honor for a graduate alumnus. He has been president of CARE since 1995 and served on its board of directors for seven years before that.
Illustrating his talk with moving stories of people he has met while visiting CARE operations around the world, Bell pressed the case for greater individual and government involvement in fighting poverty. Economic and social development of poor countries, he said, would enrich industrialized countries and render them more secure. Such progress also would "reduce global population growth, restrain illegal immigration and control the spread of infectious diseases."
However, the most compelling reason, he said, is a moral one. "Poverty is, first and foremost, an assault upon the dignity of a person, and each of us bears a responsibility to affirm and protect the dignity of others."
Improving the situation, he said, means attacking the many root causes that trap people in poverty despite their constant hard work and desire for improvement: the HIV/AIDS pandemic, lack of access to basic education, lack of access to clean water, poor governance, discrimination, civil conflict and harmful trade policies.
Bell praised U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who was in the audience, for his leadership in fighting AIDS, and also commended the Bush Administration for support of increased development aid and AIDS funding. At the same time, he drew applause in urging more funding and defining that commitment as a "true measure of this country's greatness."
"Imagine the impact of a U.S. president who pursued the fight against global poverty with the same vigor that President Bush has led the campaign against Iraq," he said.
Bell concluded by returning to a description he had given of a farmer he met in Sri Lanka who had saved bricks for six years to build a one-room house for his family and was proud to tell Bell that he expected to finish in another year. Bell likened the farmer's project to what might seem like the overwhelmingly large job of fighting poverty.
"It begins by our taking that first step, acquiring that first brick -- and the next -- until a stable foundation is laid," he said. "With ingenuity and commitment, we can and we will build a world where extreme poverty has been overcome -- where everyone sleeps in safety and awakens with hope."
"Where does the end of poverty begin?" he concluded. "It begins with each of us. It begins here. And it begins now."
Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601