Poverty in Asia and Sustainable Development

By Dr. Paul Hwang (Director ALL Forum)

I remember the first time I was invited by a Catholic youth group in Bangladesh to run a program about 10 years ago. Even though I had traveled all over Asia, it was my first time in this country, so I was worried about how to get to the event location in Dhaka. But fortunately one of the youth representatives picked me up at the airport. It was something I was very grateful for, but that gratitude disappeared in less than an hour. It was a long way from the airport to the accommodation, and it was so bumpy that my ass hurt, and to make matters worse, it was a car without air conditioning in the heat! Therefore, of course, the windows had to be lowered and run, and as a result, all the pollution coming in from the outside. When I arrived, I looked in the mirror and was surprised. To exaggerate a bit, all kinds of dirty air made my face dirty and darker, and even after wiping with a few tissues, the dirt still continued to come out. However, when I visited Dhaka again this August for the moving school program, I was once again surprised by the many changes. The car that picked me up had air conditioning, of course, but the road conditions were much better and moreover, the construction of the highway saved a lot of time. Not only that, there was construction going on many places along the road. Bangladesh was literally ‘under construction’!

Bangladesh’s economy, which ranked 41st in the World GDP Ranking for 2022 published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has grown at the fastest rate in the world over the past decade. And its economy is 271 times larger than it was 50 years ago. The international community especially appreciates Bangladesh’s success in overcoming the extremely difficult situation of the pandemic. However, Bangladesh cannot be free from various problems caused by the recent global economic instability, and the current situation, which is directly exposed to various adverse effects such as fuel and other imported goods prices increase due to the prolonged Russia-Ukraine war, is wrestling with the Corona virus incident. Currently, the biggest threat to Bangladesh’s economy is high inflation and a deficit in the balance of payments. Of course, inflation and rising prices of daily necessities are global phenomena, not just in other Asian countries including Korea. Many people are worried that an economic recession similar to the 1998 IMF crisis or the 2008 financial crisis will strike. Such a global economic crisis, as well as cases of neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, amplify concerns about the possibility of a crisis in Bangladesh.

What becomes evident in this economic crisis is the aspiration of many people for ‘sustainable development’. Bangladesh and other countries that have managed to escape poverty and are growing economically are also trying to live more prosperous lives through more and more economic development. There is an old saying in Korea, “Generosity is born from the storehouse.” If you think carefully about it, you can say that you can live without dying because of the minimal food, and that is why you should be grateful for it. Even if there are people like a “saint” who are grateful despite their young children dying from starvation, it seems difficult to see it as an ordinary thing happened among ordinary people like us. Not everyone can be such saint, and it shouldn’t be forced. Rather, as
someone said, such forced poverty is a ‘structural sin’. In one place, people die of hunger, while in another place, eatable food is thrown away as reality in the world today. It is because of the unequal ownership and unjust distribution of wealth. Therefore, a bowl of rice and a loaf of bread are to be regarded as the gifts of God for all to enjoy. It may be said too grandiose, but if faith in God is reduced to decoration of life regardless of the problem of rice and bread, that is to make the faith abstract and ideological and distance it from the real life.

Therefore, rice and bread are indispensable elements that make humans human. If so, how much material do humans, including believers, need to feel and enjoy a dignified human life, human dignity and freedom? For believers who want to go beyond the materiality of a meal itself and find the meaning and value of it in their relationship with God, this problem is unavoidable and can be said to be an ‘authenticity of a believer’ in which they have to face up to find their own solution. The Catholic Church has traditionally called this ‘integral human development’. As Pope Francis said, “All human beings have the right to a decent life and full development, and no country can deny this fundamental right” (Fratelli Tutti, No. 107), we must pursue development for the sake of human dignity. It seems to be the path that many Asian countries, including Bangladesh, should follow as pursuing economic development as well as moral and spiritual growth.*

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