The End of Poverty. Part 1: Dignity in the Midst of Deficiency

January 20, 2010

The End of Poverty. Part 1: Dignity in the Midst of Deficiency

with Martin Burt and Ken Wilber

It was impossible not to feel our hearts burst as we watched the aftermath of last week’s earthquake in Haiti.  We looked on with horror as an entire nation of people already on the edge of survival had their lives and their families stripped away from them. We sat helpless and heartbroken—praying, practicing, and breathing for the victims, trying to find a point of silence still enough to contain all this pain.

What we witnessed last week was tragic, and yet tragically inevitable.  Haiti is a nation without building codes and without a modern infrastructure, because Haiti is a nation without an economy.  It is truly maddening to know that there would have been far fewer deaths last week if Haiti hadn’t been so morbidly impoverished—it is worth noting that the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco registered a 6.9 on the Richter scale, and killed 63 people.  Last week’s earthquake in Haiti registered a 7.0, with a recent estimate of 200,000 casualties.

So what is really responsible for these deaths? Tectonic plates? Or poverty itself?

This is why we are so inspired by Martin Burt, whose Foundation Paraguay is one of the world’s most innovative micro-finance organizations, used now in 27 countries and modeled by 50 institutions.  Martin employs an explicitly integral approach to poverty elimination, using 200 different measures for poverty to finally solve poverty in both its interior and exterior dimensions.

Poverty, Martin reminds us, is not only an impoverished standard of material living, but also an insidious misconception about human beingness: that we only are only rich in spirit when we are rich in wealth.  This misconception, prominent among the world’s rich nations, paradoxically exacerbates the suffering of the world’s poor because it encourages partial approaches to poverty, as if merely giving them more “stuff” will cure the poverty of dignity that always and everywhere accompanies the absence of human self-sufficiency.

Some of us had the opportunity to listen to Martin talk with Ken a few months ago, and we were all blown away by his story. It wonderful to see Integral theory being applied in such concrete and practical ways around the world—but more importantly, it was invigorating to see it used in a way that is directly improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. After all, you can spend a lifetime learning all the very best philosophies in the world, but if it doesn’t actually help make this world a better place, it’s just empty words.

Poverty elimination lies at the core of the integral spiritual impulse. It is impossible to consider yourself truly “spiritual” without caring about the poor, without opening your heart to suffering in all its forms.  It’s important to remember that spirituality is more than a 1st-person experience—in order for our lives to be fully lived, we must allow our hearts to break open to the full suffering we are surrounded by, recognizing the basic human dignity reflected in every person’s eyes.  But it’s not enough to just feel it in the 1st person, or to open ourselves to love in the 2nd person—we must also act in the 3rd person, directly engaging the political, technological, and economic systems that continue to lock so many people into perpetual poverty, supporting the world with our wallets as much as we do our hearts.

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