October 2011

Keep the promise: make poverty history

Just as we were the power behind the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals, we must be the power that ensures the world achieves them, writes Good Samaritan Sister Marella Rebgetz.

BY Marella Rebgetz SGS

A child’s first birthday is always cause for celebration, but in Kiribati, a remote island nation straddling the equator in the Pacific Ocean, this celebration takes on an even greater significance. It’s believed that if a child reaches this milestone, then they have a reasonable chance of surviving to adulthood. T-shirts are sometimes printed in honour of the occasion, perhaps a new song is written and a pig slaughtered for the feast.

Every year, unsafe water and a lack of basic sanitation kill at least 1.6 million children under the age of five. Kiribati is part of this disturbing statistic. Infant mortality rates in Kiribati remain high, with diarrhea-related illnesses a common cause of death. Water-borne and faeces-related illnesses affect the entire development capacity of a country, not only because of the direct costs of illness, but also because of lost education and productivity.

In the lead up to the current millennium, much of the world united in a desire to “make poverty history”. The pressure applied by ordinary grandparents, parents, and children, combined with high-profile celebrities and international statespersons, led to the signing of the Millennium Declaration in September 2000 by all 189 member states of the United Nations. A core component of this declaration was the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of realistic targets designed to reduce extreme poverty and deprivation within a 15-year period.

Target 7c of the MDGs is a commitment to “reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”. In real terms, this is a commitment to ensure that by 2015, 89% of the world’s population will have access to safe drinking water, and 77% access to adequate sanitation.

We are now ten years into that 15-year period set by the UN. On a positive note, the UN’s 2011 MDG progress report found that, at current trends, it seems likely that the MDG target for safe drinking water will be met, and likely exceeded, by 2015, although Oceania and sub-Saharan Africa are significantly behind their targets.

However, the world is well behind in meeting the sanitation target. Currently, 2.6 billion people, or 39% of the world’s population, do not have access to improved sanitation. At the current rate of progress, it will take until 2049 for 77% of the world’s population to have improved sanitation.

The lack of progress in meeting the MDGs should be a cause of international scandal. From October 15 to 17, the “Make Poverty History” campaign will promote the slogan “Keep the Promise”. This is a timely reminder to all of us that, just as we were the power behind the adoption of the MDGs, we must be the power that ensures the world achieves them. But there is also an inherent danger in rushing to meet our commitments within the next five years. Haste may lead to projects being undertaken to the detriment of the people we are tying to help.

In Kiribati, where I work as a water engineer, I’m aware of a significant number of projects, both large and small, where this has been the case. In one project, a number of solar pumps were installed on household wells. Unfortunately this was in an area where the freshwater is very thin. These pumps have enabled the people to extract relatively large volumes of water at no cost, but the freshwater has been over-pumped, causing the freshwater and the underlying salt water to mix. This has ‘killed’ the water lens in this area for at least a generation.

In another project, several hundred unsealed pit toilets were installed in an endeavour to meet the commitment to the MDGs. In Kiribati, the water lens is only about 1.5 metres below ground level, so unsealed pit toilets will result in faeces directly entering the water supply.

We all have a moral responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that our “doing good” does no harm. The mantra of the Young Christian Students to “see, judge, act” comes to mind. It is tempting to either walk by on the other side of the road, pretending not to see the need because it is “too hard”, or to jump immediately from seeing to acting. It is the “judging” component that demands us to consider how we act, and that we do in fact “act justly” (Micah 6:8) rather than simply act.

In terms of the MDGs, any solution must be culturally, socially, technically, financially and environmentally appropriate. And it must be undertaken in a manner that is respectful of all stakeholders and ensures sustainability. To do this takes time and sustained commitment: involving the local community, assessing the local situation and acquiring technical expertise.

The Christian call to discipleship, a call to love and to be neighbour, demands an active and committed response. Being aware of people suffering and dying from a lack of clean water and adequate sanitation should call forth a neighbourly response from us. This October let us call on governments and institutions around the world to “keep the promise”, at the same time ensuring we are committed to the process and not just the results.

Marella Rebgetz

Originally from north Queensland, Good Samaritan Sister Marella Rebgetz is a Member of Council of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and lives in Melbourne. In 2019, she attended a Benedictine leadership course in Rome. Her professional background is in engineering.

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