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Better Together provides a space to share experiences with – and strategies for engaging – three critical global issues that PC(USA) global partners are challenging us to address together as the body of Christ.  These three issues are 1) addressing root causes of poverty, especially as it impacts women and children; 2) sharing the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ; and 3) working for reconciliation in cultures of violence, including our own.  The purpose of Better Together is to feed a conversation to shape concrete action strategies at the October 2012 “Dallas II: Better Together” consultation and beyond. 

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August 27, 2012

Rethinking the term "Success"

Josh Heikkila reflects on the definition of poverty and how we address it

Appointed as a PC(USA) mission co-worker in October, 2009, Josh Heikkila is regional liaison for West Africa. He facilitates support for the programs, relationships and activities of PC(USA) partners. He also provides support to PC(USA) mission personnel and helps connect partner churches with PC(USA) churches that want to be involved in ministry in the region.

The neighborhood in Accra where I live, called Asylum Down, has a concrete draining ditch running through the middle of it. The ditch originates near the international airport, meanders through an area of small commercial vegetable gardens, and bisects a poor Muslim neighborhood called Nima, before arriving at middle-class Asylum Down.

Next to my house is a “fitting shop”, the local term for an informal auto mechanic, who in my case specializes in Toyota and Volkswagen repair. Most of the shop’s employees are young men from villages who work in Accra during the week and go home to the villages on weekends. Because housing is too expensive for them, they usually spend the night in the cars they’re working on.

Without access to facilities, these young men turn to the drainage ditch as a bath and toilet. For thousands of people along its path, this same ditch is the closest thing they have to modern sanitation.

As a country, Ghana produces almost a quarter of the world’s cocoa, the prime ingredient in chocolate. But it would take more than a day’s wage for a cocoa farmer to buy a bar of chocolate. Even Henry Ford knew that for an economy to be successful, workers had to be able to afford the fruit of their labor. But in Ghana, this is only a dream. Like the auto mechanics, the cocoa farmers are struggling just to get by.

Ghana is often considered an African success story, but when you look at the statistics, it still has a long, long way to go. About 70% of the population has access to water from wells or pipes; 50% has electricity in the home; only 7% has a flush toilet, and an additional 11% a latrine. There is one doctor for every 10,000 people, and one automobile for about every 20. On almost all these measures of development, Ghana far exceeds its African neighborhoods.

Compare this to the United States, where by some estimates, the overwhelming majority of those in poverty have a refrigerator, cable television, air conditioning, and a car -- not to mention electricity and running water. American poverty sometimes more closely resembles middle-class life in Ghana.

As the PCUSA focuses its efforts on poverty reduction, a question needs to be asked. What is poverty, and at what economic level does it cease to exist? Does a person need access to water, electricity, and a toilet to escape poverty? Are schools and healthcare necessary, too? Should the American standard for poverty become the norm: a refrigerator, television, air conditioning, and car? Does the planet even have enough resources to bring everyone to this level?

Imagine if the same economic conditions existed in the U.S. A dairy farmer couldn’t afford to buy milk. An employee of McDonald’s couldn’t afford a Big Mac. A schoolteacher couldn’t afford to send her children to school. How far are we willing to go to bring about change? Are we even willing to sacrifice some of our own economic privilege, if that’s what it will take to alleviate poverty worldwide?

Tags: accra, church, dallas ii, definition, ghana, pcusa, poverty, success


  1. Big, important questions, Josh. Reminded me of a blog piece "Should poverty be defined by a single international poverty line, or country by country? (and what difference does it make?)" (http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=11024) In searching for that link I also noticed this entry ("What Kind of Inequality Matters Most?"), which might be relevant to this conversation, too: http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=11372

    by Sarah

    August 27, 2012

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