"Light In The Midst of Darkness:
Views of Global Poverty"
Speech by Lt. General Claudia Kennedy, Retired
Former Deputy Director of Intelligence, US Army
President's Forum of Opportunity International, March 5, 2004
Boca Raton, Florida
Thank you, Susy, and good
morning, ladies and gentlemen.
The journey we’ve
been invited to participate in this weekend
is about bearing witness to a passage: a passage
from poverty to empowerment and hope.
As Susy stated, it’s
not a coincidence, not an accident that this
organization is named Opportunity International.
The name is what they do - providing opportunities
internationally for women and men to make heroic
journeys out of poverty.
When you look at the world
map, the Philippines is tiny. A speck. But as
we watched that wonderful story of Rosal, women
like her are not specks. They are human beings,
just like you and me. And there are millions
of women just like Rosal in the Philippines
and in dozens of other developing countries
around the world.
Rosal lives in a land of
81 million people. The last available data we
have tells us that in the year 2000, the number
of poor families in the Philippines reached
5.1 million, up by 628 thousand families. The
unemployment rate last July was 12.7% - and
the underemployment rate was 20.8%. The combined
rates of jobless or underpaid people are well
over a third of the population. And while the
faces behind these statistics are suffering,
it is even worse for the children. Seventy percent
of them are severely malnourished or underweight.
The statistics are daunting
for Rosal’s land. In her traditionally
passive culture it is not typical for a poor
woman to band together with other women in the
form of a lending group or a Trust Bank. But
she has. In the Philippines—and other
countries as well—the poor do not typically
create business plans and forecast ahead to
several loan cycles. But this is Rosal’s
new reality, one that has been shaped by new
My goal this morning is to present the harsh
reality of poverty – to expand our worldview.
Today, I want to be both the person who can
deliver the startling facts, as well as one
who knows there is a solution.
Let me first ask, how
many of you traveled to Nicaragua on Opportunity’s
Insight Trip, to see firsthand the work being
done to empower poor women? (Look for raised
Thank you. Let me ask another
question: Of those who went on this trip, how
many of you felt you learned something? (Look
for raised hands). And lastly, how many of you
felt more hopeful that there is a way to solve
poverty at the grassroots level as you packed
your bags to return home? (Look for raised hands).
That’s what I feel too. Hopeful. Grab
hold of that as we look down on our globe and
examine world poverty. As you listen, know that
hope is coming at the end of our journey.
For the moment, I want to
ask you to close your eyes and reflect upon
the moment in your life – whether it was
in childhood, adolescence, or later years that
you realized for the first time the reality
of poverty in the world. (momentary pause)
As for me, my own first
recollection of poverty was in Germany in the
late 1950's. I was ten years old, one of four
children in a military family, which moved around
every few years. My father was an army battalion
commander. We lived in a U.S. housing area not
far from a displaced persons' camp. I remember
that each week we had to put our garbage cans
out. We had two garbage cans: one for food and
one for everything else. We were asked to create
a can for food only, because people would come
through from the DP camps and dig through the
cans to find something to eat. My mother, along
with other thoughtful military families, would
wrap the food up in little pieces of tin. The
people from the camps would come through several
times each day looking for food, and gathering
it up in bags. They'd then go back and feed
their loved ones. Even as a ten year-old, I
could sense the sadness. The unfairness. The
As an adult, my thinking
about poverty in developing countries became
more strategic, taking firmer shape in 1990
at the Army War College. It was absolutely clear
by then that poverty is the source of enormous
social turmoil, and social turmoil often results
in civil unrest and disturbance, with the potential
for negative ramifications worldwide.
Beyond this, though, as
an American, and a Christian, and a citizen
of the world, but even more, on a private/personal
level, as a feeling and thinking human being,
just like you, my heart has always gone out
to the plight of very poor people. I have always
intuitively felt, however, that so-called chronic
poverty is not an insoluble condition without
And as a woman, I am deeply
aware that poverty is for many a woman’s
plight, and a mother’s plight, and that
along with the necessity to end poverty as we
know it on our planet, is the necessity to empower
women in the developing world to step up to
their full human potential and equality, and
the recognition of their inalienable human right
to live and to thrive with dignity and honor.
One of the things we believe in defense intelligence
is that people must have an investment in an
orderly society. Economic deprivation and hunger
leads to lack of education and illiteracy, which
leads to powerlessness and despair, which leads
to victimization and social chaos. We know that
when a country is poor one of the first things
to go is the education system. This means that
not only do you have hungry people; you have
people who are unable to think for themselves.
An open door appears for any radical leadership
ready to take advantage
of people who can then be told what to think
rather than being taught how to think. Education
is the huge protection that keeps individuals
or groups from being bullied. But it is apparent
to me that its prerequisite is earning enough
income to put food on the table, a roof over
one's head, and the money that can enable parents
to send their children to school.
So, let’s look at
the numbers. They are frightening. A part of
me wants to just jump ahead to the solution,
but we cannot fully realize the solution without
muddying our feet in the reality of the problem.
As you well know, the numbers of poor in our
world today, at this moment, are enormous. According
to the World Bank, half the world’s people
– that’s three billion of
us - live on less than $2 a day; and 1.3 billion
people – 20% of the world’s population
- live on less than $1 per day.
Dr. Philip M. Harter of the Stanford University
School of Medicine gives us a way to look at
it starkly yet simply. If the earth’s
population were shrunk into a village of just
100 people, with all the human ratios existing
in the world still remaining, 6 people would
possess 59 percent of the wealth, 80 would live
in substandard housing, 70 would be unable to
read, and 50 would suffer from malnutrition!
There are eight
hundred million people in the world
who go to bed hungry every night. They
don’t have an adequate income to put enough
or decent food on the table, or to live in a
home that provides true shelter. I am speaking
of mothers and fathers who worry themselves
sick every single day about their children
– about not having enough to feed them,
or clothe them, or to care for their health
needs, or to send them to school.
Take a moment with me to
imagine these people who are, today, earning
less than $1 a day. These are people who breathe,
laugh, play, cry, dream, yearn, need, and yes,
who die. People who struggle (pause). People
who pray (pause). Their joys, and their pains,
are equal in intensity to ours. They yearn for
peace and peace-of-mind, just as we do. They
yearn for a better life for their children,
just like us. They yearn for simple things –
to put enough wholesome food on the table, enough
to live in a house with a secure roof
over their heads, enough to dress their little
ones with warm enough clothing and shoes without
And yet, there is an enormous
gap between the fulfillment of this desire and
the reality faced by millions upon millions
of people in today’s world. In terms of
those with the greatest uphill battle, poverty
disproportionately affects women, children,
the elderly, and people with disabilities. In
many developing nations, women have low social
status and are restricted in their access to
both education and income-generating work. Without
adequate income, they commonly depend on men
for support, but often get little. In some developing
countries, including in Southeast Asia and Eastern
Europe, poor women seeking to work or immigrate
to other countries are tricked and sold into
prostitution or indentured servitude. This was reported in last
September’s issue of National Geographic,
in a special investigative feature article called
“21st Century Slaves.”
Many women end up in sweatshops
– illegal factories that have poor working
conditions and long hours. According to UNIFEM,
the United Nations Development Fund for Women,
the feminization of poverty is a growing phenomenon.
Women are still the poorest
of the world's poor, representing 70 percent
of the 1.3 billion people who live in absolute
poverty. When nearly 900 million women have
incomes of less than $1 a day, the association
between gender inequality and poverty remains
a harrowing reality.
In addition, Womankind Worldwide
states that women work two-thirds of the world's
working hours, produce half of the world's food,
and yet earn only 10% of the world's income
and own less than 1% of the world's property.
And what of the non-working
poor? People who don’t work – such
as young children, the elderly, and many people
with disabilities – depend on families
and other support networks for basic necessities.
However, neither poor families nor the governments
of many developing countries can adequately
support the non-working poor.
Poor children in particular
suffer the consequences. Children have underdeveloped
immune systems, and they easily acquire diseases
in unsanitary living conditions. The poorest
countries, therefore, have high rates of childhood
diseases and mortality.
Poverty has many causes,
some of them very basic. Some experts say the
world has too many people, too few jobs, and
not enough food. In most cases, the causes and
effects of poverty interact, so that what makes
people poor also creates conditions that keep
them poor. Factors may include:
Overpopulation: having large
numbers of people with too few resources and
too little space.
Epidemic diseases, such
as the devastation of HIV/AIDS on the African
The unequal distribution
of resources in the world economy…
Inadequate education and
Corrupt, incompetent or
The social and cultural
repression of women and minorities…
Natural disasters like floods or drought…
Civil wars and ethnic violence
and brutality (who can forget the genocide that
occurred in Rwanda?).
And radicalized religious
forces with terrorist tactics opposed to Western
democratic/capitalist civilization, launching
violent acts in wealthy countries and creating
civil disturbance and violent upheaval in developing
countries while exploiting the poor to gain their objectives.
U.S. military intelligence
projects a very unstable twenty-first century,
where the world will still be divided into three
distinct populations: the advanced nations comprising
less than 2 billion people; the next and largest
group of less advanced nations (such as China,
India, Brazil and much of Southwest Asia) comprising
about 5 billion people; and the third group,
the unstable nations of Africa and South Asia
struggling on the brink of disaster, whose population
will number about 2 billion.
With the exception of North
America, the expanded European Union, Japan,
a few Latin American countries and some isolated
zones of stability in the Middle East and South
Asia, much of the world will be ripe for an
ongoing conflict, and our military forces will
be called upon to operate at an exhausting pace.
In light of these projections,
it is very clear to me that if we defeat chronic
poverty on a global scale, or even make a significant
dent in the problem, that we eliminate a major
cause of tensions in the world – so much
so that military intelligence might just have
to reevaluate the current crisis projections
and scenarios it is making.
But we are not near that
place yet. Nowhere near it. One of the reasons
is that for the majority of the world’s
hungry people, food is available – but
the money to buy it is not.
Now it is true that in
the last several decades, poverty research,
in looking at the signs of poverty, has adopted
a broader, multidimensional approach, taking
into account a variety of social indicators
in addition to income. The UN's Human
Poverty Index, for example, factors in illiteracy,
malnutrition among children, early death, poor
health care, and poor access to safe water.
Vulnerability to famine or flooding, lack of
sanitation, exposure to disease, a diet poor
in nutrients, and the absence of education are
certainly as much the signs of poverty as material
deprivation. When governments become the ally
of their poorest citizens, providing the poor
with basic social services and infrastructure,
the alleviation of poverty moves more swiftly.
On a parallel course, it can also be said that
when income levels rise through entrepreneurial
opportunities created through microfinance and
training in basic business practices, poverty
takes a steep dive as well.
But without a concerted effort to amplify our
work to empower the world’s poorest people,
the future can indeed look bleak.
Certainly, the crisis of global poverty is compounded
by profound issues such as the rampage of disease,
or lack of educational opportunities.
Looking at just one global human tragedy –
the HIV/AIDS epidemic – the statistics
are numbing – and the relationship between
the disease and poverty are profound:
According to CARE, by the end of 2002, an estimated
42 million people around the world were living
with HIV/AIDS. During the past year, 5 million
people became infected and an estimated 3.1
million people died.
More than 70 percent of those infected live
in sub-Saharan Africa, now home to 29.4 million
people living with HIV/AIDS. To date, the AIDS
pandemic has left behind more than 14 million
orphans, more than 92 percent of whom live in
In addition to the ravages of AIDS and other
epidemiological catastrophes like malaria and
infant mortality, illiteracy and lack of educational
opportunities complicate the poverty equation
just as severely.
According to Oxfam, there are still 125 million
children who never attend school. Another 150
million children of primary age start school,
but drop out before they can read or write.
Today, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for one-third
of the total out-of-school population. On current
trends, it will account for three-quarters of
the total in 2015.
One in four adults in the
developing world – 872 million
people – is illiterate,
and the numbers are growing.
Today, a lucky child in
Mozambique can expect to go to school for two
to three years, with luck. A five-year-old European
or North American child can expect 17 years
of formal education.
Oxfam says that school
fees are denying millions of children in
developing countries a basic education –
and locking them into a cycle of poverty.
Poor parents are being forced
to make agonizing choices: do they buy food
and medicines for their children, or do they
send them to school?
If they only have enough money to educate one
child, which one do they choose? It’s
usually the girls who miss out, because boys
tend to be given priority. School fees are denying
children the right to the most basic education
-- and denying them a future.
One positive development
in the global assault on chronic poverty comes
with the emergence of the United Nations Millennium
Declaration, formulated in September 2000 by
more than 140 world leaders. They agreed to
launch a campaign to attack poverty in eight
different ways. I believe that declarations
of this kind are extremely important. Just like
Eleanor Roosevelt’s masterpiece, the Declaration
of Human Rights, the Millennium Declaration
establishes the universal value and template,
which all humanity can aspire towards; and it seeds and steers
consciousness in a positive way that is important
to our collective evolvement.
The declaration states,
“We will spare no effort to free our fellow
men, women and children from the abject and
dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty to
which more than a billion of them are currently
In this regard, The Millennium
Development Goals call for reducing the proportion
of people living on less than $1 a day to half
the 1990 level by 2015 -- from 28.3 percent
of all people in low and middle income economies
to 14.2 percent. The Goals also call for halving
the proportion of people who suffer from hunger
It’s useful and interesting
to see the eight specific goals of the declaration:
First, to eradicate extreme
poverty and hunger.
Second, to achieve universal
Third, to promote gender
equality and to empower women.
Fourth, to reduce child
Fifth, to improve maternal
Sixth, to combat HIV/AIDS,
malaria and other diseases.
Seventh, to ensure environmental
And, eighth, to develop
a global partnership for development.
You may ask, what will it
take to achieve the Millennium Development Goals?
A great deal. Microfinance
institutions believe that the most crucial
factors are jobs and better incomes for poor
The powerful, transformational
effects of microenterprise development was not
sufficiently reflected in the Millennium Declaration,
and I believe the extraordinary impact
and success of microfinance should be more strongly
reflected in that document.
Now I’m aware that
I’ve painted a dark picture for you by
walking you through these statistics. But I
must tell you that when I heard about the transforming
work of microenterprise development, this is
when I became truly hopeful. This was when I
began to see pinpoints of light in the dark
reality of global poverty.
So let’s shift to
the hopeful statistics, for they demonstrate
that micro-enterprise development makes a difference
wherever it is applied, presenting a model which,
if expanded upon, can radically transform the
plight of hundreds of millions of poor people
in the developing world.
Thankfully the current focus
in the development community is in community
development. It is here that micro-enterprise
development has become a major force for positive
transformation, for it works within communities
at the grassroots level, where the meaningful
change is occurring daily.
In a speech delivered at
Peking University in Beijing, China in May of
2002, World Bank President James Wolfensohn
said that development “…is about
treating the poor not as objects of charity,
but as assets on which we can build a better
and safer world.” He said, “It is
about…replicating, for example, the successes
of community-driven development and microcredit,
where the poor are at the center of the solution,
not at the end of a handout.”
I agree with Mr. Wolfensohn.
And as he has said on many occasions, our self-interest
is bound up in the economic growth and development
of the developing nations of the world. Some
would argue that the numbers are too great,
and the situation is hopeless. While the overview
of poverty in the world I have described may
seem in numbers gargantuan, as I’ve already
said, I DO NOT AGREE that the situation is hopeless.
The method of helping others help themselves
with micro-enterprise development, is very exciting,
especially because of the simplicity and effectiveness
of this tool.
The other reason is that
“MED” as it is called in short-form,
reaches the poor at virtually all the levels
at which they’re found.
One of the exciting things
about micro-enterprise development is that while
it assists most immediately those in the upper
levels of the poverty spectrum – the
self-employed poor (those with a trade
who already run a small business of their own
but lack the credit to grow) and the
entrepreneurial poor (those who are
already employed and have managerial skills
but who lack credit and access to a banking
network)…it also infiltrates and reaches
people in the lower rungs of the spectrum (the
laboring poor, underemployed who barely
eke out a living as farm laborers or domestics;
the ultra-poor who struggle to survive
day-to-day; and the unemployed poor
who are mentally or physically handicapped).
The “ricochet effect”
also comes into play. Essentially we’re
talking about the number of people within a
community who are positively affected by the
funding of one entrepreneur. This number includes
family members, people employed by these fledgling
entrepreneurs, and their families. So if in
a community, five hundred people are empowered
with microloans – literally thousands
more can be lifted up in total. That’s
what I call community development. It is a reversal
of the downward cyclical spiral of poverty into
an upward cyclical spiral of hope, income, food,
productivity, and learning.
And it all begins with a
very small collateral-free loan of $50, $100
or $200, which can put a poor working person
into an enterprise of his or her own. It might
be a fruit or vegetable vendor stand in the
local marketplace; or a canteen; or a seamstress,
beauty or cobbler shop. No matter how humble
the business, the effect on a formerly destitute
person and the people within that person’s
inner circle is financially and psychologically
The other two very encouraging
features of microfinance for the poor are, first,
that people are not given a handout, but a means
to work their own way out of poverty through
these entrepreneurial empowerment loans. As
they are given the opportunity to become self-employed,
they are simultaneously given the chance to
discover their own self-worth. Their dignity
becomes revealed to them.
The second is that loans
are distributed at the grassroots level through
local implementing partners. This avoids the
corruption that so often occurs when monies
are funneled from the top down. And the fact
that women are brought together in community
in groups of 15 to 40, to form what within the
Opportunity International model are called Trust
Banks, is especially exciting. You saw a Trust
Bank at work in the Rosal video. By the way,
eighty-seven percent of Opportunity’s
clients are women.
The process itself is straightforward.
These women and men take a brief training program,
which includes instruction in simple accounting,
business planning and banking. Then the first
Trust Bank meetings are held and group officers
are elected. After about two months’ time,
small loans ranging from $50 to $200 U.S. dollars
are distributed. This money is used to buy inventory
or to purchase supplies, so the fledgling
enterprise can get launched. Loans must be repaid
and every Trust Bank client must guarantee the
loans of the other group members.
The repayment rate on loans
averages an amazing 98 percent. As clients progress
through the program, their small businesses grow, a
record of credit is established, and they often
begin saving money in a commercial bank.
In a typical Trust Bank
meeting, attendance is taken, loan payments
are made and savings accounts deposits are recorded.
Discussions take place where members can express
themselves, learn from each other and where
group problems are worked out. Importantly,
each client finds that she has entered into
a new “culture” within the Trust
Bank setting – a culture that upholds
the dignity and respect of every member.
Now, you may ask, on the
macro-level, the numbers of poor in the world
are so enormous, how can any one microfinance
organization make the ultimate difference?
The answer here is that there exists a great
coalition of micro-enterprise development non-governmental
organizations, called NGO’s, tied together
through the Microcredit Summit, a Washington-based
alliance of microfinance institutions which
formulates goals for the microfinance industry
and annually reviews and updates them. The Summit
recently announced that its goal of reaching
100 million of the world’s poorest families
by 2005 has made significant progress. Microloans
reached 41.6 million families by the end of
2002 – and that is a very positive achievement!
And hear this:
what it shows is that the success of microfinance
in the alleviation of poverty is in inverse
ratio to the escalation of global poverty in
those many parts of the world where microfinance
has not yet been applied.
Beyond this, the wealthy
nations of the world need to do more. When General
George C. Marshall in June of 1947 outlined
his plan to help the defeated nations of Europe,
he said there could be “no political stability
and no assured peace” without economic
security, and that American policy was “directed
not against any country or doctrine but against
hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.”
Today, the challenge is
at least as great – probably greater.
With billions of people in the world suffering
economic deprivation, the relationship between
economic instability to political instability
to extremism and terrorism is real and ominous.
For this and humanitarian
reasons, the Worldwatch Institute has called
for a global version of the Marshall Plan to
confront and eradicate chronic poverty, once
and for all, worldwide.
The Millennium Development
Goal of cutting absolute poverty in half by
2015 is ambitious too, and as mentioned, needs
the support of microfinance organizations.
Now a goodly portion of funding of microfinance
institutions relies on private and corporate
support. Then there is governmental assistance
through such agencies as USAID. This falls in
part under the category of “foreign aid.”
What do Americans think about providing foreign
aid to developing nations?
Most see giving foreign aid as serving American
self-interest, or the national interest, not
merely as humanitarian. In fact, there has been
a marked decrease in the public’s desire
to cut foreign aid, while an overwhelming majority
continues to support the principle of giving
Findings from a study conducted by PIPA, The
Program on International Policy Attitudes, in
February, 2001, as well as from other polls,
show a shift in public opinion away from the
feeling that the U.S. should cut foreign aid.
In the 1995 PIPA poll, 64% favored cutting foreign
aid. In the 2001 poll this percentage has dropped
to just 40%.
In polls, overwhelming majorities reject the
idea that the US should only give aid when it
serves the national interest. But beyond polls
and trends concerning national feelings about
alleviating poverty, we have the additional
responsibility to hold our faith and belief
systems up against the reality of poverty in
With two billion Christians in the world today
with an annual global income of ten trillion
dollars, how can Christians help in the vital
and noble crusade to end poverty on our planet,
as we know it? If two tenths of the annual income
of Christians - $20 billion - were funneled
to provide loans to 100 million poor entrepreneurs,
the lives of one billion children and adults
would be transformed. This would constitute
a Christian version of the Marshall Plan, far
surpassing the goals of the Microcredit Summit
and achieving many of the goals of the Millennium
The most incredible part of investing in microfinance
is the concept of “recycled money,”
or leveraging and sustainability. What this
means is that because charitable gifts are distributed
as loans, these monies are used over and over
and over again. One $100 gift can be realized
in a loan to a poor woman in Africa. She then
builds a business and repays the loan. Then,
that $100 goes to another woman, who does the
same, and so on and so forth. This is the beauty
of micro-enterprise development.
For those of you who leave
here this weekend with an understanding of the
global dimensions of the issues, the truth is
that ALL of it can be reduced down to the life
of a single human being.
Perhaps she’s a poor woman in the slums
of Manila, struggling to gain financial independence
so she can feed her family…or a poor woman
who must earn extra income in a village outside
Ghana, Africa, so she can support her sister’s
children, whose mother died of AIDS . . . or
a family in Guadalajara, Mexico desperate to
start saving money for the first time with their
own bank account.
Our commitment to this wonderful work translates
to transforming these kinds of lives, one life
at a time. And the greater the commitment, the
more magnified the impact in the transformation
of whole communities.
Because as grim in certain respects as the global
overview of poverty is – and many of the
statistics I’ve cited this morning, when
they really sink in, can bring tears to the
eyes – the truth is that this overview
is dramatically in counterpoint with the success,
the increasing success, of micro-enterprise
development. And that’s the good news,
the message of hopefulness I wanted to bring
to you this morning.
Out of this good news and hopefulness comes
the motivation to be part of something that
works, something that calls us to service with
the assurance that our support is not futile
– that it will make a difference in the
lives of our fellow human beings.
Sir Wilfred Grenfell, who
worked tirelessly to eradicate poverty in Canada
more than 100 years ago said, “the service
we render for others is the rent we pay for
our room on earth.” Along with this thought,
I am equally moved by something I read in Proverbs:
“He that hath mercy on the poor, happy
is he.” Oh yes! And may I add, “She
that hath mercy on the poor, happy is She!”
Ladies and gentlemen, mercy
on the poor means empowerment of the poor. Empowerment
represents new hope, and new life, for the poorest
of our fellow courageous sisters and brothers.
They don’t ask for charity – they
ask for the opportunity to be liberated! The
names of their trust banks speak to their spirit
and their kinship with us through Christ. Here
are just a few of those names:
Grace of the Lord
Trust Bank, Kampala, Uganda
Loving Fellowship Trust Bank,
Bacolod City, Philippines
Working Together Trust Bank,
These names stand for opportunity
realized. Hope personified. Small pinpoints
of light shining in the darkest places of poverty.
You are helping that light to grow and reproduce
itself around the globe.
Thank you very much.