The Words of the Ladouce Family
Geneva, Switzerland -- Ethical values are needed to overcome the current global economic crisis as well as to eradicate hunger and promote the real development of all the world's peoples, Pope Benedict XVI said in his new encyclical. The document, "Caritas in Veritate" ("Love in Truth"), was released at the Vatican July 7.
While the Pope was delivering his message, diplomats and ministers of health from around the world were in Geneva for the annual ministerial review of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). They had gathered in Calvin’s city (the so-called “Protestant Rome”) not to study the Pope's encyclical but to offer their own human viewpoints on the impact of the global crisis on social budgets; of course, the moral consequences are part of the impact. But can moral values be part of the answer to the crisis, as the Pope thinks?
In light of the discussions taking place in Geneva, are the words of Pope Benedict XVI mere idealism and lip service, or do they make sense? Of course, the reports of many delegations voice complaint, helplessness, anger, or blame. “Those who will suffer the most from the crisis are those who did nothing to create this crisis,” is often heard in the sessions. Yet, ministers of health and diplomats report amazing innovations and initiatives taking place in their nations, at the very moment when the world is in crisis. Perhaps pieces of divine truth appear in such human discourse.
But what kind of truth are we talking about? “The truth," Benedict XVI said, "that God is the creator of human life, that every life is sacred, that the earth was given to humanity to use and protect, and that God has a plan for each person must be respected in development programs and in economic recovery efforts if they are to have real and lasting benefits. Practicing love in truth helps people understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful, but essential for building a good society and for true integral development.”
UPF's report on the sessions in Geneva focuses on values in the messages of hope presented by some small and poor nations. Instead of asking for more help in times of scarcity, they used the UN forum to share some good news.
First, let us ask if a global moral reaction to a global crisis is so remarkable. About 20 years ago, the general crisis in the world was not economic: 1989 marked the end of totalitarianism in Europe and in many places of the world. Communism did not end in a bloodbath but in an atmosphere of great anxiety and uncertainty; there was a crisis in this sense. Walter Schwimmer, the former president of the Council of Europe, once noted communism ended near the turn of the millennium, and in this sense, it could be seen as apocalyptic. But, Schwimmer added, it did not take place through God’s wrath punishing the evil side. Rather, the citizens of Europe peacefully overthrew the power of the dragon. This ownership of the people was dramatic and unexpected. Rather than being destructive, the crisis gave birth to a new culture, starting from the citizens themselves.
That crisis was in the realm of politics. The present crises are material: food, energy, finances, and health. Mother nature is very unhappy with all of us, it seems.
As this global material crisis threatens human security, will there be a positive, moral reaction from the people similar to the response to the political and military crises 20 years ago? There are some signs of it.
The first good news today came from Laos. Those who love Laos call it “the gentle country,” and for many others it is simply “the forgotten country.” Laos was offered a chance to report during a special event on Africa and Least Developed Countries, co-chaired by Mrs. Sylvie Lucas, President of ECOSOC and by Mr. Cheick Sidi Diarra, Under-Secretary-General and adviser on Africa, and High Representative for Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States. The report from Laos was presented by Dr. Ponmek Dalaloy, Minister of Health. He did not even mention the current global crisis, assuming that every one knows about it.
Instead, he focused on “his own business”, i.e., the specific challenges of Laos: it is under populated, it is the only landlocked country of South-East Asia, and it ranks among the least developed countries. Moreover, it has endured war for many decades and is one of the most multi-ethnic nations of the world. Its population is essentially rural with little education. Government health policy includes some top-down measures, and Mr. Dalaloy reported that his government is trying to implement global declarations in order to improve the health of the Lao people.
But the most interesting part of his report was about the bottom-up approach. The two key words of his speech were health literacy and ownership. In rural areas, there is a national effort to promote "healthy villages" through cooperation between the village chief, the health teams, and the population.
The mother-child relationship is a central axis of the strategy. Authorities are not trying to impose family planning, because in a way Laos needs large families to produce the work force of tomorrow. Instead, great emphasis is put on birth spacing and better care of children. Moreover, the government thinks that health literacy has to start with mothers and their children.
At school, all children learn the “three cleans”: clean water, cooking food well, and proper latrines. Good habits have to be ingrained in the young. Good health should no longer be a dream for Lao people but a reality, Mr. Dalaloy said. He further insisted that the state does not have the monopoly on health and that the whole society has to take ownership. In Laos, much of the work is still carried out by mass organizations such as the Lao Women's Union and the Youth Union, but he also mentioned the increasing role of the monks, the media, and campaigns using posters, CDs, and DVDs.
Of course, the statistics for Laos are still rather mediocre. But what we found surprising in the report was the absence of complaint or despair, and instead a positive spirit and a desire to communicate about good practices. [See the interview with Dr. Dalaloy at the end of this report.].
The same positive spirit could be felt in the report offered by Dr. Aminath Jameel, Minister of Health and Family of the Maldives. The archipelago of the Indian Ocean also ranks among the least developed countries, but its challenges are diametrically different from Laos. Whereas Laos suffers from the absence of water around it, Maldives (with its highest point being 2.3 meters above sea level) runs the risk of being engulfed by the ocean. Dr. Jameel reminded the delegates that climate change is a major concern for the Maldives, a country which led the transforming the issue of climate change from a purely scientific to a more human and social concern.
She described the sea as a challenge, since boats are the only mode of transportation between the 200 islands dispersed on 800 kilometers. It creates a financial burden on the State and on the people. Although for many people Maldives is just an exotic destination and a tropical paradise, the tsunami of 2004 devastated the country.
Yet, despite all these hostile circumstances, she report that Maldives has achieved five of the eight Millennium Development Goals and its literacy rate is one of the highest in the world. She attributed most of the recent successes to good governance and compliance with international standards. There has also been good progress in gender equity. She concluded her speech by saying that her country was happy to report good news.
Her report was evidence that the key to the development of any nation is not natural resources but investment in people, educating them and encouraging them to take ownership. As Mr. Richard Nchabi Kamwi, Minister of Heath and Social Services of Namibia, reported, “Development depends on the human factor, people using their skills and knowledge to transform natural resources into various products.” Despite recent severe setbacks in Namibia, he expressed his confidence that the international community will react with dignity to the current crisis.
The "international community” is the cumulative good will of many different actors, sometimes powerful and mighty, sometimes apparently insignificant. It was interesting to listen to the delegation of Liechtenstein. This country is landlocked like Laos, and exotic like the Maldives. Some would call it a fiscal paradise rather than a tropical paradise, but this is another story.
The very energetic Aurelia Frick, Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed her country's concern about one of the most neglected Millennium Development Goal, maternal health. Even though her country is not in a position to do much globally, what it does, it chooses to do well. The Liechtenstein Development Service supports bilateral maternal health projects. One prominent project implemented by Terre des Hommes aims at reducing child and maternal mortality in Afghanistan. Mrs. Frick added that the present economic crisis has not affected her nation's commitment to meeting the Official Development Assistance target of 0.7%.
Her fresh approach is evidence that not only the heavyweights of the planet can help countries in need but also the people of tiny nations in the developed world [Liechtenstein has a population of about 35,000] express their love, care, and moral values by providing assistance. The reports by Dr. Jameel and Mrs. Frick were also evidence of value of cooperation among men and women in addressing global crises.
Morocco's Minister of Social Development, Family and Solidarity was sitting on the first row throughout the day and spoke twice in a remarkable way. Mrs. Nouzha Skalli has been chosen by the King of Morocco to help the nation modernize while keeping its traditional values. The King wants to move towards abolishing polygamy, or at least severely restrict it, and he also sees the empowerment of women as a key to good governance. While preserving its strong family system, Morocco wants to see women use their new freedoms to take more responsibility in public life. Mrs. Skalli articulately summarized the new moral contract that the King is trying to make with his people: “He set up a large program of political, economic, and social reforms with an integrated approach that places the human being at the center of these reforms. But let us be more precise, the human being includes men, women, children, elderly, and the handicapped without any discrimination.”
To illustrate the immediate effects of this philosophy, she reported that in the recent municipal elections, 3428 had just been elected whereas they were only 127 before. She also mentioned that a national campaign against domestic violence seeks to empower women and includes strict legislation against male violence. This used to be a taboo topic in her country, but times are changing.
This philosophy of human development is being implemented together with ambitious infrastructure reforms especially the transportation system. The minister was proud to announce that the economic growth will remain strong this year (probably 5%).
In Morocco, a combination of changes in behavior and a transformation of infrastructures is bearing fruit. Because this new vision was underway before the economic crisis started, it seems that Morocco has done better than average in handling some of the challenges. Of course Mrs. Skalli made it clear that her nation is still very far from achieving certain standards, but her report illustrated that a country can modernize itself without throwing away its traditional values but rather by making them relevant to each citizen. Morocco is promoting development that will enable both men and women to thrive because their lives will become closer to fundamental ethical standards; in the past, dogmas were preached but the reality was lagging behind.
Interview with Mr. Dalaloy, Minister of Health of Laos, and Mr. Bounlay Phommasack, Deputy Director of the Hygiene and Preventative Department
Q.: Mr. Dalaloy, Laos is not only among the least developed countries but also a landlocked country. Could you explain why you seem to be rather optimistic about your country?
A.: Well, Laos used to be a battlefield in the confrontation between global powers; we suffered a lot as a buffer state. But in a world of cooperation and integration, our country is ideally located and will become a country of transit. The landlocked country will become a land link [between Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and China].
Q.: Maybe so, but for the moment the opening of a country to the rest of the world offers both opportunities and risks.
A.: Life means risks, you see. But we will continue to open up. Since 1994, Laos has built three bridges over the Mekong River to Thailand: at Vientiane, Pakxe, and Savannakhet; a fourth one will be built at Khamouan. These infrastructures can be vectors for migration, and they bring health risks. But we try to educate the young people who emigrate to Thailand and come back to be careful.
Q.: You mentioned that monks can play a role in health literacy. Can you explain why?
A.: Laos is predominantly a Buddhist country. In the Western world, you have the 10 Commandments, and in Laos we have the five precepts of Buddhism, the five don’ts:
Abstain from killing living beings.
Abstain from taking that which is not given (stealing).
Abstain from sexual misconduct.
Abstain from incorrect speech (lying, harsh language, slander, idle chatter).
Abstain from distilled substances that confuse the mind (alcohol and drugs).
I believe that if you are serious about these principles, your health will not deteriorate.
Q.: What is the role of traditional medicine in Laos?
A.: Traditional medicine is very important in the rural areas, and even though we have to educate people against some superstitious practices, we must also promote the benefits of traditional medicine. I am a medical doctor myself, but I use traditional drugs.
Q.: Can you give some concrete examples?
A.: Of course. Berberine, for instance, is a plant that has proved to be very useful in our country. It has numerous properties, but they are insufficiently studied. Traditional medicine could be helpful for developing cheaper products, and it could create some jobs in the country. But we need investors to develop this resource.
Q.: Do you think that the pharmaceutical companies could one day be interested in some products of Laos?
A.: It could be. We are still in the beginning of the process, and development is mostly done through bilateral arrangements. For instance, the French group Pierre Fabre is interested in some plants of Laos. We also have partnerships with South Korean firms, and we have a project with the University of Illinois in the US.