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Engaging the DisenfranchisedQ & A with Madeleine K. Albright

interviewed by jeri zeder

Madeleine K. Albright, America’s first female Secretary of State, taught with Father Drinan at Georgetown University. A principal of The Albright Group, a global strategy consulting firm for businesses and organizations, Albright has been campaigning for action against global poverty. Here are her thoughts on that issue:


Q: Father Drinan would no doubt have applauded your promotion of legal rights for the poor as a way to help eradicate global poverty. Why have you focused on this issue?

A: The Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto [founder of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Lima], has a theory that if the poor can be part of the legal system of their countries, they can leverage their assets to accumulate capital and begin to climb the economic ladder and become active participants in their countries. De Soto asked me to co-chair a commission under the auspices of the United Nations Development Fund on the legal empowerment of the poor.


Q: Why do you say that poverty, ignorance, and disease deserve the same attention as nuclear proliferation and terrorism on the international scene?

A: I’ve actually called ignorance, poverty, and disease the Axis of Evil. Almost two-thirds of the people in the world live outside of legal systems, huge numbers of people live on less than one dollar a day, and millions are victims not only of HIV and AIDS, but also diseases that come as a result of a weakened system, or of malaria. It’s wrong that people who are like us in other respects should live that way, and it creates a sense of anger on their part which threatens economic and social stability both now and over time.


Q: Is this what you mean when you talk about the gap between rich and poor?

A: Yes, exactly, in terms of people sensing that their lives are not considered important, that their dignity is not considered important, that their value to human society is not considered important; while there are other people who live with more than they need. My own sense, and certainly Father Drinan’s, was that we all have the same rights and we need to be treated with respect.


Q: What other projects are you involved with at the moment to help alleviate worldwide poverty?

A: I’m chairman of the board the National Democratic Institute that works on how to support democracy across the globe. More and more, we are seeing what democracy has to deliver, by helping to raise living standards. Poor people who don’t have a sense of belonging to a society are not going to want to contribute much. I’m also very interested in how emerging countries work.


Also, I’m so tired of the divisions in Washington between the political parties that I have tried to seek out conservative Republicans to work on issues that we have in common: trying to stop genocide and the suffering in various parts of the world. A lot of the Christian evangelical movements do have a very humanitarian aspect to them in terms of helping to alleviate poverty. So I’ve tried to work with them.


Q: Your book, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (Harper Collins 2006), looks at the role of religion in international affairs. What role should religion play?

A: I come from a generation of international relations specialists and practitioners who would say that problems are so complicated already, let’s not bring God and religion into them. But it’s evident now that you have to bring God and religion into them.


Archbishop Tutu has said religion is like a knife: You can either shove it into somebody’s back, or you can use it to slice bread. And I think that is a very symbolic way of describing what religion can do.


I, in the end, have fairly modest recommendations, primarily that our diplomats begin to understand that religion is something that they have to know a lot about, that the Secretary of State has arms control advisors and economic advisors and all kinds of advisors, and that he or she should have religious advisors also. Religious advisors can be resources during negotiations and validators after decisions have been made. I am concerned about separation of church and state, and I don’t think that my suggestions cross that important line.


Q: What should the United States be doing to help eradicate global poverty?

A: The Bush administration has increased the size of the foreign assistance budget, but given the great needs, and given the great wealth of this country, we should not be down at the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of our generosity towards other countries. I think we haven’t been able to fully crack the nut in terms of how we approach poverty because what we’re doing is episodic. Poverty is a very long and complex issue. I think that we need to have sustained interest and try to find the different approaches and not think that one is better than the other. They can be complementary.


Q: Are you saying that we have to have more institutions aimed at poverty?

A: I think the problem is not the institutionalization of it; the problem is that there’s not that much money going into poverty eradication, and that we haven’t totally figured out what the best delivery systems are, or how the countries that are receiving the money are dealing with it. I think that it requires a lot of attention. The problem is, no matter what institution you have, it takes money, and that’s the hardest part.


Q: What can be done to help Americans develop the political will to insist on foreign policies that address global poverty?

A: I do think that the American people are the most generous people in the world, but I think our attention span is short.


One of the things that has happened, and legitimately, if I may say so, is what I call the Katrina Question. [New Orleans] is so much worse than anything else going on in America and that we’ve seen on television, and it’s gone on for a very long time. How do you persuade people to give money abroad to poverty when we aren’t dealing with a very serious issue in our own country? How do you persuade people that helping places that you can’t pronounce is as important as helping at home? My answer is, we can do both, but it does require great attention.


I’m sad to say that most of America’s will and attention is now diverted by the war in Iraq. That has sucked up money and changed people’s sense of priorities, and it has exhausted people, undercutting momentum toward fighting poverty. That’s why I have said that the war in Iraq is the greatest disaster in American foreign policy, because it has such huge consequences across the board.


Q: What can the average American do in his or her personal life to address global poverty?

A: There are organizations that can really help. One has to find out what they are and contribute to them. I was just in Ethiopia on World AIDS Day, and I sat next to a little orphan boy whose parents had died of HIV and AIDS. He was part of the ceremony but all I had to give him was my pen. He just looked at me and said “food” and “shoes.”


Also, let your members of Congress know that foreign assistance is not something that goes down a black hole, that it is the right thing to do, and it’s also important in terms of the overall stability of the world. If we don’t do it for purely altruistic reasons, we should do it for national security or national interest reasons because problems abroad ultimately do come home to America.


I think that those of us who knew Father Drinan had a sense that he had a much broader vision of what people could do for each other and what America could do for the world. He had a sense of knowing who he was and what he could do by the power of one person. He really has been to many of his students and colleagues a great example of what one person could do.

The Congressional Years

became first Catholic priest elected to Congress
served in US House of Representatives (D-4th District,Massachusetts)
member, House Committee on Internal Security
member, Steering Committee of Members of Congress for Peace through Law
member, House Committee on Government Operations
member, House Select Committee on Aging
chair, the House Subcommittee of Criminal Justice of the House Judiciary Committee
filed initial impeachment resolution against President Richard M. Nixon for the secret bombing of Cambodia
filed an impeachment resolution against Richard Helms, then-US ambassador to Iran, for his activities as CIA director
filed lawsuit with 21 Democratic congressmen to block US military action in
declined to run for reelection to the 97th Congress after the Vatican ruled that a priest cannot hold a legislative position

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