While there are many factors that contribute to poverty in the Third World the major ones are easy to spot. Firstly, wealth is concentrated, mostly in the form of land, in a few hands. Therefore efforts to increase agricultural production primarily benefit the already wealthy. Secondly, underdeveloped countries prefer to export their agricultural products since their own citizens cannot afford to buy them. This is why we generally find that the countries where people are dying of hunger are net exporters of food. And thirdly, the Third World landowners are moving away from producing food to commodities like coffee, tea, cotton, lumber, and food for livestock, that are in demand in developed countries. They are stripping their own land of its natural resources to provide cheap raw materials to the First World.
One cannot look towards developed nations to solve these problems since they are incapable of asking their own citizens to lower their standard of living by paying higher prices for commodities; anyone who tries doing that would not get re-elected. So the Third World countries will have to solve their problems on their own. The solution would therefore comprise, first and foremost, the recognition of food as a basic human right: one that takes supremacy over all other economic and trade-related concerns. Secondly, a mechanism for voluntary and equitable re-distribution of wealth needs to be devised so everyone can afford to buy the food that even now is abundantly available in the Third World nations. Thirdly, international trade has to be managed so the poor nations can protect the economic and agricultural interests of their own populations. And finally, a comprehensive economic blueprint needs to be devised for the uplift of the Third World populace.
Recognition of Food as a Human Right
The Third World countries have for years been trying to get mandatory language added on the Right to Food issue in the declarations of the World Food Summit and have always been defeated in their efforts by the developed nations due to the supremacy of Free Trade, a market concept that benefits the wealthy. One, therefore, has to look towards religion to find validation for this most natural law. Fortunately, Islam does offer a solution. The Holy Qur’an has unequivocally declared food as a human right in the words.
“It is decreed for thee that thou shalt not hunger therein nor shalt thou be naked. And that thou shalt not thirst therein, nor shalt thou be exposed to the sun (20:119-120).”
Equitable Distribution of Wealth
While land reform and taxation are repeatedly suggested as solutions, no remedy is offered to induce the rich and the powerful to formulate laws to their own apparent detriment. Once again Islam provides the answer. The Islamic economic system is such that it brings about a wide distribution of wealth through admonitions, to be carried out voluntarily, pertaining to taxation, law of inheritance, loans, and commercial practices, along with moral exhortation. Zakat is a levy, imposed upon the rich, which is spent on the welfare of the poorer sections of society. Inheritance, in Islam, must be divided in specified proportion, among prescribed heirs. Each heir can only take his or her share and no heir can be deprived of the whole or part of his or her share. This distribution of inheritance is emblematic of the preference for more people having some portion of wealth to some having a large share. Islam prohibits collecting interest on loans. Great moral excellence is attributed to advancing interest-free loans. If the debtor is unable to comply at the time of repayment, it is suggested that he be granted an extension until his circumstances improve, or if you remit it altogether as charity, that shall be better for you, if only you knew (2:281). It would help the poor countries greatly if aid from developed nations could be diverted to debt relief so they could break free of their prior commitments and focus on making appropriate changes for their future.
Protecting the Interests of Under-Developed Nations in International Trade
In the spirit of Cooperate with one another in good works (5:3), the Third World nations need to assist each other in attaining self-sufficiency so they can rid themselves of the harmful effects of foreign aid. However, it is imperative that they resolve their regional disputes first. This will also reduce their expenditure on defense and the savings could be diverted to economic growth. The rich Muslim countries should help the poor Third World countries, irrespective of their religion, remove the scourge of starvation; they could pay the required 2.5% Zakat towards this end. This would break down barriers between Muslim and non-Muslim countries and open further avenues for mutual cooperation.
A Comprehensive Economic Blueprint
The Holy Qur’an suggests the following principles to be observed for a healthy economy:
“O ye who believe! Spend of the good things that you have earned, and of what We produce for you from the earth; and seek not what is bad to spend out of it when you would not take it yourselves except that you connive at it (2:268).”
Landowners are being admonished that it is Allah Who causes the earth to produce, and they should give a good, or sizeable, portion of it to the hardworking farmers, as their rightful share, as opposed to pittance or alms – something they would themselves be averse to accepting without compromising their dignity.
“Satan threatens you with poverty and enjoins upon you what is foul, whereas Allah promises you forgiveness from Himself and bounty (2:269).”
God is guaranteeing here that refraining from foul economic practices will not make anyone poor. On the contrary, production will increase manifold when the farmers are highly motivated.
“If you give alms openly, it is well and good; but if you conceal them and give them to the poor, it is better for you (2:272).”
The second component to economic uplift of a society is abundance of voluntary almsgiving. Giving secretly is more likely to preserve the dignity of the recipient, a most critical element in people’s emotional and moral well being.
“And whatever of wealth you spend, it is for yourselves, while you spend not but to seek the favor of Allah. And whatever of wealth you spend, it shall be paid back to you in full and you shall not be wronged (2:273).”
The voluntary nature of spending for the good of society is reiterated. The promise here that their wealth will not diminish is the most amazing feature of this economic blueprint.
“These alms are for the poor who are detained in the cause of Allah and are unable to move about in the land. The ignorant man thinks them to be free from want because of their abstaining from begging. Thou shalt know them by their appearance; they do not beg of men with importunity (2:274).”
Alms are only for those who, for some reason, are confined to a place where they cannot earn a living, like caregivers, teachers, or missionaries, in harsh environments; or the sick, disabled, or issueless elderly. It can be extrapolated from this that healthcare, disability benefits, and social security for the elderly could be paid by the state out of the charity collected from its citizens. Admonition against begging is to be found here as well; honorable mention is made of those who do not beg. Thus, asking others for aid lowers one’s moral standing.
“Those who spend their wealth by night and day, secretly and openly, have their reward with their Lord; on them shall come no fear, nor shall they grieve (2:275).”
Such moral exhortations not only foster the will to comply with the minimum legal requirements of dissemination of resources but also to bring about one’s own spiritual and moral growth through generous and equitable spending practices based on the premise that it is God Alone Who is Self Sufficient and the Source of all prosperity; it is men who are in need, and can achieve prosperity, not through miserliness and holding back, but through beneficent spending in the service of His creatures.
“Those who devour interest do not rise except as rises one whom Satan has smitten with insanity. That is because they say: ‘Trade also is like interest;’ whereas Allah has made trade lawful and made interest unlawful (2:276).”
Interest is prohibited because the flow of money is only in the direction of wealth.
“Allah will abolish interest and will cause charity to increase (2:277).”
These words encompass a prophecy that the world will one day come to realize the harm inherent in interest based economics and the benefits of giving charity voluntarily.
“Surely, those who believe and do good deeds, and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, shall have their reward from their Lord, and no fear shall come on them, nor shall they grieve (2:278).”
Zakat is a 2.5% tax set aside for social welfare, and is payable on uninvested capital. It is one of the five pillars of Islam and is distinct from optional almsgiving in terms of obligation. This verse, however, draws attention to the fact that all the modes of worship go hand in hand and the urge to pay the Zakat is enhanced by strong faith, doing of good deeds, and prayer. A society comprising of such individuals would never face hunger.
Aid or sporadic donations do not address the underlying causes of extreme and debilitating poverty inflicting large populations in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa; it is attacking the symptoms of poverty only and not the root cause. Just as the problem is caused by greed and injustice at many different levels the solution will also encompass a comprehensive, albeit simple, set of principles to be adhered to by people at all levels of society in the Third World. Although aid can play some part in relieving hunger in the short term, complete and permanent eradication can only be brought about by a moral awakening of the elite in those countries. One has to look towards religion to provide that incentive and Islam provides the most comprehensive plan in this regard.
- Global Issues: Social, Political, Economic and Environmental Issues That Affect Us All http://www.globalissues.org/issue/6/world-hungerand-poverty
- World Food Summit http://www.fao.org/WFS/ index_en.htm
- The Gulf Crisis: The New World Order, by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad
- The Holy Quran http://www.alislam.org/quran/ search2/index.php Personal Background Shazia Sohail holds an MBA, with a concentration in finance, and resides in Hillsborough, California with her husband and four children. She is a staff writer for The Muslim Sunrise.