The Universal Church has not always been a strong supporter of globalisation and certainly not of free trade. In 1967, for example, Pope Paul VI published Populorum progressio. This was a major encyclical on human development which inspired the creation of Cafod and many other charitable organisations. The document was highly critical of free trade, suggesting that it might only work between countries that are roughly equal economically. It argued for price support schemes and for the protection of infant industries.
Such a view was popular among economists at the time. But such policies have tended to help the well-connected rather than the needy. Certainly, Africa and India have not benefited from protectionism. Among many reasons for this is that trade barriers promote corruption. Sir Paul Collier once noted that the bribe to get into the training school for customs officers in Madagascar was 50 times per capita annual income. Such a job in a country with high trade barriers is a well-trodden path to enrichment (rather like a tax collector in Jesus’s time). And Paul VI was wrong about trade not benefiting countries that are different. The more different countries are, the more they tend to benefit from trade.
Aware of the realities facing countries that rejected globalisation, John Paul II commented in 1991 that it was those countries that had integrated into international markets that had developed most quickly and that prevailing views had changed when it came to free trade.
Economic development does not necessarily equate to the integral human development that the Church demands, but it is certainly true that the participation of an increasing number of once poor countries in world trade has led to the most rapid fall in absolute poverty in the economic history of our planet. And the poverty that people have escaped was not just one characterised by a lack of riches; it was a poverty that had led to whole peoples being at permanent risk of malnutrition and starvation.
It is a pity that Christian charities have often been reluctant to admit the importance of trade and globalisation in reducing poverty. In the early 2000s they often called for more protectionism and encouraged poor countries to maintain their trade barriers. And, of course, Pope Francis has also been highly critical of globalisation. But the reality is that world income inequality has fallen dramatically as a result of globalisation and those countries that are the most protectionist have stubborn poverty rates.
It is in this light that it is refreshing to have a constructive contribution to the debate on free trade from Cafod. The charity is one of those Christian organisations that was lukewarm – at best – about globalisation in the early 2000s. Indeed, it was debating with Cafod that awakened my interest in Catholic social teaching.
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