Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When regimes kill their own children

What should or, more realistically, can the world do when the Syrian regime is widely considered to be responsible for the massacre of 108 men, women and children in Houla, most of them executed in cold blood? The regime, true to form, continues to deny any responsibility for what happened in Houla. Instead it lays the blame on what it calls "armed terrorists," without producing any evidence in support.

Politicians around the world have expressed outrage after the UN confirmed that 49 children, many under the age of 10, the youngest a two year-old girl, were among the dead, their bodies shown in pictures and video footage. The UN Security Council has already condemned these latest killings.

This is one of the most brutal incidents in recent months and the bloodiest since UN envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan to end Syria's almost fifteen-month crisis officially came into effect in April. Residents of Houla say the army shelled the area before men dressed in military clothing, believed to be regime loyalist gangs from neighbouring Alawite villages, raided the area, using guns and knives to carry out summary executions. 

The regime blamed the killings on pro-regime militias known as shabiha. The role of the shabiha in 15 months of violence in Syria is now widely recognized. Al-Assad's government often deploys pro-regime thugs or armed militias to repress protests or carry out more military-style attacks on opposition areas. The shabiha frequently work closely with soldiers and security forces, but the regime never acknowledges their existence, allowing it to deny responsibility for their actions.

The killings have put paid to the ceasefire which both the regime and rebel fighters had already breached. It also calls into question the future of the UN mission in Syria. Protesters and opposition groups are becoming increasingly frustrated with the the UN's failure to end the violence against them.

The Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of armed opponents to al-Assad, says it will resume attacks on regime targets if civilians are not protected. The Homs Revolutionary Council, a grouping of activist committees which covers Homs and the Houla area, announced that it will no longer hold political meetings with UN observers, restricting contact to humanitarian matters.

This massacre is unlikely to lead to any decisive action for al-Assad or the battered Syrians than another round of condemnation and a flurry of diplomatic activity.  Syria looks as though it is descending further and faster into civil war between the various ethnic and religious groups.

The population of Syria is 74% Sunni, 12% Alawi, 10% Christian, and 3% Druze. President Bashar al-Assad belongs to Alawite minority sect, which holds a disproportionately large number of positions in the security forces and in government. The people of Houla are predominantly Sunni Muslims.

According to various sources, up to 9,100–11,000 people have been killed, primarily protesters but also including 2,470–3,500 armed combatants. The Syrian government counters that 5,700–6,400 people, including 2,000–2,500 members of the security forces, more than 800 insurgents and more than 3,000 civilians, have been killed in fighting with what they characterize as "armed terrorist groups."

The United Nations reported that over 400 children have been killed. Syria's government has dismissed this, however, characterizing the claims from UN officials as being based on false news reports that originate from opposition groups. In addition, over 600 detainees and political prisoners have died under torture. UNICEF reported that another 400 children have been arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons. What sort of a regime does this to its own children?

During its decades of rule, the Assad family developed a strong political safety net by firmly integrating the military into the regime. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, when he seized power after rising through the ranks of the Syrian armed forces, established a network of loyal Alawites by installing them in key posts. In fact, the military, ruling elite, and ruthless secret police are so intertwined that it is now impossible to separate the Assad regime from the security establishment. This means that it is unlikely that they will desert him.

Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where a professionally trained military tended to play an independent role, the regime and its loyal forces have been able to deter all but the most resolute and fearless opposition activists. In this respect, the situation in Syria is largely comparable to Saddam Hussein’s strong Sunni minority rule in Iraq. 

The American secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has called for an end to president Bashar Assad's "rule by murder," but the US appears to have little appetite for involvement in another Middle Eastern conflict, as Washington has struggled to wind down the lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The regime in Syria is still strong. They have a critical mass supporting them, especially the Sunni merchants, who see the world not doing anything in response. Syria's economic powerhouse cities -- Aleppo and Damascus -- have largely remained under government control. In addition, al-Assad has powerful regional allies in his corner: Iran, Russia, and, to an extent, China. These countries have supported Syria thus far at the UN.

"We are at a tipping point," UN envoy Kofi Annan said at a news conference in Damascus after his meeting with President al-Assad to salvage a failing ceasefire. His visit coincided with revelations about the massacre. 

Annan added: "The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today. As I reminded the President, the international community will soon be reviewing the situation. I appealed to him for bold steps now -- not tomorrow, now -- to create momentum for the implementation of the plan."

This is all prologue to what I already asked in my opening question: What can the world do in response to the Syrian regime that seems to be responsible for the massacre of the men, women and children in Houla, as well as many other deaths since the uprising started? The options, it appears, are limited.

As UN envoy Kofi Annan began talks in Syria, activists released a picture of
     residents swarming a UN vehicle Saturday in Houla, the site of the massacre.

For the moment the world must still continue to support the UN-backed peace plan of Annan, even though the future of this plan is in doubt because of the continued violence after it was supposed to start. While there have been violations of this plan by both the regime and the opposition, the regime deserves most of the blame. It is, however, still the only game in sight.

A Libyan-style invasion is out of the question not only because of the strength of the Assad regime but also because of the reluctance of the US and many other countries to immerse themselves in yet another conflict. The public will for this is clearly lacking and, more important perhaps, the coffers of many nations are empty.

The coffers of the Syrian government too are almost empty. The war is costing the regime about a billion dollars a month, with only six billion left in the kitty. These reserves are being quickly depleted, but Iran is sending considerable financial support through Lebanese banks to prop up the Syrian regime.

Western governments have long called for al-Assad's ouster. But nearly 15 months after the uprising began, opponents have been unable to formulate a plan to dislodge the family that has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. There is no easy way to make them go away any time soon.

The effort by countries including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Australia, Spain, Italy and Canada to expel the senior Syrian diplomatic officials appeared timed to underscore the extreme isolation of the Syrian government and to pressure al-Assad into honoring the terms of the UN-sponsored peace plan negotiated by Kofi Annan. This action, however, is symbolic and will accomplish little.

Similarly, sanctions have not proven very successful. As in other countries, the poor are often affected more than the elite who are the targets of these sanctions.

The Russians may be able to exert some influence, but even they will not find it easy to get al-Assad and his followers to leave in a deal similar to the one brokered in Yemen.  The members of the regime all have blood on their hands and they will sink or swim together. They realize very well that they and their families will be killed if they do not demonstrate solidarity. If that requires terrorism, so be it. They have little to lose by perpetuating the violence against their own people.

The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner has repeatedly accused al-Assad's regime of carrying out crimes against humanity, but this does not deter them in the least. They will do whatever is necessary in order to stay in power. The alternative, to leave the scene, is a fate that is too terrible to even contemplate. 

What can people of good faith, whether Christian, Muslim, or whatever, do in the face of the crisis in Syria? The answer is clear, even though it may seem meaningless to those with a secular world view: pray for a peaceful resolution to this crisis. But that is not all that can and must be done, diplomacy is also needed.

War is not the answer, as I have argued many already times in this blog. But how do we stop the Syrian regime from killing its own people, especially the children? Diplomacy should be given a further chance. Maybe Russia will be able to devise a way to allow al-Assad and his followers to leave the scene gracefully and with their lives. The Russians and the Iranians, because of their support of Syria, are probably the only ones who may be able to resolve this crisis diplomatically.

The crimes of the Syrian regime are truly enormous, but sometimes human courts are unable to provide true justice. Their are many other examples that I could provide of where justice has been left to be decided in a divine court. The world's immediate concern should be to end this bloodshed and prevent further massacres from happening. The blood of the children who were massacred in Houla is crying out to the world: please do something to end this conflict and stop this needless loss of life.

As I stated last time, my intention with this blog is not to provide all the answers -- I can't do that -- and I won't even try. Rather, I want to initiate further discussion of the issues that I raise. Please feel free to add your comments.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The (im)morality of war

"There is no morality in war. Morality is the privilege of those judging from the distance. War is only death and destruction" (John Cory).

"War is hell" (attributed to General William Tecumseh Sherman [1820-1891], who was noted for his "scorched earth" policies).

War is immoral. Most people agree that war is wrong. It is, in fact, almost universally condemned for the brutality, cruelty, and wanton destruction of life and property that it inflicts. Unfortunately, some people extol war; they are professionals who make a living out of killing others. There are also people who treat war as something heroic, and even make games out of it.

In spite of this almost universal condemnation, war is a tragically commonplace feature of human life. War has existed since the beginnings of the human race, and is found in every age and all over the globe. There has never been an idyllic age when there was no war; it persists right up to the present. Thus there is little hope of eradicating it, even if most of the world desired that.

In the ancient world, war was an accepted as a fact of life, and its morality was not questioned. The Greek philosopher Aristotle praised war as necessary for the survival of the community. It was one of the ways that societies acquired the necessities of life. And thus it was widely perceived as noble and heroic.

But the Christian Church during the early centuries strongly dissented from this view. The Bible explicitly condemns killing. Instead of killing, it commands people to love each other. Although it recognizes that war was sometimes necessary, nowhere does the Bible praise war. For this reason the early Christians tended to be pacifists who refused to serve in the Roman army. Later, when the Christian faith was legalized, this attitude changed and war became acceptable once again.

Augustine was the first to enunciate the just war theory, which was later elaborated by Thomas Aquinas and others. Augustine argued that war could only be waged by the appropriate legal authority. And he claimed further that a legitimate war required a just cause and should only be fought with rightful intentions. These principles, together with several others, have been used to justify war ever since.

Some Christians, such as the Mennonites, have traditionally been opposed to war. But many other believers have continued to argue for the just war theory, using arguments such as self-defense to justify the use of deadly force whether by individuals or communities and states. Yet even this argument is not sufficient to justify war. As critics of the just war theory repeatedly point out, the use of violence in the name of self-defense is difficult to defend in view of the biblical injunction to love one's neighbor, even if they are enemies (Mt. 5:44).

At this point, someone can properly ask, "What is war?" War is hard to define, even though most people can recognize it when they see it. This ambiguity has become particularly acute today when many wars are often undeclared and may involve non-state combatants. The "war on terrorism" is an example of both of these; this "war" is not justifiable by the just war criteria.

The Apotheosis of War. Painting by Vasily V. Vereshchagin

Increasingly today there is dissatisfaction with the just war theory. This dissatisfaction is inspired not only by those who are pacifists or who promote non-violence. Even people who have accepted this theory at one time, of whom I am one, now recognize that in a nuclear age it is no longer appropriate. That is why I have chosen active non-violence.

There are other motivations for this dissatisfaction. These just war principles have too often been used by powerful states to impose a standard of conduct on others who are less powerful or may adhere to cultural standards that differ greatly from who wield that power. The morality of war seems to serve the interests of these powerful states. As has been frequently noted, history is written by the victors.

War is so obnoxious that it deserves to be eliminated. The (im)morality of war is expressed in both the principles that are invoked to justify war (jus ad bellum) and in the way a war is actually conducted (jus in bello). To which should also be added the judgments that are made after a war (jus post bellum). The last refers to what was done when the international community after World War II tried the German leaders at Nuremberg but refused to the same for Americans after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The latter is debatable, but it illustrates how elusive justice can be. The frustrations surrounding the ICC (the International Criminal Court) led the United States to "unsign" the Rome treaty that established that court out of a fear of politically motivated prosecutions of Americans, and has made many African nations charge that African leaders are being picked on by the court to the exclusion of those from other parts of the world.

These thoughts are prompted by a series of recent incidents: the trial of Ratko Mladic, who is known as the "Butcher of Bosnia" for his alleged atrocities during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, as well as the atrocities that American troops in Afghanistan have been charged with. I was reminded too of the infamous video made public by Wikileaks of American troops shooting from a helicopter at children and other innocent civilians.

In addition, I am very concerned about the use of drones in Afghanistan, where a soldier can kill the enemy by remote control from a site half a world away. War has now become a video game -- unfortunately with real casualties. Even the use of sanctions, as in Iran, is questionable from a moral perspective. While all these incidents all fit into the category of how war is actually waged, they have led me to write this post this week.

Many books have been written on the morality of war. In this post I can barely touch on some of the issues involved. I am writing this only to prompt further thought on this major question. The world is suffering while academics and others debate these issues. As with other questions, such as global warming and poverty, we cannot remain standing at the sidelines. The time for decisive action has come: let us do whatever we can to eliminate war. We owe as much to the rest of the world.

(Just a selection from the many books on this topic. I could have listed more, but these will have to suffice.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is it a blessing to be poor?

In the Beatitudes, Jesus pronounces a blessing upon those who who are poor (Mt. 5:3; Lk. 6:20). What he meant is that those who realize their need for God will be blessed. But poverty is not necessarily a blessing, as many of the world's population realize only too well.

Tevye, in "Fiddle on the Roof," uses Jewish humor to express his attitude to poverty: "There's no shame in being poor...but it's no great honor, either." But an old Cockney lament fails to see any humor at all in poverty: "It's the same the whole world over, It's the poor what gets the blame, It's the RICH what gets the pleasures, Ain't it all a bleedin' SHAME?!"

I am leaving the Gambia after four months of teaching, but I hope to be able to return soon. During these months I have had an opportunity to seen the cruel face of poverty here many times. That face has become even more apparent in the last few weeks as the tourist season has ended. Recently, I have seen the staff of restaurants and bars beg for money. Many have been laid off, and now there is no other work available. To compound the problem, crops have been very poor for several years. Thus many Gambians do not have enough to eat. Yet their problems pale in comparison with that of people in neighboring countries like Mali. I have already written earlier about the worst drought in decades in the Sahel.and the resultant malnutrition.

The poor suffer in other ways as well. When it comes to economic recession, volatile food and fuel prices, and  global warming, the poor are impacted much more than the rich. This is apparent all over the globe, even in relatively wealthy countries. Poverty also contributes to warfare; today wars are fought mostly in the poorest countries, as the following chart illustrates.

This is not the first time that I witnessed a lot of poverty. In the ten years that I worked in the Philippines I was confronted with it on a daily basis. I also saw it even in Russia, where I taught for seven year, and saw it again at a much close range in Nigeria, where I worked for many years as well. And I have seen it too in other countries that I have visited in Africa and Latin America. Poverty is ugly. It is cruel. It is demeaning. There does not seem to be any blessing attached to it.

Unfortunately, there are many people who take the comment of Jesus that we will always have the poor among us (Mt. 26:11), to rationalize the disparity between the rich and the poor and to justify their wealth. They do this by ripping this comment out of its context, which is the anointing of Jesus by a woman. Both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly proclaim God's concern for the poor and needy. Poverty will probably never be eradicated entirely, but it can and must be alleviated.

Even though poverty is declining in some countries, such as China, it is still increasing in others, such as India, for example. There is too much poverty around yet to permit the world to become complacent about the problem. Thankfully, there are many organizations today that are committed to dealing with poverty on both a local and a global scale.

What is poverty? Poverty has been defined as the state of one who lacks a certain amount of material possessions or money. Absolute poverty, or destitution, refers to the one who lacks basic human needs, which commonly includes clean and fresh water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter. Although these needs are called "rights" according to international law, a sizable segment of the world's population are deprived of these basic human rights.

Depending on who is doing the counting, it is estimated that some 2.5 billion human beings live in severe poverty. One third of all human deaths are from poverty-related causes: 18 million annually, including over 10 million children under five.

While huge in human terms, the world poverty problem is tiny economically. Just 1 percent of the national incomes of the high-income countries would suffice to end severe poverty worldwide. Yet these countries are unwilling to bear this cost; they continue to impose an unjust global institutional order that perpetuates the catastrophe. Sadly, most citizens of affluent countries believe that we are doing nothing wrong.

The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than US$1.25 per person per day, and moderate poverty as less than $2 per day. This is determined not by the exchange rate of a particular currency with the US dollar, but by purchasing power parity (PPP), which is how much that currency is able to buy locally.

Relative poverty refers to lacking a usual or socially acceptable level of resources or income as compared with others within a society or country. Relative poverty, of course, is much more extensive than absolute poverty. In many societies around the world, many more people too do not enjoy many human basic rights.

My own definition is much simpler: poverty is the absence of choice. If people are unable to make certain basic choices on a daily basis, one is poor. For example, poor people must either work or die. To the extent that people have more and more choices available, they can be called richer than before. This definition does not hinge on material things. It is not a precise definition, but it has served my purpose for many decades in numerous countries.

How serious is the problem of poverty? There are many ways to describe the problem. One way is to measure it by using statistics, such as the chart below. See also the video produced by the World Bank:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=mFHctW3zQgg. Statistics can effectively illustrate the extent of the problem today.

Another way, however, is to show pictures and videos of poor people all over the world. That helps to give the problem a human face, which is very effective if one want to encourage people to give money for relief work. Development agencies sometimes use this device for enlisting financial aid for their projects. People tend to give more for relief, which is short-term, than for long-term development.

But a human face also carries with it the danger of donor fatigue. After a while, people no longer want to see another impoverished African child. They cannot handle it any more. When one is confronted with poverty on a daily basis, as I have for many years, one can also find it difficult to know what to do -- there is simply too much poverty -- and as a result little is done to help those who are the poorest.

The next step is even harder to fund: justice. If relief means giving a person a fish to eat, and development is teaching a person how to fish, then justice asks questions, such as: why there are no more fish? or who stole the fish? These are potentially embarrassing questions for those who want to retain the status quo. Therefore justice issues are often dangerous to raise. Yet they must be raised eventually, if poverty is to be reduced in every part of the world.

Not all the measures to alleviate poverty involve justice. Some may involve only basic health concerns, such as providing deworming medication. But others, such as corruption, are more difficult to deal with, since they demand that justice actually be done and not merely seem to be done. Therein lies the rub. Many counties where corruption is rampant have enough laws; the problem is these laws are not properly enforced. Thus those who are rich and influential pocket the resources of the state, leaving little for the masses, and driving them even further into destitution.

Many other measures have been proposed. Education is crucial for the alleviation of poverty, especially the education of women. Universal public education was supposed to achieve this, but most African countries, for example, who implemented this decades ago, did not provide the necessary resources and tools. Even today many elementary schools still do not have enough classrooms, teachers, books, and other equipment.

The principle was good, but not enough money was provided. As a result, as I can testify personally, many students are ill-equipped to enter university. Yet if they are admitted, they possess a sense of entitlement; they feel they have arrived and thus do not have to work very much in order to earn a degree.

Some developing countries, such as Nigeria, are rich in resources but are unable, because of corruption, to share the proceeds of these resources equitably. Thus education has also been short-changed there. But other countries are not blessed resources, yet they too must try to come up with the necessary funds. Many poor people live in very poor countries. Where can these countries find the money for education and other basic needs to enable their people climb out of poverty.

Developmental aid provided by rich countries often comes with strings attached and too much money is siphoned off by bureaucrats and others, with the result that very little reaches the intended recipients: the poor. NGOs can help to make the distribution more equitable, but they are limited in what they can do.

One proposal that may prove helpful has been made by the philosopher Thomas Pogge: a global resources dividend (GRD). Under his scheme nations would pay a dividend or tax on any resources that they use or sell: a sort of tax on consumption." Pogge's scheme is motivated by the positive duty to alleviate poverty; it is also an attempt to nullify the use by the rich of institutions that perpetuate economic inequality. He estimates that a dividend of just 1% could raise $300 billion each year; this would amount to $250 for each individual in the poorest 20% of the world's population.

Pogge's main justification is that, even if the idea of GRD would be refined over time, and would be difficult to implement, it is nevertheless the right of those who are the worst off. The 1% dividend tax is not seen as a donation, but a responsibility. He sees the idea off the GRD as a natural extension of John Rawls' theory of justice, although Rawls might not agree.

According to Pogge, the world order currently violates the first principle of justice, that of equal opportunity, as well as the second principle, that of equal access. It also violates the idea that inequalities should favor the poorest individuals.

Under this scheme, states do not have full property rights in the resources within their sovereign territory. Although the GRD allows states to use resources as they see fit, the scheme implies that the global poor have an 'inalienable stake in all scarce resources.' 

Pogge argues that national borders are not only morally arbitrary in the first place, since they are born from a history of coercion and violence, but under any conception of global justice, even if existing national borders are accepted as they are, there must be an acknowledgement of  international inequalities. It becomes very difficult, he thinks, to justify why a person born to rich parents in Canada should be entitled to so much more than one who is born to poor family in Sierra Leone. It is equally difficult to justify the assumption that every person has a right to an absolute control over the resources that happen to lie within their country's borders.
While the GRD would be difficult to implement, as Pogge recognizes, the idea has merit, if only because of its recognition that national resources do not belong solely to that country, but must be shared with those countries that are not similarly blessed. That is simply a matter of justice.

Now is not the time to debate the problems of implementation. But I do want to suggest that the GRD is an idea that deserves closer scrutiny if the world is truly serious about alleviating poverty. It should be added to the arsenal of measures that are needed to deal with the problem of global poverty. A multi-focused attack will be necessary if poverty is to be reduced even further. Poverty is being diminished, but much more needs to be done. About a quarter of the world's population is still living in absolute poverty.

According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it would only take US$30 billion a year to launch the necessary agricultural programs to completely solve global food insecurity. Severe hunger afflicts 862 million people each year; only $30 billion could save them. Although that sounds like a lot of money, in 2008 the US bailed out Wall Street for more than 23 times that amount!

This is just one way to illustrate the cost of eliminating poverty. I could provide many more examples of how much it might cost to eliminate every form of poverty, but this will suffice. The cost is enormous, but the cost of not doing anything is even greater in terms of human misery and suffering.

For more on poverty, see my earlier post: http://hellemanworld.blogspot.com/2011/11/ninety-nine-per-cent-and-poverty.html.

It is not necessarily a blessing to be poor, as the world's poor will be the first to acknowledge. But they do recognize their need for help from others, and ultimately from God. Because of that recognition, they may be much closer to the kingdom of God than those who live self-satisfied lives, enjoying luxuries that much of the world's population can only dream of. Perhaps poverty will never be eliminated entirely, but it can and must be reduced. Then the whole world will be blessed, especially those who are now suffering the most from its effects. God will bless the poor. He will also bless you for your concern for them.

What path will you take? Will you chose wealth, and leave everyone else in poverty? Or will you do what you can to reduce poverty both in the city and country where you live and in the whole world?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A global cry: I need a home!

From the Philippines to Russia and from Nigeria to Canada, and many points in between, there is one cry that I have heard too often: I need a home! Many people have housing of a sort,often nothing more than a roof over their heads, but that cannot be called a home: a decent and affordable place to live, preferably within an easy commuting distance from their work place.

In Manila, I have seen whole families existing in a one-room shack perched precariously on stilts built over the water along a river, where the latest typhoon may wash it away. Pigs nose their way through the garbage, with raw sewage floating by. The monetary costs for such housing are minimal, but the costs in poor health and low self-esteem are astronomical. Do these people want better housing? Of course! Like all Filipinos, they long for a home to call their own, some decent place where they can find work and their children can receive a good education. But their income is often too low for them to afford anything than these shacks.

In Moscow, many families are relegated to small apartments in grey blocks known popularly as "Khrushchev trash," named after the era they were built and their condition.  These badly constructed apartments are still scattered all over the city. Those who were lucky enough got better apartments, but even these were often limited to two or three rooms, including the kitchen. Thus  husbands and wives were often forced to sleep in separate rooms and having children was very difficult. It effectively resulted in a one-child policy. Were they happy to live in these miserable apartments? Hardly. But that was all they could get until privatization made it possible for people to buy better apartments at phenomenal prices. The same situation prevails in other parts of Russia. Even today many Russians continue to live where they do; they cannot afford anything better.

In many Nigerian villages, people live in mud huts much like their ancestors have done for centuries. When they move to big cities like Lagos or Abuja, they often move into tiny shacks that are as small as their former homes, but are now much more crowded and crammed together. These urbanized Nigerians probably enjoyed better living conditions in the villages, but the opportunity for work drove them to the cities. Thus it is no wonder that Nigerians, like most Africans, look with nostalgia at village life and even want to be buried there eventually. Yet in the cities work is often elusive and they must make do with housing that is far from adequate. Such housing is all they can afford. Clearly these are not the homes they are looking for, but they must do until their economic circumstances improve.

These are only a few examples from cities where I have worked. They could be multiplied many time over. Every country in the world has problems when it comes to good housing. In most countries many people cannot afford to buy or even rent a decent house. They must accept what is available. The prices of good homes are beyond their reach. They need more, but cannot get it. Obviously, they are not happy about this.

In the United States, the recession has devastated many cities leaving thousands of people evicted from their homes after foreclosure by banks that encouraged them to take out mortgages without any deposit. When the bubble burst, they were left homeless. Both the banks and the home buyers may have been greedy, but that does not solve the current problem: these people need a home, but they cannot afford one.

Even relatively well off cities like Toronto are experiencing problems when it comes to housing. The cost of the average home is beyond the means of many people, thus they are forced to find accommodation in the suburbs or even further away from the city core. Then they must spend hours commuting to work every day. But with the rising cost of fuel, increasing numbers of people are returning to the city, even though the cost of homes there has escalated enormously. Bidding wars between overly eager buyers are now very common. Recently one house sold for almost half a million above the asking price.

In the area where I live, which is hardly a prestigious part of Toronto but is easily accessible by subway, the cost of the average home increased 41% since last year, according to a recent survey. It is now approaching one million dollars. I am grateful that I have a good home, but many people in Toronto cannot afford the one they need. They are looking for homes near good transportation and top notch schools, but so is everyone else. My house is more than a hundred years old and is only two minutes walk from the subway, but I would not be able to afford it if I had to buy it today.

The right to housing is a basic human right that is acknowledged in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:  “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”

Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also guarantees the right to housing, which it interprets as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. Many people are able to find some kind of roof over their heads, but this does yet meet the requirements set by these international accords. People need more than just basic housing; they need homes.

If even a rich city like Toronto finds it difficult to provide sufficient housing for everyone, there is indeed a major problem.  In 2010, there were 9,000 vacant rental units, but around 70,000 households were in the market for one. There are market forces at work that make it difficult for people even to find an adequate place to rent much less one to purchase. The chart below illustrates the housing price increases from 2101 to 2011 in various neighborhoods in Toronto. The figures for 2012 are very similar, although I have not been able to find a map yet.

After being burned in the sub-prime crisis, banks are wary in investing in new housing, except for the most expensive. Governments too are very leery about committing public funds for housing; everywhere they are looking for ways to reduce their deficits. In some cases, they have resorted to severe austerity measures that drive even more people into poverty.

Salaries in most countries are insufficient to provide decent housing. In Beijing, average apartments now cost 27 times the average salary. I heard recently that the governor of the Bank of Kenya is not paid enough to buy a good home. Housing is a major problem in every country of world; unfortunately, it is one that will not be solved any time soon.

Market forces, it seems, are not sufficient to enable decent, affordable homes to be built in quantities large enough to solve the problem. Salaries will have to rise appreciably for that to happen. In the short term, new tax measures may be needed to reduce speculation and make more houses available at decent prices. Such measures are probably necessary in the long term as well until the supply of homes matches the demand. Prices will have to drop to make that possible.
Some experts expect the housing bubble in Toronto to burst soon. A correction, at least, is necessary. The prices there are unrealistic, even though they have not risen as much as in many other rich countries. The problem is that incomes have not kept up with these rising prices, making home ownership or even rental much more difficult than before. The chart below shows how much housing prices have increased during the last three decades as compared to income during the same period.

I am not worried about myself, since I am not planning to sell in the near future. Nor do I need to know how much my house is currently worth. That is largely paper money. But I do need a place to live. I am very thankful that God has provided me with one. It is my base when I am not travelling and engaged in my teaching ministry. Everyone needs a home.

I pray that all people everywhere may some day enjoy a decent home. That is their full right. As a Christian, I know that every person is created in the image of God and therefore deserves to be accorded every right and privilege that is affirmed in international law. That right includes an adequate salary so that a good home will be affordable to everyone everywhere. Then people will no longer have to cry: I need a home!

That day may still be a long way off, but this does not mean that we must stop promoting the right to decent housing. On the contrary, any delay must inspire us to double and redouble our efforts.