The story of how Jesus managed to feed five thousand hungry folks back on the shores of a lake near Bethsaida in AD It-Never-Really-Happened is one of the most famous tales in the New Testament.
Everyone’s hungry after traipsing around behind Jesus all day, but there’s no food to be had. So a little boy offers up his five bread rolls and his two little fishes, Jesus does a few prayers and – ta-daa! – everyone’s satisfied.
The rather nauseating message being: with God’s love, there’s never any shortage. In fact, there were left overs – twelve baskets of them.
The Feeding of the One Billion
The situation we’re in today isn’t altogether different, it’s just on a grander scale (and with no Jesus, but that’s a good thing – trust me).
What we’ve actually got in AD2011 is, not five thousand, but one billion hungry folks working their asses off all day and still only pulling in less than the price of a Cherry Yoghurt Flapjack at Metro Central mini-market on the Kingsway (£1.10, other vendors are available).
The reason ‘no Jesus’ is a good thing is that today we don’t need a miracle to solve this conundrum. The miracle has already happened – there is already a vast surfeit of food and wealth in the world. It’s just not very evenly distributed. In fact, it’s not really distributed at all, more like hoarded, in rather miserly fashion, under the beds of the astonishingly wealthy of this world.
I’m one of the billion richest people on the planet and, combined, we have a pot of about $30 trillion to play with. And what’s needed to pull those one billion poorest out of extreme poverty? About $70 billion – less than a quarter of a percent of our $30 trillion fortune.
Jesus and the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Modern Revision)
I’ll leave you to think about that and return to Jesus. This is the story of the feeding of the five thousand (“modernised” for the youth of today):
Apostles: Shit, dude – there’s loads of people following you, man. It’s getting late, you’d better send them away so’s they can get some tucker from town.
Jesus: Chill, guys. We don’t need to send them away. You feed them.
Apostles: Us? You kidding? We haven’t even got enough for ourselves, dude!
More Apostles: Yeah – how are we gonna get enough to feed, like, five thousand of the buggers? That’d be well expensive!
Jesus: Well, what have you got?
Little Shepherd Boy: ‘Ere, guvna, I’ve got a few loaves o’bread and a coupla fishes – you can ‘ave ’em if you wants.
Apostles: Shush, shush, Little Shepherd Boy, don’t be silly. That’s not going to feed five thousand people / benefits cheats!
Little Shepherd Boy: Well, I woz just off’rin’…
Jesus: Dearest Little Shepherd Boy, me home-boy, pass me the loaves… Please O Lord, O Gracious Heavenly Father, sort me out here, will you? – TA-DAH!
Five Thousand People: Yummy! Hooray for Jesus!
Apostles: Well, blow me.
If you were faced with five thousand actual hungry people, would you be like the Apostles and be cynical about how you could help? Or like More Apostles and feel helpless, that nothing you could do would make a difference?
Course you would. Maybe. I would. I’d totally freak out.
The Ancient Parable, Interpreted for Modern Times
Unfortunately, we’re not often faced with five thousand actual hungry people on our doorstep. But this story, I read as a parable: it has a message. Jesus was trying to teach us something.
The truth is that the five loaves of bread and the two fishes represent the pitiful fraction of the rich world’s wealth that is required to bring the one billion extreme poor above the dollar-a-day mark. It represents a one-off payment of $70 from every person in the rich world.
That’s fuck all.
In fact, we all know it’s fuck all, which is why we’ve all already promised to do it. The developed nations of the world entered into a UN commitment – in 1970 – to provide Official Development Assistance at the level of 0.7% of their gross national income to alleviate extreme poverty.
That’s all it takes. Or all it would take, if we actually did it.
- The Little Shepherd Boy in the parable represents the five states who’ve kept their promise: Sweden (1.12% in 2010), Norway (1.06%), Luxembourg (1.01%), Denmark (0.88%) and the Netherlands (0.82%).
- But the big boys, the Apostles, still give fuck all. Fuck all, as in: the UK (0.52% in 2010) and the USA (0.20%*).
If all the Apostles, not just the Little Shepherd Boy, had handed over five loaves and two fishes each, then feeding five thousand people wouldn’t have looked so impossible. It wouldn’t have been a feast, but it would have been way, way better than nothing. Everyone could have had a nice salmon sandwich – without the need for silly miracles.
And that’s the point.
- 0.7% of GDI is not much to ask. It’s a few loaves and a couple of fishes compared to what we have.
- If we all do it, we can make a difference. At the moment, we’re not doing enough, waiting around for miracles that never come.
- This aid is not gonna make the recipients rich, but they would be out of extreme poverty and on the road to self-sustaining development.
And we would be on the path to a fairer, safer, more humane planet.
Just as Jesus would have wanted.
* i.e. about the same as famously bankrupt Greece.
Interestingly, supporters of the US foreign development strategy might point to the alternative measure of development aid, the “Commitment to Development Index”. This brings a wide range of factors into account (not just aid, but trade and investment, for example) when judging the contribution individual states make towards development in other countries.
In this index, the US comes in a respectable (kind of) 11th place, still below bankrupt Ireland, but at least above the UK, Germany and France. Except that one of the factors taken into account is “Security”, for which the US scores an inexplicable 9.9, the highest score of anyone. Take this out of the equation and they fall back down the charts, into 18th place, back in with famously bankrupt Greece.