World poverty in Obama’s inauguration speech

This week I updated our Cameroon Guide. Those who cheered as loudly for the departure of Bush as the inauguration of Obama should spare a thought for the people of that country. The president, Paul Biya, has sustained his iron grip for 26 years. Corruption and clientele politics cream off any economic surplus, shunting poverty and health indicators into reverse.

Not even in his wildest delusion of grandeur would Bush have contemplated an amendment to the constitutional limits to his term of office. In April last year Biya had only to wave his hand to induce parliament to amend the Cameroonian constitution to allow him to stand for a further seven year term from 2011.

This Bush/Biya reflection distracted my intended focus as Obama approached the podium. Would the economic crisis wipe out any mention of global poverty in the speech?

His campaign promise to double foreign aid to $50 billion by 2012 was missing, but then the great virtue of the speech was its refusal to put a price on values. The dollar sign was conspicuous by its absence from the printed text.

Instead the plight of the world’s poor was acknowledged in a curious paragraph in which the president became a little carried away in his predilection for the language of the pulpit:

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

I’m not sure that this represents the speechwriter’s finest hour. The sentiments are just a little too biblical. And we know all too well that benediction is a toothless weapon in the fight against poverty.

But in the spirit of Obamamania, let’s try to make something out of it. We could follow the lead of The Times which became so overwhelmed with reverence that its chosen quote for the front page headline was awarded an unprecedented red tone. This reminded me of “red letter” bibles which adopt the technique to signify the spoken words of Jesus. It appeared something like this:

we must begin again the work of remaking America

Looking again at the speech in this devotional light, the poverty section has a certain symmetry, evocative of the psalms:

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you: to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow.

The text continues in similar vein. And my Obama rating shot up when I found elsewhere in the speech a message for the likes of president Biya, again in passable iambic pentameters. The result is a tidy five verses to chant in times of spiritual advocacy for the poor:

Barack Obama’s Psalm for Poverty

1. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you: to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow.

2. To nourish starved bodies: and feed hungry minds.

3. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty: we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders.

4. Nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect: for the world has changed, and we must change with it.

5. For those who cling to power through corruption and deceit: know that you are on the wrong side of history.

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this article was first published by OneWorld UK

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