The most rewarding part of my 10 years as head of a major humanitarian agency has been meeting the courageous people who struggle daily to improve their own lives and make a better future for their children.
In hundreds of the world's poorest communities, I've walked beside men and women whose ingenuity, resilience, and hope have strengthened my belief that dire poverty can be eradicated in this century. But for them - for all of us - to reach that goal, powerful countries, institutions and individuals must continue to work to end violent conflict, social exclusion, hunger, illiteracy, and the scourge of disease.
No matter where we live, we all want the best for our children. We may have determination, motivation, and energy. But if we are disenfranchised, discriminated against, and denied access to such necessities as water, food, shelter, education, and healthcare, the burdens of poverty could still appear insurmountable.
Putting an end to poverty goes far beyond building physical infrastructure and elevating per capita income in the developing world. While these advances are critical, it is equally necessary to help individuals gain control over key decisions in their lives. Humanitarian workers have learned that the surest way to put a dent in extreme poverty is to invest in women and girls. As their lives improve, they enhance the prospects of their families and entire communities.
As a result of globalization and, more recently, the unprecedented skein of humanitarian disasters and terrorist acts, people everywhere feel the world is shrinking. What happens in the remotest and poorest communities affects people everywhere. We understand this pragmatically and with a heightened awareness of our sameness. We resonate with the insight of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "In a real sense, all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich."
Two years ago, one of CARE's most generous donors bequeathed millions of dollars to fund girls' and basic education, mainly in poor African countries. She said she wanted not to give back, but to "give forward," to set the stage for a better world for her children and grandchildren. Increasingly other wealthy individuals, celebrities, and average citizens share this vision of making poverty a thing of the past. It is this kind of citizen involvement that will give traction to the expressed commitments of political leaders at G-8 meetings and UN conferences.
People in the developing world need those of us living in wealthy countries to be their advocates with our governments. They look to us to amplify their voices on policies that affect them, whether in agriculture, health, economic development, land use, trade, or violent conflict. The US government is already responding. The Bush administration is emphasizing securing peace in Sudan. There is bipartisan support to arrest the spread of HIV/AIDS, forgiveness of debt repayment in 18 poor countries, and legislation to make safe water accessible to millions more people.
But we still have a ways to go. US leaders have yet to strike the right balance between defending Americans from our enemies and offering hope to disadvantaged people. Too many members of Congress play out their ideological and theological positions when voting on reproductive health and family planning. They impede poverty reduction. And far too many Americans remain complacent or overly absorbed in their own lives. They do not realize the difference they can make. Complacency and inaction here are powerful accomplices of extreme poverty in Africa.
Extreme poverty - and the suffering it causes - is an assault on people's basic dignity; and we can stop it. Each of us can do something - donate, volunteer, advocate.
I leave my post at CARE steadfast in the conviction that the world can be made better. We already have the knowledge, technology, and wealth to end extreme poverty; all we need is the political will. I believe that people in poor communities, governments, corporations, aid agencies, donors, and ordinary citizens will deepen our partnership to "give forward." Together, we can and will make our world stronger, safer, and more caring.
• Peter D. Bell steps down as president and CEO of CARE on March 31.