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Knitting Might Be Fun But I'd Rather Change the World

05/09/2014 15:09 BST | Updated 04/11/2014 10:59 GMT

If the UK's new Government Minister for Civil Society is spoiling for a fight, he's gone the right way about it. When he announced yesterday that 'charities should stick to their knitting', he must have known full well that he'd get a vociferous response.

I'm not sure why he's looking for a fight, though. While the debate is a necessary and useful one, it's clear to me that we're all on the same side.

Governments, charities, churches - we all want to live in a more fair world where everyone prospers. And we each have a part to play in making that happen.

Those of us who, day in and day out, live and work alongside people in need have a vital role in helping them to find their voice. And we speak with and for them to make sure that voice is heard.

That's the heart of it. Charities are qualified - and, in my opinion, mandated - to speak up for justice and suggest solutions to some of the world's biggest problems because of our direct relationships with people affected by those very problems.

We know the people who are living in extreme poverty. We meet them every day and know their names.

Like Tom and Margret in Uganda, who were struggling because of Tom's alcohol problem which meant their marriage was in trouble and they had no money. With the help of their local church, they started rearing chickens and selling them. When I met them, they showed me their now thriving farm, complete with pigs and goats. They can afford to furnish their home and send their children to school. Tom no longer drinks, and the two of them take their financial decisions together. They are among millions of newly strong families with increasing financial stability, thanks to a little bit of help.

We serve people by helping them find jobs and create jobs; by stimulating employment and enterprise so that eventually people won't need aid any more and will find their own ways out of poverty. And then we move on to the next group, until our aid investment - generated by voluntary giving and by government funding - provides a return by creating societies which are more productive and better able to trade on the global stage.

Except that it doesn't always happen. With the best aid assistance in the world, and with excellent community development to help people believe in their own potential, there are still places where poverty alleviation is almost impossible.

And the reasons for that are always structural.

The political and governance systems at local, national and international level either help or hinder economic development. Usually, in places where there is extreme poverty, they help some people but not others.

India and Brazil show us that rapidly growing economies don't always take everyone towards prosperity. Some people thrive; others are left struggling.

And so millions of people, all around the world, are left behind. They're in countries wrecked by war and its accompanying horrors like rape, displacement, family breakdown, lack of livelihoods, lawlessness and famine. Or they're in countries where many people are held back because of corruption, poor governance, unpredictable and rapidly changing weather patterns, and poor preparedness for natural disasters.

They're left behind as others prosper economically and educationally, so they miss out on opportunities.

As they struggle to join in their country's growth or to make their voices heard, they face all sorts of obstacles which we don't here in the UK.

Our freedom is hard won, as we remember this year during the anniversary of World War I, and it has helped create a nation where we know we can ask questions and demand representation of our elected officials.

But millions of people don't have that - what should I call it? I'd want to see it as a basic right, but sadly it's in fact a privilege afforded only to a few - and so we must speak up with and for them.

We do so because we have a moral imperative to do so, of course, but also because pragmatically it is the sensible thing to do.

No-one want us to live in a world where an international aid budget remains necessary for generations to come, but people will never move beyond dependency unless they truly have the opportunity to do so.

And when we see a tangible cause for their poverty, and an obstacle that can feasibly be overcome with effective political action, surely we are right to say so? Just as we did when we came together to call for debt cancellation, the success of which meant that Mozambique has now immunised a million more children than would otherwise have been possible.

If we don't speak up, we continue to propagate a vicious cycle of poverty. People are born poor, they grow up poor, they get some help from an NGO, their lives get a bit better but they never really leave poverty because the system is set against them, they start a family of their own, bring children into a life that is poor, rely on an NGO to help them make life a bit more bearable, and so it goes on.

No, of course not. That's a ridiculous way to live, and I want no part of it.

As chief executive of one of the UK's biggest Christian charities, it is both my spiritual passion and my professional aim to help the world's poorest people find their own ways out of poverty so that they no longer need my, or anyone else's, assistance.

As a Christian, I believe in the profound truths that the future can be better than the past and that the church is crucial in bringing that about.

We will help all the people we can by meeting their urgent needs and encouraging people to find a hope that empowers them to create a better life for their children. And if there's a structural cause to that poverty - be it corruption, conflict or climate change - we will stand against it and bring concrete proposals to show how those structural barriers can be removed and people freed to fulfil their potential.

I'm sure knitting is lots of fun, but I'd rather change the world.

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