Following are the full remarks offered by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during the first plenary session of the G20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday, Sept. 26. His remarks at the forum of global religious leaders focused on the Church’s worldwide efforts to help “those less fortunate”:
I am grateful for the invitation to speak to this distinguished and dedicated audience. It’s an honor to be with you and to learn from you about how we can more effectively help those around us who struggle to escape poverty and have a better life.
And it’s a pleasure to be back in Argentina! I lived here for two years as a missionary decades ago. I truly love this country and its wonderful people. A piece of my heart will always be here. I’m also impressed with Argentina’s clear and wise priorities for this conference and beyond. It is indeed vital that education address the realities of work in the future, that each country have an infrastructure that supports sustainable development, and that each nation has long-term food security. As I’ll explain, a number of our efforts seek to address these priorities.
As a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I travel throughout the world, meeting with Church members and many others sharing the teachings of Jesus Christ. I have seen beautiful places and great wealth. But I have also met numerous people of great potential and goodness living in terrible poverty, struggling to provide the basic necessities of life for their families. It is often heartbreaking. I am reminded in these moments how often Jesus taught that we must care for the poor and needy. We believe that is one of our fundamental moral obligations as a people and a Church. With members in virtually every country in the world, we seek to help wherever and whenever we reasonably can.
As I fulfill my assignment to speak about what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is doing to help the less fortunate, I want you to know that we don’t seek recognition, only to share our experience and build understanding. We all have much to learn from each other, whatever our religious or ethical motivations for serving.
1) What The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Doing to Help the Less Fortunate.
We’ve all heard the adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” There’s much truth in that. But it is also true that sometimes a person needs a fish to eat right now or he won’t survive long enough to learn to fish for himself. The Church’s efforts recognize that people have both short- and long-term needs, and that it is vital to distinguish between the two. Ignoring short-term needs can make it impossible for a person to make long-term progress. Someone who lacks sufficient food cannot pursue an education. But treating long-term problems as if they were short-term needs can produce dependency, indolence and resentment. Therefore, while the Church of Jesus Christ has programs aimed at both types of needs, the ultimate goal is always to foster greater dignity, self-sufficiency and independence.
Our Humanitarian Relief efforts supply basic necessities to those in acute need, whether caused by natural disaster, political instability, or other forces. Over the past three decades, the Church and its members have given more than $2 billion in assistance to people in 195 countries and territories. Our objective is to “relieve suffering, foster self-reliance and provide opportunities for service.” The relief and development projects we sponsor “give assistance without regard to race, religious affiliation, or nationality.” And “we work alongside [other] faith-based and secular partners to address gaps in current solutions.” Last year alone we worked with more than 1,800 partners in 139 countries and territories on more than 2,700 humanitarian projects that served millions of people.
We seek to help wherever and whenever we reasonably can.
All “aid is based on the core principles of personal responsibility, community support, self-reliance and sustainability.” Examples of aid include emergency responses to natural disasters, such as recent earthquakes in Mexico, or hurricanes in the Caribbean or Philippines, where we rush hygiene kits, food, water and volunteers to stricken areas. Consistent with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Clean Water and Sanitation, we have numerous longer-term programs that “provide communities with clean water sources, improved sanitation facilities, and proper hygiene training.” Consistent with the UN goal of Good Health and Well-Being, we seek to help new mothers and reduce infant mortality by “providing lifesaving training and equipment for birth attendants to help resuscitate babies at birth, support the care of newborns, and improve maternal survival following birth.” Those trained in these skills then train others. We teach and encourage home food production and storage so people can be prepared for emergencies. For the growing population of refugees and displaced persons around the globe, we provide “immediate relief, long-term aid and resettlement support.” And we have programs that provide wheelchairs and vision care to those who can’t afford it, immunizations in poverty-stricken nations, and many other community projects. All these efforts are largely staffed by volunteers, who contribute “more than one million workdays of labor … each year.”
In contrast with these humanitarian programs, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has programs that provide or facilitate practical education and skills that supply what some might call “human capital”—the knowledge and ability to be more productive and create lasting economic and personal improvements.
One such program is our Self-Reliance Initiative, which started in 2015 and is now operating in 130 countries. The initiative offers four courses: (1) starting and growing a business; (2) finding a better job; (3) managing personal finances; and (4) gaining education to find better employment. Each twelve-week course provides individualized instruction to groups of 8 to 10 people who meet weekly. Each group becomes its own network of friendship, mutual support and accountability, which provides a powerful source of encouragement to learn, build confidence, and adopt positive behaviors that lead to economic and personal success.
The Church’s Self-Reliance Initiative focuses on the whole person. Participants do a guided self-assessment to evaluate their situation and plan for developing intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual development. Building faith in God is just as essential to the program’s success as its teachings about integrity, honesty, hard work, budgeting, service, teamwork, and other key life and work skills. Secular knowledge and faith combine to empower group members to achieve their goals.
Now you may wonder if this really works. I’m happy to report that the results have been marvelous! In just three-and-a-half years, over 700,000 participants have taken a course, including thousands from other faiths. In Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay alone, almost 7,000 business have been started or improved, over 4,200 individuals have found a new or better job, about 1,500 participants completed a personal financial course, and approximately 7,000 others started an education with a career goal. From data we collected from participants in just these four South American countries, 40 percent reported increasing their income after attending a self-reliance group, 37 percent increased their savings, and 54 percent decreased their consumer debt.
These numbers represent real people — real lives:
- After taking a Self-Reliance course, Aguida Urbano de Bacas of Peru found the courage, knowledge, and skills to start her own business. She has always been a talented artisan, but never had the courage to make her art into a business. With the self-reliance course, she began to trust herself and God’s help. “Ever since that simple poster in my window to advertise my business, like they taught us in class,” she says, “I’m completely backed up in orders. This week I need to make all these penguin and sea lion molds and weave another rug.”
- As a result of his participation in a Self-Reliance course, Jose Alberto Navas of Costa Rica, although unemployed, gained the confidence to improve his basic English skills with classes offered at Church. That led to a job in one of Costa Rica’s largest companies. Later José started his own construction business with several employees, including his wife, Carla. With her earnings Carla is now going back to school to earn a college degree.
There are thousands more like Aguida and José.
Another program the Church developed is called the Perpetual Education Fund. The idea is simple: loan money to motivated but underprivileged individuals so they can obtain a formal education, allowing them to pay the loan back gradually as their education leads to greater income and a higher standard of living. Eventual repayment by most participants and generous charitable contributions from Church members ensure that the fund is replenished. Staffed by skilled volunteers and with no overhead, the fund can perpetually aid those seeking to obtain technical education or a university degree leading to better employment. And the results? Since its launch in 2001, the Perpetual Education Fund has issued more than 93,000 loans in over 70 countries, including over 2,500 loans in Argentina alone. One person helped by these loans was Carlos Salinas of Peru. In his early 20s and stuck in a 15-hour a day job as a bottling laborer, he despaired that his future could get better. But with help from the Perpetual Education Fund, he received a student loan that enabled him to get a degree in administration and begin a successful career, which in turn gave him more resources that he has used to serve his community and help others.
A third Church initiative that is building long-term self-reliance is the Brigham Young University-Pathway Worldwide Program. Launched a decade ago, this program seeks to “mak(e) higher education more accessible, without the need for students to come to a university campus.” By “(m)ixing the flexibility of online academic courses, religious education, and the benefits of weekly face-to-face gatherings with other students,” the program “build(s) confidence and help(s) students shore up basic skills to benefit them in further education, at work, at home, and at church.” Tuition is set at a low rate, and students can pursue either an online certificate or a degree from BYU-Idaho, an accredited university established by the Church.
Through both the Perpetual Education Fund and the Pathway program we seek to provide participants with the education and skills needed to succeed in the economy of the future.
As you will recognize, these educational and personal development programs are consistent with UN Sustainable Development Goals such as Quality Education, Decent Work, and Economic Growth. I would emphasize that the Church’s aim is to help not only individuals but their families. When breadwinners are able to escape poverty and become economically and personally self-reliant, they have more resources to raise their children to be self-sufficient, educated, productive, and good citizens. And people who are self-reliant can better serve in their communities and make valuable contributions to their societies and nations.
“There is an interdependence between those who have and those who have not. The process of giving exalts the poor and humbles the rich. In the process, both are sanctified. The poor, released from the bondage and limitations of poverty, are enabled as free men (and women) to rise to their full potential, both temporally and spiritually. The rich, by imparting of their surplus, participate in the eternal principle of giving. Once a person has been made whole or self-reliant, he reaches out to aid others, and the cycle repeats itself.”
In closing, I would like to share my own vision of success in our quest to alleviate poverty and elevate society. It is a vision that has always inspired me. It comes from my faith’s scriptures, which tell of a promised land, a holy city, established by the Prophet Enoch thousands of years ago. All who sought to live in peace and walk with God were welcomed there. In time the city became great in the eyes of God, even heavenly, because, as our scriptures state, the people “were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” That vision is beautiful and inspiring to me! A society of love, unity, and equality where people care for one another with such concern for their physical and spiritual needs that in time no one among us is poor. That we may strive together, working side by side in our own ways according to our own faiths and values, to achieve this unity and equality is my hope and prayer for all who work to comfort, aid, and love God’s children.