“Bah!” said Scrooge. “Humbug!”

Source: The Last of the Spirits by John Leech. From Wikimedia Commons.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

With Christmas only just days behind us, we are in what is called the ‘Season of Goodwill.’

It’s a time to consider those less fortunate than ourselves, a time for giving and receiving, a time for being with family, a time for forgiveness, and so on. In light of this opportune moment, it may be a good time to consider our moral responsibilities to those less fortunate than ourselves throughout the world.

An interesting case study is the 77 year old President of Uruguay, entitled by the BBC as the worlds ‘Poorest President.’ Compared to presidents/prime ministers throughout the world, Mujica does indeed appear poor and somewhat ‘eccentric’.

According to one report he “lives on a ramshackle farm and gives away most of his pay. Laundry is strung outside the house. The water comes from a well in a yard, overgrown with weeds. Only two police officers and Manuela, a three-legged dog, keep watch outside.”

The Uruguayan President donates 90% of his monthly salary (of around £7,500) to charity. This enables Mujica to live like the average Uruguayan on around £485 per month. His personal wealth includes his 1987 Volkswagen Beetle valued at £1,100 and his wife’s assets – land, tractors and a house, amounting to around £135,000 (as declared in his recent annual personal wealth declaration).

I’m called ‘the poorest president’, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more…This is a matter of freedom. If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself.”

– President Jose Mujica.

His views on poverty and consumption are clear, and he promoted these when he addressed the Rio+20 summit this year:

“We’ve been talking all afternoon about sustainable development. To get the masses out of poverty.

…But what are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you now: what would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household as Germans? How much oxygen would we have left?

…Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”

– President Jose Mujica.

In the debate about our duties/responsibilities to the poor, philosopher and activist Peter Singer agrees. To Singer, we all have a moral obligation to respond to global poverty at a personal level.  Singer goes as far as suggesting a minimum donation of 1% of our annual income to challenge the effects of poverty throughout the world. He says that

“To fail to give it shows indifference to the indefinite continuation of dire poverty and avoidable poverty-related deaths”

The One Percent Solution by Peter Singer, 2002. Check out chapter 7 in 80:20 Development in an Unequal World for a discussion on to have or not to have a justice perspective on poverty.

You may consider the actions of President Mujica somewhat extreme and you may not agree with some of his controversial political stances.

The point he makes may seem simple yet it is deeply challenging and contributes significantly to the debate not only about morality but about development in general and also, and maybe more significantly, to our role in the reality of global poverty.

The world considers President Mujica to be poor. He disagrees. Whatever you may think and feel, globalisation has ensured that we are all intertwined and our individual actions impact on others throughout the world.  You may not agree with Singer’s recommendations for poverty alleviation; however there are very many ways that you can individually play a role in challenging the reality of poverty.

“We cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause poverty. We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys. We cannot profess our solidarity with those who are oppressed when we are unwilling to confront the oppressor. Compassion without confrontation fades quickly to fruitless sentimental commiseration.”

– Henri J. M. Nouwen Donald P. McNeill Douglas A. Morrison in Compassion (p.122).


Jose Mujica Quick facts

  • Jose Mujica was elected in 2009.
  • During the 1960s and 1970s he was a member of the Uruguayan guerrilla Tupamaros, a leftist armed group inspired by the Cuban revolution.
  • He has been shot six times and spent 14 years in jail, mostly under harsh conditions and isolation.
  • He was released in 1985 when Uruguay returned to democracy.
  • He was instrumental in transforming Tupamaros into a legitimate political party, which joined the Frente Amplio (broad front) coalition.
  • During his tenure as President of Uruguay he has been criticized for his stand on the legalization of cannabis and abortion.

Source: Jose Mujica: The world’s ‘poorest’ president | BBC News | 15th November 2012