Integral Human Development and Subsidiarity: A Closer Look

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has marked January as Poverty Awareness Month.  In pondering ways to address the complicated issue of poverty and reach out to those less fortunate, it can be beneficial to look to those already deeply involved in the poverty alleviation process. 

President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services and PovertyCure Voice, Carolyn Woo, is one of these individuals. She stresses the idea that poverty be addressed in a holistic manner, targeting many aspects of a person’s life instead of just a singular issue. 

She explains:

Poverty is complex. That’s why we rely on an important tenet of Catholic social teaching: integral human development. It means we cannot ignore any part of the person: physical, psychological, political, spiritual. They go together.

Assuming an integral human development approach allows one to see beyond short-term solutions that may only touch the periphery of a problem. Targeting the root cause of an issue requires more thought, creativity, and sometimes a multi-faceted plan of action. 

Giving an example, she says: 

If you heard that children were not going to school, you might decide to build schools and hire teachers…But sometimes the way to get children to go to school is to drill a well. For children might not go to school because the family needs them to fetch water, which can take hours if the supply is far away. Drill a well nearby and it’s easier to get water. Children can go to school. And you take on another huge problem in the developing world: almost one billion people do not have access to clean water.

Even with a school, children might also need a meal when they get there. Perhaps they need to learn about hygiene to help avoid intestinal diseases. All of these must be addressed to fight poverty. That’s integral human development.

Since it is nearly impossible for one organization to combat every aspect of poverty, partnerships prove to be an effective option. Catholic Relief Services, for example, partners with local groups to ensure that services provided meet community needs.  Woo explains, “That requires accepting the poor on their own terms, as equals in this transaction, understanding that they know better than you what it is they must have to make their way out of poverty.” 

Related to the principle of subsidiarity, this perspective allows one to correctly view the human person, who is capable of developing creative solutions to the issues faced by his/her community. Unlike impersonal, top-down aid programs relatively uninformed about the problem at hand, locally driven initiatives are better equipped to evaluate the situation and develop tailored plans of action.   

By example, Carolyn Woo represents a sound and effective way to address poverty, not just in January, but throughout each year. 

In this PovertyCure video, Woo talks about the importance of humans as social beings, a point solidified when she speaks of meeting the poor on their own terms.

For more on integral human development, check out this book by Philip Booth:




Jan 102013
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