I WAS VISITING Mtimbe, a settlement of about 40 families on the shore of Lake Nyasa in Mozambique. The town is many miles from the nearest road, and residents have no electricity or running water. They live in thatched huts, and they rely on cassava fields: if the cassava fails, the family goes hungry. My companions and I had traveled by one-engine plane and then in a big wooden boat. As we approached the shore, we saw about 50 local people waiting for us. They were singing a praise song, clapping and moving with the music. Our hosts pulled our luggage from the boat, raised it onto their heads and continued to sing and dance as they made their way up the hill.
We were welcomed by Rebecca Van Meulen, coordinator of a regional Anglican AIDS effort called Life Teams, and by Pedro Kumpila, leader of the local team. Someone asked the people how they'd improved their lives in Mtimbe, and a resident expressed gratitude for peace. Mtimbe was repeatedly savaged during Mozambique's 16 years of civil war. One resident told us that he once had to watch soldiers smash a baby in one of the wooden mortars women use to pound cassava. All of Mtimbe's residents had to flee repeatedly to neighboring countries and live as refugees for years at a time.
One woman said she's grateful for Mtimbe's school. They didn't have a school ten years ago, but nearly all of Mtimbe's children--even the AIDS orphans--are now learning to read and write. A few people even have cell phones--a huge convenience in a place without roads or motor vehicles.
Pedro noted that people in the community who are infected with HIV and AIDS, including some who are near death, are able to take care of their children, farm and teach others about AIDS because they're receiving lifesaving medications.
I was moved by the achievements and hope of the people of Mtimbe. They are among the poorest people on earth, but they are making strides toward a better life. I was also struck by the U.S. government's impact even in this remote place. On one hand, that impact has sometimes been negative. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had a hand in Mozambique's civil war. United States ethanol subsidies contribute to the village's high grain prices, while Mozambique's government has delayed investment plans because of the financial crisis that started on Wall Street.
On the other hand, however, there is good news. Support by the U.S. for the reduction of Mozambique's debts helped finance schools across the country, and the United States funds most of the AIDS medications in Mozambique. Activist efforts such as Bread for the World in the United States helped the people of Mtimbe by urging the U.S. Congress to support debt relief and development assistance for poor countries.
Hundreds of thousands of communities in developing countries have seen similar improvements over the last several decades, and statistics reflect the progress. According to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries--those living on less than $1.25 a day--dropped from 1.9 billion in 1980 to 1.4 billion in 2005. The fraction of the population living in extreme poverty dropped from one half to one quarter.
The statistics on undernutrition tell a more complicated story. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the number of undernourished people in developing countries declined from nearly 1 billion in 1970 to about 800 million in the mid '90s. Unfortunately that number began to climb again and spiked in 2008-2009 to 1 billion. Poor people in developing countries typically spend more than two-thirds of their total income on a staple grain such as rice or wheat, and a surge in grain prices means a spike in hunger. The global economic slowdown also pushed more people into hunger.
There has been unambiguous and dramatic improvement in health and education. Twenty-six thousand children in developing countries die every day from preventable causes, but that number has dropped from 55,000 daily in 1960--a remarkable improvement. …