Pope Francis speaks in Washington this week, not just to Catholics but to all Americans, as a universal messenger in the fight against poverty and suffering. His visit coincides with the soul-searching Jewish Day of Atonement and the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, a day consecrated with one-third of the sacrifice being shared with the poor. The Pope speaks from the heart, and his message of authenticity and service resonates throughout our country.  In fact, millions of Americans will come out to hear Pope Francis and to share in his call for a more just world – especially towards the poor and vulnerable.  Millions more watching at home will be reminded that we thirst for meaning and purpose in our lives and that serving those less fortunate can help each of us be fulfilled.

I was honored last year to participate, as then-administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (our country’s agency tasked with fighting poverty and suffering abroad), in the first-ever Vatican conference on social investment hosted by Pope Francis. This extraordinary event brought together NGOs such as the Catholic Relief Services with investors that included Goldman Sachs to determine whether investors could better serve the needs of the poor while also delivering strong financial returns. 

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The Pope asked us to ensure that our collective activities would provide greater opportunities to millions of families worldwide that still live in absolute deprivation – a child right here in America that only gets a full meal during school hours, a mother who farms a small plot of land in Africa but cannot feed their children or send them to school, or a young girl in Nepal forced into slavery.  In fact, more than one billion people still live on less than $1.25 per day and suffer the injustice of human deprivation every single day.

But there is hope in the Pope’s call to action.  The global fight to address this debilitating extreme poverty is yielding important results.  In 1990, more than 12 million poor children died under the age of five from preventable diseases, today that number is just over 6 million and we are working to get it to near zero. By stepping up our fight against malaria, we have saved more than 6 million lives and driven a nearly 60 percent decline in incidence of the disease.  Today, 6 of 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa and the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half since 2000 despite the world’s population growing by nearly 2 billion people during that time. 

Today, Americans have an opportunity to advance this fight for justice and dignity for the world’s poorest people through effective and targeted foreign assistance programs. A tremendous food crisis in 2007 and 2008 pushed more than 100 million back into hunger and poverty around the world after decades of progress.  Even before the devastating earthquake in Haiti, children were eating mud cakes and drinking from polluted waters just two hours from our shores. In response, President Obama launched Feed the Future – a global partnership with countries, investors, farmers and families – to help poor countries improve their food production and reduce hunger and poverty.  By investing in new seeds, better fertilizers, improved access to markets, and partnerships with companies around the world, Feed the Future has helped more than 7 million farm families and more than 12 million children escape hunger.  The results speak are astounding – 160,000 children are no longer chronically hungry or stunted in Ethiopia, a child malnutrition in Ghana is down by 33 percent, and farmers in Honduras have experienced a 55 percent increase in their incomes – resulting in nearly 40,000 families escaping poverty. When President Obama visited the Vatican, his gift to the Pope was a box of seeds symbolizing this effort. 

 Seeing these programs work, a bi-partisan coalition of leaders in both the House and the Senate are supporting results-oriented initiatives and are currently working together to pass the Global Food Security Act.  Thankfully, members of both parties agree that programs like Feed the Future – designed to teach a partner how to fish rather than simply giving things away, grounded in data and evidence, and backed by real results – can help those who suffer today and prevent strife and insecurity in the future.  Passage of the Global Food Security Act would strengthen our ability to answer the Pope’s call to help those living in extreme poverty and deprivation.

 As the Pope’s message of compassion and service resonates in each of us, let us fight the natural tendency to believe we cannot do much to help those who suffer a world away.  Today we have the opportunity to heed the Pope’s call by supporting programs that work.

Shah was administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2009 until 2014.