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These days, to analyse social and economic realities from the prism of the periphery, seems like a challenge. It appears that with the emergence of the biggest economies of the “third world” in the world stage the vision that places the periphery in that world, or the “fourth” one, has lost some of its purpose. The recent crisis of wealthy countries adds arguments to question traditional ways, at least in Latin America, of focusing on structures and international relations. Data on the very extensive growth, even in Africa, of the most elemental indexes of human development also seems to call for a non conventional analysis of the “centre - periphery” approach with a dynamic and complex reality unknown a few decades earlier.[1] Today even more than before, to the more classical economic dimensions one would have to add other equal or more important ones in the daily lives of the poor such as solitude, vulnerability, the inattention of their demands, the poor quality of public services, lack of public safety and many others which will not be addressed here. 


However, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis grants peripheries a special place. In EG, the many aspects and uses of the term periphery (20, 46, 53, 63, 191, 197) have complementary but partially different meanings. When it comes to the social and economic, many of them can be brought together by associating places in which inhuman ways of living predominate. Indeed, many times diverse and grave privations as well discrimination due to gender, race, language, culture, religion, etc. agglomerate territorially and in those places perversely strengthen one another demanding particularly intense and bold pastoral attention.  Hence the papal insistence in this dimension, among others, of the missionary “go forth” and the understanding of the periphery as places of destiny.

In the EG it is insisted that “It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an ´ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times´” (51)[2]. It is that invitation that motivates our search for an analytical approach that points towards the pope’s concerns and is useful for an enormous amount of diverse concrete situations. The greatest possible clarity of the approach and objectives is fundamental so as to not drown in a myriad of subjects and data that lack structure. Therefore, a compulsory methodological question would be: How to prioritize matters and economic and social information most relevant to present the peripheries in the spirit of the exhortation?  In what follows, I present some notes that seek to partially answer this question.

The study of the signs of the times from the privileged attention of the peripheries supposes borrowing this term from the social sciences as a support in order to describe and understand reality, but it acquires particularities that come from the raison d’être of the analysis to which we are invited to. Tools and objectives must get along as much as possible.

A relational perspective

In the first place, the study of social realities, whether economic or political, in Latin America has been characterized by thinking about the periphery in relational terms, highlighting that all people are, as the EG points out, part of a same “society, local, national or global” (59). Those that are radically excluded and almost absent from those relations are considered “outcasts”, or “leftovers” (53). Those relations are economic, social, political and cultural but also personal and intimate and we also seem to perceive that at the centre of the exhortation we can find what has been called “social relations of evangelization”[3] such as when one insists in the necessity of making contact with, of reaching, of going to the peripheries, of listening, of taking part in the lives of the poor. This concern does not imply considering that all the advantages and responsibilities are concentrated in the centre and all shortcomings and dependence in the periphery, but it does imply that too often there are asymmetrical relations of power, whether economic, political, religious, etc. that are not easy to see.      

In dialogue with non Christian views

That invisibility, and through it, the concealment of such problems is, in turn, ultimately the result of the country’s inequality, of the insignificance of the poor to the richest and most enlightened society, including among these many that do not cease to be poor because of it. In Dreze and Sen’s study of India it is proposed that the media echo the concerns of the great power groups but also of those citizens that although not wealthy have certain advantages (“the relatively disadvantaged among the more advantaged”, or “comparatively privileged but not most privileged”) and who are more organized and mobilized. Although the book recognizes that this group, who the authors define   as “relative affluent” (Dreze and Sen 2013, 286) (but can also be referred to as “common people”, “middle class”) when compared to the unimaginable privations of the “most deprived”, has not been able to take advantage of the economic growth. From that option of focusing the attention on the poorest, Indian society divides itself, among “the privileged and the rest”. The ample concept of the privileged can be less than a fourth or fifth of the population. That is, flor these authors, India’s “great division”.

Searching for causes

To talk of the periphery in relational terms supposes in part the introduction of the concerns for some of the causes for these dehumanizing situations. Encyclical texts have never concealed this interest and in the Enclycal Sollicitudo Rei Socialis of Pope John Paul II much importance was given to the “interdependencies” and the “perverse mechanisms” that operated against the poor and even wealthy countries. The temptation of avoiding that aspect in the analyses of general social and human reality is great indeed, and a condemnatory accusation to those who do is not surprising.[4]

What remains to be done

In second place, the enlightened perspective of “the preferential option for the poor” (POP) found throughout the exhortation (in those same words in: EG 197, 199, 200) forces looking at reality from a perspective of “what remains be done”, not from what already has been achieved,[5] but from where it is necessary to be more frequently and massively present. This is an option not only of evangelization or a moral one, but also of the way of knowing. Successes in human progress should not be ignored, but one cannot be complacent when there are still many people who are being left behind, marginalized, uprooted, exploited, and considered “outcasts” and “leftovers”[6]. The good shepherd will not be happy or consider himself efficient if he only returns 99% of the sheep to the pen. He will also worry about the hundredth sheep, whose name he knows and cares for.  Indeed, he is not indifferent to any of the sheep. A father would not throw a party for one of his sons who, for example, has managed to quit drugs, but rather he would focus his attention and concern on that son who is still an addict. There is no need to ignore all achievements or to show a lack of happiness for them, but there is the need to tackle those that have eluded us. This is important in order to determine what data to search and use in our description of reality. An accusation from the side of the “successful” to this way of looking at reality is that it is one sided, full of pessimism, of being a spoilsport, of lowering people’s self esteem or undervaluing the ability of achieving valuable results. From the POP there is no other remedy than to carry these perceptions with the largest possible spirit, but rejecting the idea that focusing at what remains to be done is equal to looking down at the ability of agency of the poor.   

Poverty and inequality

In developing countries, the main challenge is absolute poverty. It is still urgent to remedy the grave privations that impede the normal physical and mental performance of a considerable number of human beings. Inequality, on the other hand, is important in itself for it can bring its own sufferings because of differentiated status or restrictions in the validity of rights, but in our countries it is of an even greater interest because it is factor that contributes to the difficulty of facing absolute, economic and multidimensional poverty.  Because of its relational nature, approaching reality with the help of the concept of periphery tends to put inequality in a special place. Not only because of the usefulness and importance of interpersonal or international relations in determining what remains to be done but, as we have already pointed out, because of the window it opens to some of the analyses of a country’s or person’s situation as well as the responsibilities that lead to demand solidarity and cooperation.  

Structural causes

The persistence of situations of great privation, and the difficulties in eradicating them, naturally leads one to focus in structural causes, invisible factors for many, anonymous mechanisms that reinforce one another, becoming autonomized (EG 56, 202) and producing great harm.[7] Although it does not always have to be so, and continuing with the theme of what remains to be done, encyclicals have considered such mechanisms to be perverse.[8]

If by structural causes we understand those that are among the most difficult to eradicate, it would be useful to remember Milanovic’s calculation, which in relation to the position of individuals in the distribution of income in the world, finds that 60% of the global variability in incomes is due to the country to which one is a citizen, and 20% is explained by the family to which one belongs by birth.  Adding both of these together, 80% of personal incomes is explained by the territorial and social place to which one is born and not by the decisions taken by a person throughout his life. The peripheral situation of people in terms of geographical localization and social place is definitely structural. The remaining 20% depends in part on factors over which one does not have any control either, such gender, race, age, or luck, and also in part to the efforts of people (Milanovic 2011,120-1). Without accepting fatalisms, we must take seriously the structures in which we live in.

Integrality and responsibility

 Even within these restrictions, there is much to be done and human will must take in the most complete horizon and depth of the economic and social landscape taking into account global, sub continental and, to a lesser extent, individual dimensions.[9] Hence, it is dangerous to focus exclusively in oneself, in individualities, in one’s own culture, and to believe that such is the way to sufficiently understand the situation of peoples and groups.[10] The degrees of freedom of people and groups vary according to many factors, being the most powerful among them the location, peripheral or not, of their countries in the world and of their place, peripheral or not, in the social relations inside their countries.  

What remains to be done as a focus of prioritized attention also constitutes a call to the responsibility of all those who can do something about it, like the Samaritan,[11] and not only to those who could directly or indirectly be responsible for having caused the problem.[12] In any case, we are before a moral calling to which the answer also requires an analysis of reality so as to be as effective as possible. In this respect, knowing the causes of a situation tends to be useful. One needs to be informed of that which can be changed. But, because of it, that calling is personal and also political, to the degree in which we all are citizens of our country, and to some extent the world.  After all, what are we mainly responsible for? Matters to be dealt with and presenting the corresponding information in order to see the signs of the times must include moral responsibilities. This will not stop there. Being diverse interpretations for realities these are never seen alike. The data does not speaks for itself, and no one can expect exhaustiveness in the description of a problem.



To conclude, and to pick up where we left off, this brief interpretative essay on the approach of Pope Francis’ exhortation on the presence of economic and social peripheries must be useful to show that new situations such as the “rise of the South”, the name by which the UNDP calls the economic emergence of large poor countries; that the expansion of the “middle classes” in emerging countries and their decline in wealthy ones; that the exceptional growth of many African countries during the last years after the rise in the value of raw materials should not lead to attention being concentrated in the “middle” sectors and easy complacencies that make us forget those who continue live in “distant” borders and are excluded from the advantages of society.  That, we believe, is among the central points of Pope Francis’ message in the Evangelii Gaudium exhortation, in which he often refers to the term “periphery” to describe personal and structural situations which are still massive and continue to cause great suffering, poverty and exclusion. 



Benedicto XVI (2009) Caritas in Veritate.

CELAM (2007) Documento de Aparecida. V Conferencia general del episcopado latinoamericano y del Caribe.

Degregori, Carlos Iván and Pablo Sandoval (2007) “Dilemas y tendencias de la antropología peruana: del paradigma indigenista al paradigma intercultural”. In: Degregori, C.I. and P. Sandoval compilers, Saberes periféricos. Ensayos sobre la antropología en América Latina. Lima: IEP Instituto de Estudios Peruanos and IFEA Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos.

Dreze, Jean and AmartyaSen (2013) An Uncertain Glory. India and Its Contradictions. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Francisco (2014) Evangelii Gaudium.

Juan Pablo II (1987) Sollicitudo ReiSocialis.

Milanovic, Branko (2011) The Haves and the Have-Nots. A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality.New York: Basic Books.

Romero, Catalina (1989) “Evangelización: una nueva relación social”. Páginas, 99, octubre, Lima.

Sen, Amartya (2010) “Introduction by AmartyaSen”. UNDP, The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development. New York: United Nations Development Program.

UNDP (2013) Human Development Report 2013. The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World. New York: United Nations Development Program.


[1] “These trends are leading to a more balanced world. Instead of having a centre of industrialized countries and a periphery of less developed countries there is now a more complex and dynamic environment.” (UNDP 2013, 4)

[2] See in the same way EG 16, 181-2, 184.

[3] We have taken the term from Romero (1989)

[4] In SRS (17), John Paul II highlights the importance of interdependencies: “However much society worldwide shows signs of fragmentation, expressed in the conventional names First, Second, Third and even Fourth World, their interdependence remains close. When this interdependence is separated from its ethical requirements, it has disastrous consequences for the weakest. Indeed, as a result of a sort of internal dynamic and under the impulse of mechanisms which can only be called perverse, this interdependence triggers negative effects even in the rich countries”. 

[5] In practical terms, which are the ones that count, this option is not the monopoly of Christians. For instance, it has been pointed out that: “The world has moved on since 1990. There have been many gains (in literacy for example), but the human development approach is motivationally committed to concentrating on what remains undone—what demands most attention in the contemporary world—from poverty and deprivation to inequality and insecurity”. (Sen 2010, vi)

[6] Also in the document of Latin American bishops in Aparecida: “It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”. (CELAM 2007, 65) (Own translation).

[7] The problem is not simple or visible. In Aparecida, Latin American bishops insist in the predominance of the social structures of sin (92, 532), of death (95, 112), of violence (543), of injustice (546). Encyclicals have treated it persistently (CELAM 2007).

[8] Solidarity therefore must play its part in the realization of this divine plan, both on the level of individuals and on the level of national and international society. The "evil mechanisms" and "structures of sin" of which we have spoken can be overcome only through the exercise of the human and Christian solidarity to which the Church calls us and which she tirelessly promotes. (SRS 40. See in the same Encyclical 16, 19, 35, 43.)

[9] This spectrum of scales is very present in EG, but it is also present in other pope’s encyclicals. On charity, the Caritas in Veritate points out that: “It gives real substance to the personal relationship with God and with neighbour; it is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)” (2).

[10] As Degregori and Sandoval point out in relation to anthropology: “…by focusing on one’s country, one can lose comparative perspective, which is one of the central conditions for the discipline’s production of knowledge”(2007, 21)

[11] As the recent document of the Pontifical Commission Iustitia et Pax states,40 these observations should make us reflect on the ethical character of the interdependence of peoples. And along similar lines, they should make us reflect on the requirements and conditions, equally inspired by ethical principles, for cooperation in development. (SRS 19)

[12] In Aparecida, it is pointed out that the recognition of the complexity of the human phenomenon (34), of the acceptance of the necessity of analyses differentiated by fields, (61) of the opacity that this complexity produces and the convenience of avoiding simple visions (36) and uniteralism (41) does not need to leave people defenceless when faced with phenomena such as globalization and the reality of the market. The task is to always seek for all the possible margins of actions. (CELAM 2007)