Skip to Content

Pope Francis, President Xi and Prime Minister Modi: the surprising common thing that has made them great leaders

US-VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE-CONGRESSUS-VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE-CONGRESS
Pope Francis addresses a joint session of Congress Thursday.Photograph by Paul J. Richards — AFP/Getty Images

China’s President Xi Jinping lived in a cave for seven years in one of his country’s poorest regions. India’s Prime Minister Nerendra Modi’s father was a street merchant. His brother and he had to sell tea at the local train station to help put food on his family’s table. And when Pope Francis was in Buenos Aires he was such a frequent visitor to the city’s shantytowns he was known as “Bishop of the slums.”

The three are now far from being cave dwellers, street merchants or inhabitants of the slums. This week all three world leaders were visiting the United States. During their visit they met with CEOs, politicians and other powerful U.S. leaders. And among those who met with the Pope, Xi and Modi there was talk about what has made the men great leaders. At least some of those conversations hit on a common thread: All three have personally experienced extreme poverty.

It certainly has shaped their individual agendas. Pope Francis has been the church’s most outspoken leader on the issue of inequality. In a speech at the United Nations on Friday, Francis said that governments should strive to make sure that the poor have access to lodging, labor and land, as well as education. On Thursday, the Pope told Congress that he believed governments succeed when they provide growth for all it citizens “especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.” His comments also seemed to support the notion that all workers be guaranteed a living wage.

Xi Jinping started off his life living among the rich elite in Beijing. But at 15, in 1968, after his father was stripped of his political position and was arrested, Xi was one of a large group of privileged urban youth who were sent to work the fields to be “re-educated” in China’s rural areas. As President, Xi has continued China’s efforts to lift its rural farmers out of poverty. Today, at a speech at the UN, Xi Jinping pledged $2 billion for a new development fund and said China would increase its investments in other developing nations. Some of those investments, though, have drawn criticism, with some saying that China is using its economic might to take advantage of other nations, and lax environmental controls. Xi, though, said China’s government was committed to fighting poverty.

In India, Modi has faced criticism that his government, like governments before his, was more focused on helping the rich. Modi has used his background to deflect that criticism and has announced programs to help India’s impoverished farmers. He has launched dozens of welfare programs in his first year and a half in power, and has pledge to fight the local corruption that has worsened rural poverty. Modi has said because of his roots he knows what needs to be done.