Monday, June 24, 2013

Poverty and Solutions

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast meeting where Dr. Brian Fikkert, author of When Helping Hurts (economist and professor at Covenant College) was the speaker.  This is a book I read shortly after it came out in 2009, and have since recommended to many, many people who want to get involved in working in Africa or working with the materially poor.  It was great to meet and hear someone who "speaks my language" as well as be in  a room of 75 people or more who also resonate with the message he presented.  One attendee told me that he "found himself on the edge of tears for most of the presentation - a sort of shame, mixed with longing."  Shame mixed with longing - what a great phrase.  That certainly resonates with me.

Are these children poor?
The message of Dr. Fikkert that morning (as well as in the book) is to help us redefine how we view poverty and ultimately our response to poverty or solutions to alleviate such.  He stated that North Americans tend to define poverty as material, whereas the poor define poverty in psycho-social terms (shame, hopelessness, fear).  He points out that material poverty is only a symptom of the real problem.  Bryant Myers's (author of Walking with the Poor) definition of poverty is,
“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” 
It's interesting to think through the idea that poverty is a result of broken relationships - with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.

Dr. Fikkert made the interesting suggestion that Republicans tend to view poverty in terms of individual brokenness ("that person is just lazy" or "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps"); Democrats tend to define poverty in terms of broken systems (economic, political, social environmental).  While I'm sure that these are generalizations that have many exceptions, there is a ring of truth to it, and BOTH individuals and systems need to be addressed.

Is this a poor church?
He went on to suggest that in order to come up with solutions to poverty, we need to look closely at the four foundations of community where we find our primary relationships, which are God, self, others, and the rest of creation.  He then contrasts how the wealthy (which he defined as mainstream America for this example) are viewed in terms of these four concepts, as well as those in poverty.  For the view of God, the wealthy tend toward Nihilism, or the denial of God's existence.  For the view of self, there is a poverty of being, where the wealthy tend toward having a god-complex in that they are not dependent or needy of anyone, but can be anything and handle all things on their own.  For the poor, the view of self is caught up in a marred identity of being"less than".  For the view of others, there is a poverty of community, where the wealthy tend towards being workaholics and the poor tend toward a predator/prey mentality, in which the poor tend to be the prey for the wealthy.  Fikkert points out that being a workaholic is the opposite sin to being lazy - however, society tends to reward the former and penalize the latter.  The last relationship is toward the rest of creation, or the poverty of stewardship.  The wealthy tend toward being self-centered, where the poor tend to have a zero sum approach, believing that the pie of wealth is only so big, and they just aren't going to get a piece. 

Dr. Fikkert then challenged us by saying that until we view ourselves as poor (because we are involved in broken relationships), we will only hurt ourselves and others if we try to address poverty from any other mindset.  In his mind the formula for harm towards the materially poor AND non-poor is this:
Material definition of poverty + god-complex of the non-poor + inferiority complex of the materially poor = Harm to materially poor and non-poor.

Is this business owner poor?
He gave the example of the well-meaning church that gives out turkeys to the materially poor each Thanksgiving and toys to the children of the materially poor each Christmas. After doing this for several years, the church members begin to think about how little they have seen changed since starting this gifting.  The same people are still poor.  There are no changes.  And they begin to think that the church is doing so much - what are these people doing?  Sitting back and waiting for gifts?  And an attitude may begin to develop.  Meanwhile, the materially poor find themselves feeling humiliated for not being able to provide food or toys for their children.  Men are leaving through the back door while the well-meaning church members come through the front to deliver gifts that the parents are not able to provide - inferiority complexes begin to develop.  The materially poor begin to depend or rely on the church to take care of some of these needs, self-esteem in terms of ability may begin to suffer, and dependency may begin to develop.

What is the point of all this for me and my work?  The first step toward poverty alleviation, according to Dr. Fikkert, is repentance.  This is an unusual statement - we don't tend to start there in terms of addressing poverty.  If poverty is primarily about broken relationships, then poverty alleviation needs to focus on the reconciliation of those relationships.  The first step in reconciliation is the need for repentance of the sin of superiority by the materially non-poor as well as repentance of the disproportionate emphasis on the material understanding of the world.

Much of my work involves addressing the materially poor.  And much of my work is often hand in hand with those who are the materially non-poor in doing this work.  The tension of how to address poverty is one that is near and dear to my heart.  I have definitely developed some opinions about what works and doesn't.  As I work on my MBA in Sustainable Development, I am looking closely at economic matters as it relates to poverty alleviation and the role of aid to Africa over the years.   This week I will be writing a paper on whether or not the idea of "Africa Rising" and becoming an economic power in twenty years is a legitimate claim.

This concept matters.  It matters a lot.  We must think this through, process it, and not rush into help without considering whether we will be hurting instead of helping.  And we must remember that it is not only the poor who may be hurt in the attempt to help, but the non-poor as well.  It does not mean that we freeze and give up.  No.  We are called upon to strive to find workable solutions that reflect the reconciling heart of Christ.