The Shift from ‘Alleviating Poverty’ to ‘Creating Prosperity’ by Michael Matheson Miller

We see poverty in the developing world and we ask—what can I do? So we send food, water, clothes. We sponsor children, build wells, start schools and go on mission trips; we wear wristbands, we sign petitions, we advocate. But what if the question that animates our activity is the wrong one?

What if instead of asking how we can alleviate poverty, we asked, “How do people in the developing world create prosperity for their families and their communities?” This sounds like a simple shift, but it can transform the way we think about poverty and the poorest among us because it takes the focus off ourselves and puts it where it belongs. People in need are not objects of our charity, they are subjects, and should be seen as the protagonists of their own development. Changing the question helps lead to an inter-subjective relationship.

Ask people in the developing world what they want most, and they don’t mention more aid or charity. They want jobs; they want the opportunity to build businesses; they want access to markets, to broader circles of exchange so they can provide for their families. As Ghanaian entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse told me, “The people here are not stupid. They’re just disconnected from global trade.”

Another African business person I learned from was Joshua Omoga, a Kenyan shop owner who lives in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. After years of trying to find work, he borrowed several dollars from a friend and started selling vegetables on the street. He slowly grew the business, working from 5 in the morning until 10 at night, and now sells sundry goods—fruits and vegetables, small bags of flour and oil for baking—from the tiny shop attached to his house. He’d like to grow his business; but in Kibera there is virtually no titled property, and he cannot register his business. He is trapped in the “informal” economy.

Joshua said he’s now saving to send his son to primary school and hoping to save enough to move out of Kibera where he can get titled property and enter into the formal economy. Joshua doesn’t lack motivation or entrepreneurial hustle, and his biggest needs can’t be provided by another donation. What he needs most is a framework of justice that enables entrepreneurs to flourish. Joshua’s story is all too familiar in the developing world. Herman Chinery-Hesse, puts it bluntly. “Property rights are a terrible, terrible problem,” he says. “You are stuck in a hole in a village with all your skills and all your talent and that’s just unfortunately the way it is.”

The insight is easy to miss: We can make the mistake of thinking about poverty as primarily a lack of material goods, so we try to solve this by providing food, wells, electricity or education. How often have we heard it said that if Christians were more generous and joined together to help the developing world we could end poverty? Well, we should be more generous; we should be less attached to material things. This will help our souls, build our communities and, in situations of dire emergencies, make the difference between life and death. But it is a mistake to think this will end poverty.

Poor countries aren’t poor because they lack tangible things like clothes or electricity or education. They are poor because they lack the intangible foundations of social justice that enable people to create wealth for themselves and their communities, things like clear property title, freedom to start and register a business, access to networks of productivity and circles of exchange, and the expectation that their business contract will be honored and they’ll receive justice and fair resolution if it isn’t. We can take these intangibles for granted, but without them long-term, sustainable wealth creation is impossible.

What’s more, these things are a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. To be clear, the church’s central commission is to make disciples of the nations and bring people into eternal life with God. But Christianity is also concerned with helping to create the conditions for human flourishing and to live according to the Gospel. It just so happens that some of the things that enable human flourishing also help economic development.

So a question we can ask ourselves is whether all of our energies for helping relieve poverty should be focused on material want? What if more Christians worked to promote justice and the rule of law, helped people, including the widow and the orphan, get and keep title to their property? What if instead of giving things away, Christians started investing in business, built partnerships and promoted freedom of exchange?
The good news here is that a lot of Christians are working in this space. One of these is Partners Worldwide, a Christian non-profit that promotes and assists promising businesses in twenty developing countries around the world. The organization’s president, Doug Seebeck, emphasizes that for most of the world, the need isn’t to give them the proverbial fish or even teach them to fish. Most people know how to fish, know how to farm, know how to buy and sell. What they need most is “access to the pond,” to the wider circles of enterprise and exchange that would allow them to multiply their energies and talents.

We’re back to Hesse’s point: too many people are walled off from wider networks. Sometimes the wall is a lack of property rights or rule of law for the poor. Other times it’s unfair trade policies that favor the rich and politically well connected. What are North American Christians doing to advocate for free and competitive markets that give struggling entrepreneurs from poor nations real access to markets?

Another thing to think about: Christians have been very generous sponsoring children throughout the world, and this has made a powerful impact in the lives of millions of children. At the same time it is useful to remind ourselves of our hopes for these children and their families. If we were in need, what would we prefer—someone to pay for our child’s schooling, or better opportunities so we could provide for our own children? We think a lot about individuals; are we thinking enough about working with parents and families? This goes back to viewing people as subjects and not as objects of charity.

Finally, Christians must never forget the meaning of charity and the power of the Gospel to transform lives, promotes strong families, vibrant communities and a culture of trust. Charity is not simply helping people in need. Charity is a theological virtue. It is caritas, agape, Christian love. Love means to seek the good of the other, to will the other’s good. Charity desires for the other human flourishing—in this life and the next.

Christians are called to help the poor, but we are not called to mere humanitarianism. Nor are we called to random acts of kindness. We need a heart for the poor, but we also need a mind for the poor. We need to ground our charity in truth, the truths of economics and most important, the truth about the human person. For when we understand the human person, created in the image of God with creative capacity, it changes everything about the way we understand charity, missions and development.