This morning’s message hit home in the resident economist’s heart. Christ brings us out from the woodworks to produce good works for our fellow man. The communities within (I’m guessing most) churches is the perfect mix of contagion and accountability to be “selfless” every now and again and redistribute our excesses. Whether it’s our faith or our intrinsic empathetic nature, we want to help people and the best way we know how is by giving money. But sometimes, we might be doing more bad than good.
For close to a decade, the United States has disbursed from $30 billion to $45 billion in aid in the form of military assistance, humanitarian, and economic development to countries around the world. Yet, many of the areas receiving the most amount of aid have seen no improvement in their poverty levels. In fact, many of these efforts have just created more problems!
It wasn’t until recently that the AID industry acknowledged that just throwing money at poverty won’t solve the problem. But, the unintended consequences of years growing the bureaucracy and creating foreign dependencies, have put everyone in a pickle jar with a tight lid. The money continues to flow and bureaucracies continue to grow, aiding the AID industry instead of alleviating poverty.
Back to this morning
The pastor shared a touching story about his own naiveté during a mission in Brazil. He was leading the church group that helped fix up the home of a couple that had adopted over 30 kids in a poor area in Brazil. The whole week this group went around and repaired or renovated anything and everything they could around the house. The diligent work allowed them to finish early, leaving a full day with nothing to fix.
The pastor asked the couple if there was anything they could think of that needed some work? The couple thought for a second and just asked them to hang out and relax with the everyone. The pastor responded, “No, really, anything? C’mon, I’ve got a big group ready to work!” The couple insisted on them just sitting around and getting to know the children. “How about that field over there? It’s a mess and could sure use some clearing.” The couple gave in and reluctantly let the pastor and the group go at it. They spent the whole day clearing that field by hand.
Several months later, after some back and forth with the couple, it came to light that the field was being left fallow to restore the land’s fertility. Clearing the field actually threw a wrench in the crop rotation, messing up grain supply for future harvests.
In search of providing this impoverished couple with more resources, this group ended up negatively affecting the family in the process. In search for more output, they ended up with the wrong outcome.
It ain’t just about the money
Unfortunately, this is more common than desired. In an effort to eradicate poverty, we have policy makers, philanthropists, and philosophers (including economists and sociologists) that think where we go wrong is that there just isn’t enough money. When asked, “What is poverty?” to those living on a couple bucks per day, many answers are more than just about lack of material goods and capital. Words like powerless, despair, depressed, trapped, and loneliness, seem to stand out. (1)
This makes sense. These descriptive words are more than economic; they are human. It reveals that just throwing money at problems is not the answer. When has giving someone five dollars or handing them a used sweater ever alleviated someone’s feeling of powerlessness or despair? Okay, I admit, I would be pretty happy, but I’m not depressed or impoverished.
Institutions are what matter. Not only the economic and political institutions but the institutions of their relationships, especially those that come from afar to “help”. Having trust, empathy, and reliance, from friends, family, and community are key institutions that are often broken for those caught in the predicament of destitute poverty. Helping restore these relational institutions may be more effective than just going in and trying to solve problems with money, creating a dependency and damaging outcomes.
After learning that sometimes we may be doing bad by doing good, a part of the next mission trip to the couple’s home in Brazil was much more relational, and less works focused. (2) The teenagers would spend the day(s) taking notes of the kids, paying attention to their positive qualities and attributes. Every night they would share this intel with the other group members. The last day of the trip, instead of finding more “work” to do, they gathered the entire family and one by one put the kids (including the couple) on the hot seat, and showered them with personally crafted compliments and uplifting thoughts that brought an incredible amount of smiles to the family.
By focusing efforts on mending these institutions, the economic and political institutions can be mended from the ground up, making a more sustainable impact. This is actually a much more daunting task than just allocating resources to the areas in need, but will be a more satisfying experience for all parties involved. This was undoubtedly a memorable experience for the family. What’s more, it didn’t mess up their crops, the local entrepreneur’s market, or cost as much money.
It’s time for us to rethink poverty. It’s not just about getting more output—more computers, more machinery, more clothes—but reaching better outcomes.
- The World Bank was cited in this narrative by the pastor. I have not searched for the survey or their respective answers.
- Christopher Coyne, “Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails”