by Peter Greer
Stop Helping Us! introduces a new paradigm for an evangelical response to poverty alleviation. Being effective means recognizing that there is a difference between short-term aid, which is important and necessary, and the long-term elimination of poverty, which is the best defense against receding back into material poverty and the most effective method of elevating the dignity of all God’s children. We will see the stories of those who were transformed by effective, long-term aid that focused on the individuals rather than just numbers. Included are surveys of the poor and what they desire, showing that their goals have little to do with money and everything to do with using their skills, caring for their families, and embracing their God-given dignity.
The Story of Fadzai
Every time an employer discovered Fadzai Nhamo, a woman from Zimbabwe, was HIV positive, the door shut. “Life was difficult for me when I came to Harare,” Fadzai later remarked. When Fadzai speaks, she covers her mouth to hide her missing front teeth, a daily reminder of the brutal way she contracted HIV. “I left my hometown after someone had beaten and raped me,” she said. Following the assault, a friend took her to a clinic at the capital, Harare. There she discovered she was HIV positive. “When my husband found out I was sick [with HIV], he disappeared,” Fadzai commented later. “I did not have a place to live.” After her husband’s abandonment, Fadzai was left a single mom, a stranger in a new city. With no place to call home, she moved from place to place with her children.
It is possible to debate many points of theology, but our faith clearly calls us to care for Fadzai, an individual who has been exploited and abused. She is the widow and foreigner so frequently mentioned throughout Scripture. When we hear the story of Fadzai’s mistreatment and understand the message of grace in Scripture, we are compelled to respond.
John, one of Jesus’s closest friends, asked the question, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” James, the brother of Jesus, questioned, “If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” This concept was discussed in great detail in chapter three, but the takeaway is worth repeating here. Followers of Jesus have a rich history of responding to a gospel message of compassion. From New York City to New Delhi, the homeless find shelter and a compassionate response in Christian missions. In rural areas lacking access to healthcare, medical clinics have been built. Through prison ministry, thousands of prisoners are visited each year. Soup kitchens run by churches are a fixture in many cities.
Fadzai was one recipient of such care. After arriving in Harare, she found a charity that provided aid. But as with most charities, the support eventually ended. “I had a big problem when the charity that I was getting my food from stopped,” Fadzai lamented. It is unclear whether Fadzai was better off as a result of the church’s support, despite its good intentions. Although charity helped Fadzai for a time, it did not change her situation or address the underlying issues of her poverty. She was still in tremendous need. Having learned no additional skills, Fadzai was in no better position to provide for her children. Worse—as handouts often do over the long term—charity may have actually deepened her poverty.
What is Poverty?
In the 1990s, World Bank surveyed over sixty thousand of the financially poor throughout the developing world and how they described poverty. The poor did not focus on their material need; rather, they alluded to social and psychological aspects of poverty. Analyzing the study, Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development said, “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.” (1)
The study highlights that, by nature, poverty is innately social and psychological. In an informal survey, our clients at HOPE International in Rwanda affirmed that poverty is more than a lack of material possessions. In 2011, a lead trainer of a savings program in Rwanda posed a question to a group of twenty individuals within a savings group, most of whom lived on less than $2 a day. “How do you define poverty?” he asked.(2) Listed below are their answers in the order provided:
- Poverty is an empty heart.
- Not knowing your abilities and strengths.
- Not being able to make progress.
- No hope or belief in yourself. Knowing you can’t take care of your family.
- Broken relationships.
- Not knowing God.
- Not having basic things to eat. Not having money.
- Poverty is a consequence of not sharing.
- Lack of good thoughts.
As can be seen from the above, money was mentioned only once. If poverty is not only a material deficit, but also not knowing one’s potential, abilities, and strengths—as well as having an empty heart—then traditional charity neglects to address the root causes of poverty. In Fadzai’s situation, receiving handouts did not enable her to recognize her abilities, maximize her potential, or believe her situation would ever change. When aid stopped, Fadzai said she hit the nadir of her life. Aid—a short-term solution—left her hopeless, despairing, and powerless in the long term. Suicidal, Fadzai felt unable to take care of her basic needs, while charity deepened her hopelessness.
The downward spiral of charity has been experienced by countless people eager to do good and serve the poor, but it is best described in Toxic Charity by author Bob Lupton. In this book, he details the negative cycle of giving related to traditional charity.
- Give once and you elicit appreciation;
- Give twice and you create anticipation;
- Give three times and you create expectation;
- Give four times and it becomes entitlement;
- Give five times and you establish dependency. (3)
Even when offered with compassion, traditional charity, which should be only a temporary fix, can often enslave individuals—becoming a poverty trap—if extended into the long term. Instead of focusing on the potential of those like Fadzai, charity cheats them of using their God-given abilities and talents. The church is beginning to recognize the pitfalls of traditional charity and rediscover an alternative way of helping.
Effective Versus Easy
Obedience to the biblical command to clothe the naked and to give food to the hungry is not easy. Requiring us to go beyond surface needs— the symptoms of poverty—an effective response demands a longer-term commitment. The starting point is to distinguish between aid and development. After a disaster, images of need flood airwaves. Donors rally together to provide an outpouring of support. Relief, a rapid provision of temporary resources to reduce immediate suffering, is required. Earthquakes, tsunamis, war, and natural disasters call for a full force and timely response.
Giles Bolton, a veteran African diplomat, described the difference between relief and development in Africa Doesn’t Matter: “In consumer language, [development] is a bit like making an investment rather than an immediate purchase . . . [It’s a] much better value if it works because it gives poor people control over their own lives and enables them better to withstand future humanitarian disasters without outside help.” (4) Development is a long-term investment; it’s not flashy.
Work as Vocation
Throughout history, the church has underappreciated the role of work; however, in Genesis the Creator gave the initial mandate to work. From the beginning of creation, God elevated the role of work. Before sin entered the world, “God took the Man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.” Work is a gift and a calling from God. Both the Old and New Testaments promote employment. One example is the emphasis on gleaning. At harvest, farmers were commanded not to “reap to the very edges of your field” so that the poor could gather the remainder (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Ruth 2). God provided for the poor in a manner in which they were active participants—not passive recipients—of charity.
In the New Testament, Paul wrote in his letter to the Thessalonians, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” Paul recognized that everyone capable of working should provide for themselves and their families. Likewise, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “Let those who are stealing, steal no longer, but rather let him work, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” In this situation, employment was the tool that helped turn even thieves into generous givers. Elevating the role of work is not only part of the church’s mandate, but dramatically transforms the global landscape from poverty to empowerment.
A New Model
According to the Brookings Institution, seventy million people—approximately the population of Turkey—are lifted out of poverty every year. (5) Between 1981 and 2005, the World Bank reported the number of people living in extreme poverty (or living on $1.25 or less per day) decreased from fifty-two percent to twenty-six percent. (6) In one generation, poverty has been cut in half, not through charity but through job creation. Economic heavyweights like China, India, and Brazil have fueled the reduction of poverty.
For too long, capitalism was treated as a bystander in poverty alleviation and human development. Rock stars and aid activists were calling for more charity and a greater response from the global community, but few were calling for investment in entrepreneurship and policies that promote economic development. “Our wrong, careless, romantic vision of the poor is that they’re being so exploited that they should just be left to retreat into self-sufficiency, you know, the organic, holistic peasant, uncontaminated by the dirty business of a market economy,” said Paul Collier, an author and economist at Oxford. “And of course that is just romantic nonsense.” (7) A “romantic vision” of the poor has often led to a broken system of aid.
Even the global aid community has begun to change its rhetoric. Consider Bob Geldof, the ringleader of Live Aid, who said that “Something must be done; anything must be done, whether it works or not.” Today he’s singing a different tune. Investing in Africa’s economy, the former aid advocate has established a $200 million private equity firm. “The next part of [Africa’s development] is jobs,” says Geldof. (8) From Geldof and Bono to Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, and economists like Paul Collier, there is a new model to alleviate global poverty: job creation. And the change already has influenced economies on a macro scale. According to World Bank, nations in Africa are on the verge of the same remarkable path toward wealth creation as China was thirty years ago. (9) From 2000-2011, trade between African nations and other countries grew 200 percent. (10) Through increased investment, African countries are being revitalized. According to the International Monetary Fund, on average the GDP of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa grew from five to seven percent in 2012. (11)
Investments have a huge role to play in the progress of Africa. According to The New Africa: Emerging Opportunities for Business and Africa, the impact of investments has already bypassed the effect of aid, generating 1.7 million jobs from 2003 to 2010. (12) Beyond investments, on a micro scale, financial tools, such as business training, savings, and small loans are empowering those like Fadzai to have a voice.
The Rest of the Story
Providentially, Fadzai was told to go to Central Baptist Church, Harare, for a very different form of assistance. Embracing its mission to care for the widow, the orphan, and the vulnerable, this church recognized that there are ways to help those in need beyond starting a soup kitchen. The members discovered a new approach to assisting Fadzai through the seemingly audacious belief that even impoverished people are capable of contributing to their own development. This approach was based on the belief that the greater gift they could give would be to equip Fadzai to provide for herself. Fadzai was open to a new opportunity and gathered with a group each week to participate in a training and savings program.
When she first heard about the program and the requirement that every week each member save some amount of money, she thought, “How do these people think I am going to get money for this?” Fadzai received business and biblical training as she gathered with eighteen other members. She understood grace and forgiveness through the gospel message. She was coached and mentored as she learned basic accounting. If she could not contribute the necessary savings for one particular week, another member covered for her. As this group started accumulating a greater amount of savings, they started making investments in each other’s businesses. Eventually, Fadzai was able to receive a small loan to purchase farming supplies, seeds, and equipment and to begin farming a small plot of land with other members. Believing she had skills and abilities, she began to dream about the future—seeing a pathway out of poverty. But Fadzai also realized that change is more than economic. “I was also taught to pray about everything,” she explained. In her case, God answered these prayers in ways she never thought possible. Miraculously, even Fadzai’s husband came back. Fadzai’s life is spiritually and materially different because a local church stopped simply pitying her. Willing to invest in her, the church saw what she had—and who she was in Christ—rather than what she lacked. Fadzai learned to forgive in relationships and now attends church regularly with her family. In her words, “For me, that’s a very big deal.” This hardworking mother, who used to be dependent on handouts, is now weekly earning a far greater amount of money than she ever received from charity. And this all occurred in less than a year’s time. Despite the pain of the past, the future looks bright for her. Thankfully, more and more organizations are working to create an alternative to the charity trap.
Around the World
These principles apply not only in Zimbabwe. As needs are addressed overseas or in downtown Chicago, providing a job is more beneficial than offering a handout. Recognition is growing in post-industrial nations that the welfare mentality has handicapped the poor. Instead of being a ladder out of poverty, charity puts the most vulnerable in bondage. Churches and faith communities increasingly aim to provide essential tools to equip a family to work its way out of poverty, which include business training and job preparedness, financial literacy, business mentoring, and access to capital. These tools are efficient not only globally through the microenterprise development movement, but also throughout the U.S. Consider the following example of how the faith community is helping the financially poor.
Though the West’s efforts through international aid have been well-intentioned, they have often done more harm than good. By focusing on what the poor lack, instead of what they have, the underlying message sent to the poor is this: you are incapable. When Fadzai walked through the door of Central Baptist Church in 2011, her head was hung low. She was skeptical when asked to save. Her dependency on aid, coupled with the injustice committed against her, rendered her feeling helpless. As she questioned her existence, her capacity, and her potential, she wondered—Do I have anything to give?
Today Fadzai stands tall. Under a tree outside Harare, a group of women gather. They sit huddled on blankets strewn across red-dirt ground as Fadzai walks among them, teaching. She leads the savings and loan process and also communicates through a curriculum how each one is made in the image of God. Like her, they have purpose. Fadzai’s story reflects a changing philosophy on poverty alleviation. From handouts to enterprise, the new paradigm focuses more on the dignity, creativity, and capacity of the poor, rather than their material deficit.
It is also a paradigm that is changing the economic landscape. Between 1981 and 2005, global poverty rates were cut in half, primarily through job creation. Even Africa, which The Economist called “the hopeless continent” ten years ago (10), is now seeing signs of economic growth through job creation and investment. Sustainable development through business is on the rise not only internationally but also domestically. Business training and mentoring, as well as access to capital, are universal principles empowering individuals through a hand up. It’s a paradigm giving opportunity, responsibility, and dignity to the poor. No longer do we look to presidents, nonprofit organizations, the World Bank, and the U.N. to address poverty. Rather, the leaders of this new movement are individuals like Fadzai—those who are creating jobs, providing for their families, and bringing hope to their communities.
Excerpts from the eBook ‘Stop Helping Us!’ by Peter Greer, reproduced by kind permission.
As President of HOPE International, Peter Greer is at the forefront of helping churches discover how to do charity both biblically and effectively. HOPE International is a global non-profit organization focused on alleviating both physical and spiritual poverty through Christ-centered microfinance.
The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics is a Christian research organization committed to promoting biblical and economic principles that help individuals find fulfillment in their work and contribute to a free and flourishing society. IFWE publishes a daily blog featuring a variety of contributors who advance Creativity, Purpose & Freedom, equipping readers with a Biblical theology of work and economics.
- Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 53.
- Chris Ordway, “Poverty is an Empty Heart,” Inside Microfinance: HOPE International Blog, October 10, 2011, http://blog.hopeinternational.org/2011/10/10/ poverty-is-an-empty-heart/.
- Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), 129-130.
- Giles Bolton, Africa Doesn’t Matter (New York: Arcade, 2008), 76.
- Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz, “A Stunning Reduction in Global Poverty Goes Unnoticed,” Real Clear World, July 8, 2011, http://www.realclearworld.com/articles/2011/07/08/unnoticed_a_stunning_reduction_in_global_poverty_99583-full.html, accessed Dec. 10, 2012.
- Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion, “The Developing World Is Poorer Than We Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight Against Poverty,” paper presented for the Development Research Group, World Bank, Washington, DC, August 26, 2008.
- “Paul Collier — Improving Aid with Smarter Compassion,” http://www.povertycure. org/voices/paul-collier/.
- Africa Rising,” Time Magazine, December 3, 2012,
- “Africa’s Future and the World Bank’s Role in It,” http://siteresources.worldbank.org/ INTAFRICA/Resources/Africa_s_Future_and_the_World_Bank_s_Role_in_it.pdf.
- “The sun shines bright: The continent’s impressive growth looks likely to continue,” The Economist, December 3, 2011.
- Sub-Saharan Africa: Maintaining Growth in an Uncertain World (Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, 2012), 2.
- The New Africa: Emerging Opportunities for Business and Africa (Business Action for Africa, 2011), 24.
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