Solving Poverty Is Rocket Science

Solving Poverty Is Rocket Science
Richard Stearns
Christians are among America’s most compassionate people. But we can do a better job responding to the complexity of poverty.

ost of us at one time or another have thrown a dollar bill into the cup of a homeless man standing on a street corner. We do it because we want to help even though we know that our dollar won’t really solve a problem that has much deeper causes. He’ll be on the street again tomorrow because we’ve just treated a symptom of his condition without really addressing the cause.

As president of World Vision, I see Christians taking a similar approach to helping the poor internationally. Out of obedience to Christ, churches rightly want to respond to the desperate needs of the billions who suffer in poverty around the world and so they often reach out by feeding the hungry, caring for orphans, sending medical teams or shipping in various supplies. And these things do help to relieve suffering, but at the end of the day the poor are still poor. It’s not much different than handing that dollar to the homeless man.

American Christians are astounding in their generosity. Tens of thousands of churches pour resources into feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and building houses and orphanages. Hundreds of thousands trek to Africa, Asia, and Latin America each year on short-term mission trips desiring to offer their help.

But here’s the problem: Poverty, whether here in America or abroad, is one of the oldest and most complex problems plaguing the human race. It is tangled in social, cultural, economic, political, ethnic, geographic, and spiritual factors that challenge even the most skilled experts. Simple solutions just don’t work, and well-meaning amateurs can not only waste valuable resources but even cause unintended harm in their efforts.

The complex puzzle of poverty

We are right to help, but we also need to help in the right way. In the complex system of poverty, well meaning efforts can have unforeseen and unintended consequences in another area. Here’s a hypothetical example. Let’s say that a church here in America decided to partner with a sister church from its same denomination in Zambia. Looking to encourage its members toward missions and to respond to their needs, the senior pastor arranged for a short-term missions trip to the church in Zambia, where they helped build a school.

Over the following year the church planned a bigger project to help address the grinding poverty their brothers and sisters in Zambia faced every day. They began shipping bags of grains and beans to the Zambian church to distribute to the hungry and fundraised for a new health clinic to treat children in the area.

These actions seemed to be quite positive until problems started to arise. The rice and beans, sent regularly from the U.S. church, drove down the prices of those items in the local markets. That caused area food production to drop because farmers, who were already struggling, could no longer afford seeds and tools needed to farm their land.

The clinic also ran into trouble. During construction, the local government learned about it and decided to cancel a clinic they had planned for the area. The church mobilized doctors and nurses from the U.S. to staff the clinic, but the costs of finding and transporting these volunteer staff meant that the new clinic could only be open sporadically. When U.S. doctors were there, people were treated for malaria, dysentery, and other diseases, but the rate of new infections stayed the same because causes had not been addressed.

Despite these challenges, more people flocked to the little church in Zambia to take advantage of the food and health programs. It grew quickly, but that growth provoked resentment. The village chief, who attended a different church in the village, resented its sudden popularity. So now the community had become divided denominationally and politically.

Finally, during a subsequent visit, one of the American visitors noticed the Zambian pastor doing suspiciously better financially. A new motorbike, a new house, and finer clothes appeared to confirm rumors that the pastor was taking some of the money the church had sent to maintain the clinic.

I often say that the complex task of helping communities is, in fact, like rocket science. We easily underestimate the intricate complexity of the puzzle of poverty—culturally, politically, socially and economically, even in a small community. The American church had intended to do good, but their initiatives had damaging and unintended consequences. Effectively addressing poverty requires cultural understanding, technical expertise, and a great deal of perseverance. It takes wisdom and experience to recognize the difference between the symptoms of poverty and its causes. The simplistic solutions brought by the well meaning church had only managed to put short term Band-Aids on problems that had much deeper causes.

In this hypothetical example, giving food to a church treated a symptom—hunger —while actually exacerbating the underlying problems of poor farming methods, and access to markets. The constant illnesses were largely due to the contaminated water supply and inadequate sanitation and hygiene. The clinic would have been more sustainable had the community petitioned its own government to provide one, or at least to provide local health workers to staff it. Involving leaders from across the community instead of from just one church might have avoided the divisiveness that erupted.

A more complete solution to this community’s problems would have likely required addressing the water and sanitation issues, improving agricultural methods and irrigation systems, economic development initiatives, facilitating access to markets for farmers, youth leadership development training, safe childbirth courses and AIDS and malaria prevention to name just a few of the puzzle pieces needed for this community to truly begin to overcome its poverty. Addressing all these issues simultaneously takes most American congregations way beyond their current capabilities.


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