Nigeria recently surpassed India to become the country with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty: 87 million. Nigeria is oil-rich and boasts Africa’s fastest growing economy. Yet six of its people fall into extreme poverty every minute.
This is the continent’s paradox: vast natural resources and mineral reserves alongside extreme poverty.
Historically, poverty has been predominantly dealt with as a lack of material resources or an income deprivation issue. Development work has focused on pushing resources to poor communities. Many have criticised the availability of “free money” through international aid, which they say has created a “dependency syndrome”, dishonest procurement and white elephant projects. Aid work has also been accused of fostering paternalism rather than partnership.
Without contextual knowledge, education and adaptation, foreign or imposed practices or resources cause new sets of problems. This is seen again and again across countries that depend on aid. For example, where food poverty was causing under-nutrition in parts of Malawi, financial aid has alleviated it. But that problem is quickly being replaced by diabetes and hypertension – because of a narrow financial solution to a complex problem.
We argue that tackling poverty requires a different focus, rather than just money. It requires partnerships and practices that promote learning, particularly in relation to cultural and self-knowledge. Having communities identify their own problems, then collaborate to find solutions, is also crucial. Money has a role to play in partnerships, but projects shouldn’t default to depending solely on it.
Many of the factors that are blamed for contributing to poverty are not measurable in dollar terms or connected to income. These include people’s lack of choices, restriction of freedom, lack of skills, gender castes and barriers.
Understanding these issues and their complexities require looking at poverty through a sustainability lens. This is a perspective that focuses on ethical and innovative ways to look at and use resources, share knowledge, and build a community to affect positive change.
Our work with the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network has shown the importance of this lens. We’re an interdisciplinary collective of researchers, educators, and communities of practice that aims to build understanding, research, and practice in socio-ecological sustainability (which recognizes the interconnection between social and ecological systems) in Africa.
We work from the understanding that because poverty is multifaceted, solutions to alleviate it must be multifaceted, too.
A number of the community projects we work with are engaged in poverty reduction practices but don’t focus solely on generating income. These projects are driven by communities on their own with existing resources; they rely on their own abilities and efforts that are not externally funded.
One example is ECOaction, which works in a slum community on the outskirts of Kampala in Uganda. Residents largely rely on collecting and selling discarded plastic bottles collected from across the city for small amounts of money.
With no resource other than time and vision, residents have built a community hall from recycled water bottles and an urban garden that grows food for residents and a chicken farm. Colorful murals and sculpture can be found around every corner.
In Botswana, the Sustainable Futures in Africa team is working with a community in Mmadinare to develop a project that will protect their farmland from wild elephants. This will not rely on or generate, external funding. But it will protect the farmers’ and the wild animals’ interests.
There are other ways to build strong sustainable communities without external financial resources. In Taba Padang, a village in Indonesia, sustainable community forestry is helping improve human well-being. There’s also Boomu African Village in Uganda, where a women’s group participates in eco-tourism and invests back into the community. They have built a nursery school and trained other residents in their village to get involved in eco-tourism.
Other self-reliance projects centre on health. For example in Lesotho, volunteers participate in community home-based health care and fill the gap in the community health care chain.
A new lens
There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all solution that will end poverty. But aid in the form of donated money, from one place to another, is culturally, practically, and ethically problematic.
Money is not the currency of well-being, sustainability, and community cohesion. More often, it’s a tool for influence and power dynamics that will favor the creditor. That’s why partnerships that rely on different types of resources and bring people together to design and act on context-relevant solutions can be such powerful drivers of change. That’s why for resource-rich Africa, promoting self-reliance would be key to eliminating poverty.
This article was co-authored by Dr. Deepa Pullanikkatil, who recently completed a residency at the University of Glasgow funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, UK. She is the co-founder of Abundance (www.abundanceworldwide.org).
Gene Marks has rocketed to the top of the notoriety heap with his recent Forbes.com article, “If I Were a Poor Black Kid,” in which he attempts to offer bootstrap advice to young inner-city minorities. “I would read a lot of books,” and so on. One of my favorites is “I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in school.” Though Mr. Marks appears somewhat clueless and almost refreshingly naïve in his piece — and apparently so controversial that one of Forbes’ own staff writers has questioned Marks’ journalistic motives — I appreciate the fact that he has, however awkwardly, started a conversation about an important issue in today’s society. No, not the disenfranchisement of America’s underclass, or even the gaps in technological access and opportunity inherent in today’s educational system. No, the issue to which I refer is the rampant underachievement of Rich White Men.
Rich White Men are failing left and right to realize the promise of the opportunities that are afforded them in today’s world. Why should they have to suffer? Sure, it will take some hard work and a little luck, but there is no reason why Mr. Marks and his friends can’t reach their full potential one day.
If I were a Rich White Man, I’d start by making sure I got into a good college. I’d prefer Harvard, of course, but I’d settle for Yale. I suppose it would depend on where others in my family had attended. I’m sure it’s totally based on merit, but if my father had graduated Yale, I think I can make a pretty good case of why I should be a Yalie. While in college I wouldn’t spend too much of my energy and time studying, I would instead concentrate on making the right connections and laying the proper groundwork for my future endeavors. After all, it’s often not what you know but who you know.
I would use those connections to avoid the pitfalls and roadblocks that could easily derail me. Is an unpopular war going on? I would by all means necessary avoid the actual battleground and would prefer to serve my country by joining the National Guard. I would be sure to take lots of pictures while in uniform, as these will definitely come in handy in the future. I’d make every effort to become a pilot, because people tend to view pilots as heroic and smart. I’d also technically be able to say that I was a pilot during the war, even though the closest I’d ever been to the actual war would have been a postcard. Actual warfare is for poor people anyway.
I would get involved with the business world as much as I could. I would find some money somewhere (perhaps some small inheritance from a distant relative) and buy an oil field, or maybe a sports team. It’s not important that these businesses succeed, only that I establish myself as someone who is good at “making things happen.” I’d use my influential friends to help me run for some political office — maybe senator or governor. Who knows? Perhaps I’d even try for the White House.
As a C.E.O., I’d take advantage of all the generous tax breaks offered to me to keep my company from relocating to another town or state or country. After all, the jobs I’d provide will be essential to the economy, so the government will owe me at least that much. I’d also be sensitive to the needs of my stockholders, since they are people too. If restructuring my workforce becomes necessary in order to enhance the return on their investment, I’d put my own self-interest aside and act on their concerns. And during times of economic downturn, like we’re facing now, I’d even be willing to sacrifice a few million from my $10 million annual bonus.
At age 55, I’d retire to my ranch, secure in the knowledge that I’ve fulfilled the promise of the opportunities afforded to me, and that the blame for any mistakes I may have made will be left with my successor. “Passing the buck” is, after all, one of the more important strategies in the Rich White Man arsenal.
So that’s what I’d do if I were a Rich White Man. I’m kind of at a loss to explain why ALL Rich White Men are not attempting to go down this path. To quote Mr. Marks, “the opportunity is still there in this country for those who are smart enough to go for it.” Maybe they’re just lazy.
SEIZING THE NATIONAL MOMENT: Thousands marched to NYC's Times Square last month in support of Occupy Wall Street movement. (Photo by Mata Edgar/Newscom)
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On a cold Monday morning, I ran across the foregoing quote at Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a scene. The general assembly regularly convenes forums, teach-in sessions, and conversations on topics like economic theory and social movements.
The emergence of Occupy Wall Street, along with the continued thrust of the Tea Party, signifies an intensity of citizen engagement that many Americans have not seen in decades. These civic currents also illustrate that some things — tax policy, the distribution of economic productivity, and the expenditures of government among them — are worth debating and dramatizing in public.
More ominously, the vigorous extraparliamentary movement from the left and the right is a populist indictment of our legislative branch — an indicator that many citizens are incensed about the inefficient impasse of lawmaking in Washington. I found it striking to witness a group of people bearing the elements night and day to make a political point. Occupy Wall Street, to be sure, is an act of political theater, but it is also a display of asceticism in the service of communicating a point of view.
Regardless of our socioeconomic views, Occupy Wall Street invites us to express our convictions more consistently, and when deemed appropriate to do so sacrificially. Very little mention of sacrifice and struggle occurs in our churches. In the words of Martin Luther, many of our pulpits have exchanged a theology of the cross for a theology of glory, a strange pattern of speech that rarely mentions disease, death, and despair.
When is the last time your church spoke about something penultimate that mattered? Churches can and should speak of ultimate matters — life and death, sin, and salvation, creation and consummation. But what of penultimate things? Shouldn’t churches offer words of wisdom and love here as well — “on earth as in heaven”?
The life of the church may not end when we are silent about things that matter, but it is certainly impoverished. There is, of course, a time to be silent. But, as even the most casual Bible reader knows, there is also a time to speak.
The latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau about poverty are heartbreaking. How is it possible that, in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, 1 out of 6 people are living below the poverty line? Many of us will never have to know what it feels like to be poor (thank God). But when so many people in our cities and neighborhoods are in the grips of poverty (especially blacks, Latinos, and children), we need to pay attention and take it personally.
I remember being in a tight financial situation in college. I was a sophomore renting a room from a family in my church. I grew up poor and was the first in my family to go to college. Fortunately, the family I lived with during my freshman year shared my precarious situation with their friends before they moved. They knew that my chances of finishing college were slim without additional help. I was always struggling to work, carry a full class load, and eat. One anonymous person made a deep impression on me through her unexpected generosity. Every few weeks, I would randomly receive a check from this person with a note that said, “God told me to send this to you.” The checks usually came when I was at my lowest point. When they came, I cried out of sheer joy and relief. Years later when I inquired about my anonymous benefactor, I discovered that she was a single, middle-aged woman living on a fixed income. At first I felt guilty — this woman who had very little sacrificed to support someone she didn’t even know — but then I felt a sense of awe. This woman gave out of her scarcity in a way that challenged my ideas about wealth, prosperity, and poverty. Ever since, I have followed her example in helping others.
As I have matured in my understanding of the Bible, I have noticed that God rarely extols a person simply because of his or her wealth. For wealth to be meaningful, wisdom has to be nearby. If not, we can end up like many celebrities and lottery winners: miserable. Solomon demonstrated this when God gave him a choice between wisdom and riches. He chose wisdom, but God blessed him with both. And his later life is a cautionary tale on the connection between wealth and pride. Godly wisdom is the sure sign of God’s blessings. We have it backward, which is why we forget that God can give His wisdom to anyone — even those we consider poor.
God’s Concern for the Poor
According to the new census report, 46.2 million Americans are now living in poverty, the largest on record dating back to 1959 when the census began tracking poverty. This has considerable political implications considering the uptick in the unemployment rate and the debt ceiling legislation that just passed.
Defining poverty is not an exact science. For instance, by current standards, a white family of six would be considered poor even though they may make $50,000 a year combined, own their home, and live frugally. Yet the face of poverty in the U.S. media is usually a black single mother with children. Politics and election cycles often decide how the media will see poverty.
In his book Just Generosity, theologian Ron Sider makes it clear that there is room in God’s economy for the less fortunate. He points us to the Old Testament, where Yahweh charges the Israelites to remember where they came from and care for those who need help within their community. Once they settled in Canaan, the concept of gleaning (leaving leftover crops for the poor) in Leviticus 19:9-10 and the Year of Canceling Debts in Deuteronomy 15: 1-6 applied to everyone. Jesus said he came to preach the good news to the poor. There are many other scriptures that support God’s concern as well.
The Widow’s Example
The crazy thing about wealth is that as we accumulate more of it, we typically find ourselves becoming ever more desperate to preserve it. We may not even be greedy or materialistic people. But the natural instinct is to get as much as we can, and then hold on to it. This is one reason why people with great wealth are rarely as happy as you’d expect.
One of the best antidotes to spiritual discontent is giving. And, paradoxically, it’s often those with the least who give the most. According to a variety of recent studies, lower-income Americans are the most charitable persons in our country. But our media would have us believe that the most generous people are the wealthy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful when a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg donates millions to education or a third-world country. But I’m even more encouraged by my high school students who took up a collection to help a classmate’s family with funeral expenses. Most of them come from impoverished communities. This is one reason why the story of the widow’s offering in Luke 21:1-4 should have relevance for us: the widow sacrifices exorbitantly while the rich hoard their wealth.
Those who don’t have a lot have recognized the simple wisdom that God loves a cheerful giver and that He truly provides. The anonymous woman who helped me get through college believed this. And today’s Christians, along with our current crop of politicians, should work harder to remember this as well.
In part two of this post, I’ll share some ways that we can learn from those who are living in poverty. Please stay tuned, and share your thoughts about poverty, wealth, and generosity in the comments section below.