Thursday, August 03, 2006

Generic Cheese Blocks

This piece from The Onion aimed at 'do gooders' in anti-poverty non-profits may strike a little too close to home for a few of us. Just wish they'd mentioned the steady diet of government issued generic cheese blocks. Mmmmmm, that's good eatin'

From time to time I wonder if mom and pop, grass roots non-profits can really make a dent in poverty. And that's from somebody trying to encourage as many new grass-roots approaches as possible.

The current anti-poverty non-profit I work with (and started a number of years back) began very small but now works around the world, so I've seen it from both sides. And some of my friends work in 'mom and pop' ventures in inner cities.

If widespread, systemic economic/social development al la Hernando de Soto is the only way to bring large numbers of people out of poverty, are the idealists working with mini 501c3's just fooling themselves?

Or maybe the grass roots folks have something figured out that the macro types don't get.


Blogger TPB said...

That was so HILARIOUS (and at the same time, painful) to read!

We are foolish idealists if we think that we can bring large numbers out of poverty through living incarnationally among the poor alone. Definitely has to be "incarnational" work on several different levels of society. We are hurting ourselves if we do not work for change at more than just the grass-roots level.

(Personally, I find schmoozing with upper-middle class elite in America as cross-cultural as working with non-English speaking urban poor in other countries.)

But the fact that the Onion even has a piece on this reminds me of the prophetic nature of this kind of work. It is through the witness of a radical and sacrificial lifestyle that can awaken our cold hearted world to the needs of the poor.

How much more did Gandhi say about injustice through his hunger strikes than all the preachers do every Sunday morning? Would Mother Teresa's ministry have the same impact if she drove an air-conditioned Lexus to pick up lepers in Kolkata?

1:48 PM  
Anonymous vonstroh said...

Yea, I've been thinking about this too. I think of course that both incarnational micro work as well as macro work are needed. And let's be honest, no matter how much economic development you pursue at a policy and even at a medium and large scale enterprise level, this will hardly touch the poor. I used to believe that all boats rise, but the truth is they don't. Because the problem for many of the poor is not economic, its relational. There is that systemic opression that affects them, sure. But more significantly, the poor in the slums of much of the world, particularly Asia, have been led to believe that this is just their lot in life and not to hope for anything better. All the economic development in the world won't change that fatalistic worldview. Only through relationship can we bring hope.

2:03 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Great points T and D. I think the grass roots workers and orgs make a big difference even if their work won't 'directly' lift millions out of poverty.

Gotta have a both/and approach.

Folks working up close on the grass roots level who can 1) be a prophetic presence to put the poor on the agenda of the church, business community, government, etc 2)advocate for changes that will mimimize systemic injustices 3) help challenge and hopefully change some of the self-destructive ideologies and cultural habits that keep folks trapped in poverty and 3) act as a kind of 'on the ground' R and D lab for new approaches to uplift.

And you've gotta have the macro level changes de Soto describes so powerfully: legal and cultural changes that give the poor better access to capital, widespread 'economic literacy' among the poor, etc.

10:52 AM  
Blogger anhomily said...

hey - nice to see you're back...
I thought our whole point was that Jesus-centered development isn't about a choice between advocacy or hands-on work, but an understanding that God effects systemic change through reproducing organically the hands-on work we may model within the community. Maybe there is an additional hands-on work within the upper-class society that thinks it is making policy decisions, but that won't actually effect the poor necessarily. It's the change within the community (just as it is change within the individual person) that brings lasting change. Even incredibly talented people who can operate in both arenas, like Paul Farmer in Haiti, who is a doctor and a teacher at Harvard Medical School, and major public policy advocate, hardly make a dent in the reality of the average Haitian's life. Without the spiritual element of being Christ-centred in the development it still doesn't lead anywhere.

11:25 AM  
Blogger jon said...

Isn't okay for some of us to just be "it mattered to that one" types? What if I was only able to make significant, life-changing, transformative impact on one family a year. Over the course I my life, wouldn't that be an amazing and significant work?

now, personally, I tend to try to be loud and agitate for large-scale change - put I think that it's the little personal stuff that God wants most from me.

Not that "significant work" should be how I am measuring my obidience to Christ in my life's service to Him. But I'm just saying, even by that measure...

p.s. - You're the third person in the last week I've heard give strong praise to de Soto.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Well said both anhomily and Jon. I agree.

Yeah, de Soto's great. I started reading him years ago. Actually, he was 'the' development economist for the Clinton Admin and the conservatives like him too. Jeff Sachs has sort of become the leading development economist de jur but de Soto built the foundation. Their thinking is complementary.

Take a look at his two seminal works , The Other Path (1989) and The Mystery of Capital (2000). If you absorb what he's saying, and then read Sach's The End of Poverty (2005) you're confidence in real economic change for the world's poor will jump way up. All three books are about hard nosed, practical market oriented approaches to change, and they both make very clear exactly what's blocking greater development from happening. Both economists are practical and very hopeful.

3:54 PM  
Blogger jon said...

Ha! Sachs book is the other one that has just been reccomended to me multiple times in the last week. I've heard his general outlook before, so I'm optimistic as well. But I definitely should get started on both books. It's cool that both sides of the spectrum like them.

1:07 AM  

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