pre⋅ténse

I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Category: Development

When Helping Hurts

I decided to read When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, because it had been recommended by several evangelical sources. The praise for the book has been lavish… but then again, it was for Walking with the Poor by Bryant Meyers as well, and as my previous reviews indicate, I was pretty thoroughly displeased with it. I approached When Helping Hurts, then, with both hopes and fears. I am pleased, though, to be able to write a positive review of it.

Since I’ve drawn a comparison between When Helping Hurts and Walking with the Poor already, it’s necessary to point out that these are very different books. When Helping Hurts is written for laypeople and churches. The assumption is that the audience will want to do something about poverty, and in fact that they are trying to do something about poverty already; the focus of the book is to tell them how to engage productively. Walking with the Poor, on the other hand, is oriented rather to the development professional (or the serious layperson), who is perhaps looking for a spiritual grounding for her professional work, or perhaps a way to integrate her religious beliefs into her project activities. Walking with the Poor presupposes development as an activity, and indeed the existence of the entire development industry (semi-pejorative use of “industry” there, on my part). When Helping Hurts presupposes the local church. I suspect that that difference in sequence goes a long way to explaining why I found When Helping Hurts so much more valuable.

Corbett & Fikkert actually adopt Myers’s definition of poverty, which is that poverty is a condition caused by a breakdown of relationships: between God and the individual, between the individual and self, between the individual and the community, and between the individual and creation. (This goes a bit further back than Myers of course, but they credit him.) So basically, poverty is the result of the Fall. We’re on solid Christian ground here.

The books diverge, however, in their definitions of poverty alleviation—in fact, the two definitions, because the authors quite rightly distinguish between poverty alleviation in general and material poverty alleviation. This is an excellent start, since as I noted in my first review of Walking with the Poor, assuming the idea of “poverty” and then trying to shoehorn “spiritual poverty” into the definition is a sloppy and offensive way to talk about people who have less money than we do. Here is how Corbett & Fikkert define poverty alleviation:

POVERTY ALLEVIATION: Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.

Reconciliation of relationships is the guiding compass for our poverty-alleviation efforts, profoundly shaping both the goals that we pursue and the methods we use. The goal is not to make the materially poor all over the world into middle-to-upper-class North Americans, a group characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness. Nor is the goal to make sure that the materially poor have enough money. …. Rather, the goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be, people who glorify God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. One of the many manifestations of these relationships being reconciled is material poverty alleviation[.]

So then, basically the whole Christian enterprise is oriented toward poverty alleviation. We have all manner of fractured relationships as a result of the Fall, and the whole ministry of reconciliation is oriented at restoring those. That is a very broad definition, of course, and this is a book about the poor, so of course the authors are going to get more specific.

MATERIAL POVERTY ALLEVIATION: Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.

So, we get the contrast between the general spiritual poverty that affects all of us, and the specific circumstances that prevent people for providing for themselves and their families. The authors unpack this a little:

There are two key things to note in this definition. First, material poverty alleviation involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to being what God created them to be. (Of course, we recognize that this is impossible for some people because of disability or other factors.) Second, work is an act of worship. When people seek to fulfill their callings by glorifying God in their work, praising Him for their gifts and abilities, and seeing both their efforts and its products as an offering to Him, then work is an act of worship to God. On the other hand, when work is done to glorify oneself or merely to achieve more wealth, it becomes worship of false gods. How we work and for whom we work really matters.

(I’m reading from a Kindle, but the Kindle tells me that all of these quotations are from page 74.)

I am so pleased with these definitions, which (to my thinking) correct so much of the wrong-headedness of Walking with the Poor, that I could really almost stop there. A few other comments, however.

I appreciate that Corbett & Fikkert devote equal space to overseas poverty and poverty in North America. These seem like guys who are genuinely engaged where they are. There is also a certain arrogance in development work, in which it is sort of implied that Westerners (or people funded by them) know how to fix poverty. Keeping one eye firmly on the poverty in our own cities, and now in our suburbs, provides a measure of humility. (A friend told me about an American NGO that was working for prison reform in this country. “Wow, that’s bold,” I said. American prisons are notoriously bad.)

Along those same lines, I think the authors graciously address the relationship between poverty and racism in the United States, which is an unentangleable mess of structural inequality, unfortunate personal decisions, happenstance, and history.

Evangelicals are certainly correct that the Bible never allows one’s circumstances to be an excuse for one’s sin. Yes Alisa [previously introduced as a prototypical inner city poor woman] sinned by having extramarital sex, and this was a major contributor to her poverty. But many people commit the same sin without plunging into decades of poverty. Why? Part of the answer is that for a variety of historic and contemporary reasons, ghetto residents are embedded in systems that are distinctly different from that of mainstream society. Some of these systems are of their own making, but many of them are not.

That is a pretty good paragraph. I can’t think of a lot of people who avoid of Scylla of equating wealth with virtue and poverty with vice, and the Charybdis of attributing everything to society, effectively denying the moral agency of people at lower socioeconomic levels.

The authors have some concrete suggestions, none of which is revolutionary, but which consistently reflect a concern to respect people’s dignity, and to deal sensitively with power disparities. For overseas work, the recommendation is basically to partner with agencies with a proven track record of helping, and to be very cautious about short-term trips. For local work, the recommendation is for more personally costly involvement with poor people who come for help. These are tall orders for the evangelical church, as I perceive it today, but I hope that the book will have its intended effect on its readers.

Refugee/Migrant

I’ve spent a long time wondering about thee European refugee/migrant situation. Part of my interest is that I live in one of the top-ten contributing countries. I don’t know any young man here who wouldn’t be happy to go to West, and I can’t imagine a family that wouldn’t love to have a wage-earner living in the West. Ten years ago a study here showed that about a quarter of the economy was cash remittances: money sent back into the country by people living abroad. Conversely, the fighting that is going on here is localized, and always transitory. Villages might conceivably empty for as much as a few months, but there is no, e.g., emptying of the countryside in a way that is visible in the cities. If there are mass migrations of people in this country, I have never seen evidence of it.

Based on these numbers from the UNHCR, we have 69% men, 13% women, and 18% children. Glancing down the top-10 list of countries, I feel confident in predicting that the refugee women are typically not traveling alone. My guess is that the women and children are typically accompanied by men. If that is the case, then we can estimate 56% of the men are traveling alone. (These are estimates; I would love to have data disaggregated by age, marital status, and country of origin. My prediction would be that, aside from the Syrians, the refugees are healthy young men looking for employment.) So, from some cultural experience and these numbers, I feel that we are looking at a mass economic migration. That is, these people have not given up on their security situation; they’ve given up on their economic situation.

I don’t blame them at all. I’ve lived in the developing world for about six years, and I see very little reason for optimism, for most people. I don’t doubt that national GDPs will increase, but as is strikingly obvious from visiting a country like India, for example, that even very highly developed economies can leave large swathes of the population behind. Certainly my experience in this country—and I suspect this is typical—is that employment is generally available only through kinship or patronage. One does not simply move to the city to work in a factory, and get ahead that way.

These economic and social realities create interesting effects, such as the one noted in this blog post (backup up by a proper peer-reviewed research article): “The vast majority of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so by leaving the country.” This implies that the economic problems lie not, for the most part, with Haitians, but with Haiti. That is, the basic problem seems to be that these people are stuck in bad situations. Take them out of the bad situation, and their lives get better. (This is even a problem at the cultural level: most immigrants don’t change their cultural beliefs and practices, or even their language, in the first generation. It’s a matter of being in a specifically bad situation. One thinks of being in a poorly-built house: there is a point at which you just have to give up and start over.)

So what is the difference between a refugee and a migrant? This foundational UNHCR document defines a refugee as a person who,

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Of course “fear” is not defined, but there are entire ethnic groups that are persecuted (to one degree or another). There are entire ethnic groups for whom it would be putting it mildly to say that they are unable to avail themselves of the protection of their government. There are moreover millions of people whose economic prospects, viewed from a Western perspective, are a nightmare. That is real. I know plenty of people who meet this definition.

Given these facts, and the interpretation I’ve put on them, it would be easy to say: well, we can’t employ them all, so let’s turn them all away. But I think that there are positive things to be done. One thing would be to call a spade a spade, and acknowledge that for many people, this is an economic crisis. It’s not a coincidence that they’re trying to get to Germany, for instance, and not to some nearer country. I think that a positive government response would be to open the borders in a responsible way: to allow migration for economic purposes. We could assign temporary visas based on a lottery system, and let people make their own travel arrangements. A separate track can remain open for people who want to come with their families as well. But there could be a humane system to allow menial laborers to come in to the country to earn money. (And it’s not as if this is some new idea: countries such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates rely on immigrant labor.) This could also allow for protection of worker rights, which can deal a blow to human trafficking. And—not that these are people I am typically interested in mollifying—I think it would take away some oxygen from the newly-revitalized right-wing parties: it’s easy to work oneself into a frenzy over utopian policies; it’s much harder to do it over sane ones.

The big picture problem, as I see is it, is a global imbalance of aspirations and means. Media gives aspirations of wealth to all people of the world: from the richest to the poorest. Big house, fancy car, beautiful wife, successful children. In a country like the United States, you can buy into that and run the rat race—not that I recommend it, but the option is there. In most countries of the world, that option is not there. I believe that frustrated ambition is the driving force behind most of the particularly realizations of sin in the world today: religious extremism, mob violence, violence against women, and so forth. If we close off our borders, it’s like clogging a pressure cooker. If we adopt sensible policies in regard to economic migration, we can let out some of the steam.

More on Walking with the poor

A previous blog post critiqued some of the ideas found in, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, by Bryant L. Myers. At that point I had read about two-thirds of the book. Now I have finished reading it, and I have found some new things to talk about.

Before that, there are three things worth correcting from my previous post:

  1. My emphasis on ideas did not communicate much respect to Myers himself. So at the risk of an inelegant correction: He is clearly a person committed to living out the gospel, and to helping poor people. He has four decades more experience than I do in caring about and working among the poor. His organizational experience alone makes him a treasure. And, so far as these things can be judged, he is a much nicer person than I am, at least, and I am sure he stands out as a compassionate and respectful person even in a field crowded with compassionate and respectful people.

  2. I hope it will not be taken as backhanded if I express my certainty that Myers is better than his ideas. I think the man himself in all likelihood achieves a level of integration that has not come through in the book.

  3. My definition of poverty ought to include reference to capital as well as employment. In my American context and my overseas context, employment income has always seemed determinative of economic success. In other places (perhaps especially thriving agricultural societies), inherited capital will be more important. Individuals also benefit from their parents’ ability to transfer wealth through education.

In my previous review I largely snagged on chapters 4, 5, and 6, which addressed the nature of poverty and what can be done about it. I have had no reason to repent of the issues I raised there. I think it is intellectually unprofitable and discriminatory to single the poor out for diagnosis of spiritual problems.

The remaining chapters of the book deal with development practice. Myers continues to review the models and best practices of the development world (assessment, planning, implementation, planning). These chapters basically review the best practices in secular development work. Then whenever a model has four dimensions for a particular problem or solution, Myers dutifully inserts “spiritual” as a fifth dimension. The disappointing thing in this discussion is that the “spiritual” never leads to practically different activities. Yes, there are references to how aid workers should pray and fast. (But then all Christians should, and I’m reading a book about development…) There are still references to ideas like caste and karma as “spiritual” constraints on development. (But then all sorts of people have all sorts of incorrect ideas, and what does it matter if these particular ideas are propagated by a religion?) I continue to see little genuine synthesis between the secular and the spiritual.

Now in spite of that, there is a lot of positive exhortation in these chapters: for development practitioners to be humble learners, for instance. There are cautions against pride and arrogance. Myers praises poor people for their resilience in surviving their circumstances. This is entirely commendable, and it modulates my earlier criticism of singling poor people out as spiritually needy: elsewhere Myers says many positive things about poor people as well. It’s not that the book is shot through with condescension, but rather that some of the many ideas that Myers presents are basically condescending.

Chapter 10 is titled, “Christian witness and transformational development.” I read this chapter eagerly, because a few tensions had been building up in the book. First, Myers makes several full-throated endorsements of proclaiming the gospel throughout the book. Second, many of his examples come from places like India, where proselytizing is illegal. Third, World Vision receives 17% of its funding from government grants, and it goes without saying that the federal government is uninterested in funding Christian proclamation.

As the second and third items might lead us to expect, Myer’s position is basically that Christian development practitioners do their jobs well, live their lives “eloquently,” and that this will lead people to ask questions about faith, which will provide occasions to share the gospel in a way that pressures nobody. He quotes Dorothy Day, who exhorts us to “live a life so mysterious that the only adequate explanation is the presence of a living, loving God.”

That’s a beautiful thought. It’s not how things worked out for Jesus. He did every miracle possible under the sun, and was for the most part was misunderstood. The idea that I could live such a publicly holy life that others would flock to my religion without my saying anything… well, it’s attractive to certain elements of my psyche. In practice, I think my life mostly communicates that Jesus loves even despicably pretentious, prickly linguists.

The critical issue, however, is that deeds can be misunderstood. And in fact Myers himself acknowledges that deeds are always ambiguous. He cites the case of Paul and Barnabas being mistaken for gods in Acts 14, and examples of present-day hydrologists being understood to be witch doctors. This is the most frustrating aspect of the book: Myers acknowledges everything, without taking the trouble to incorporate it into anything. You think, “Well, he did think of that objection,” and then you think, “He’s just completely undercut the point he was making, and he’s not acknowledging it.” In this case in particular, how can we possibly believe that good deeds in themselves constitute a witness to the gospel, when there are so many possible interpretations of those deeds?

Myers is not only happy to leave it at “living eloquently,” but in fact has harsh words for development practitioners who talk about Jesus with words. On what grounds? That it’s not what Jesus did? That it’s not what the apostles did? That it’s not effective? No. The fundamental problem is that telling people about Jesus is incompatible with community-driven development methodologies:

If done sensitively and without arrogance, the “go and tell” frame for Christian witness may be appropriate for a church or traditional mission agency, but it is not a good fit for a development agency for the simple reason that it is anti-developmental. It cuts across the idea that the community is the owner of its own development. It works against the notion of beginning where the community is and helping it find answers to its own questions. The initiative is with the outsider; the position of power and control is external. Since we don’t do “go and tell” development, we should do what we can to avoid “go and tell” evangelism.

When I read that paragraph, my mind skipped back a few chapters. Myers had reviewed several development approaches, including the Positive Deviance approach, which focuses on identifying the positive behaviors of community members who are able to mitigate the effects of poverty (i.e., people who are positive outliers). Myers is very positive about this approach generally, but closes with a qualification:

Finally, PD [Positive Deviance] is not suitable for every development situation. Protecting children against polio only comes through use of the Salk vaccine, for example; there is no local solution awaiting discovery.

This, for me, is where the book finally falls apart. In religious matters, the bottom-up communication approach cannot be sacrificed for the sake of proclaiming the gospel. But when it’s something like polio, when the real solution is the Salk vaccine, then we put our development principles on hold and just tell people about the damned vaccine.

(I suppose I was prompted to make that connection by my memory of a priest who, in the middle of his homily, pointed to the eucharistic elements and said, “That is the cure for Death.” Even for a Protestant like me with a rather lower eucharistic theology, that was an arresting thought. I do believe that the Gospel is the cure for Death.)

The irony here is that Myers critiques the modern intellectual milieu in every other paragraph of his book. Everything is about avoiding the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material. But when the rubber meets the road, we just need to tell people about the cure for polio and give it to them. Somehow, the cure for death is less of an imperative.

***

Where does this leave me? Frankly, not enthusiastic about finding an intellectual synthesis of Christian witness and development work. But actually this doesn’t bother me much. I don’t have a grand intellectual synthesis of my own profession as a linguist and my Christian faith. The synthesis is personal. The divine and the human met, not in a theory, but in a Person: Jesus Christ. I’m probably not going to do better than to unite my Christian faith and my vocation in myself.

There is an obvious moral dimension to development work. Assistance must be given in a way that is impartial, without causing more harm than good, with responsible adoption of best practices, and so forth. I expect every development worker to do those things. Christian development workers should do them because they do all things “as unto the Lord.” Christians in all vocations should execute their duties with due diligence, “as unto the Lord.”

When I contribute to development efforts, I don’t really need to know whether a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim or a Buddhist or an atheist is delivering the aid. Jesus instructed us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is plenty of motivation for me to fund development work, as long as I have a reasonable expectation of its being conducted responsibly.

We have a certain amount of money that we continually relend to people through Kiva. (Micro-credit, while not perfect, is development a practice that I believe to be consistent with human dignity.) We happen to loan mostly to Tajiks, through a couple of NGOs that I assume are either secular or Islamic; the recipients similarly must be either secular or Islamic. I would be very happy for those people to know why I give, but that doesn’t need to be a precondition for my giving. Moreover, the fact of my giving is a reflection of my Christian faith, but is not a proclamation of it, and does not constitute an invitation to it. Were it only that simple!


Aside from the points which I raised above, there were a number of passages in the book that invite replies. The first shows that Myers is aware of the tensions (not to say contradictions) between the various ideas he is discussing.

One of the frontiers in transformational development done by Christians is going to be figuring out how to do responsible transforming development that takes seriously the worldview of people whose worldview is largely religious without (1) validating expressions of the local culture that are anti-life, (2) ignoring the benefits of modern science, or (3) surrendering the tenets and the power of our Christian faith.

This came up particularly in the context of interpreting our work as religious, even when we’re really just applying modern technology to a problem. I applaud his effort to find a synthesis. I don’t think anyone is going to do better than to recognize technology as part of common grace.

Ultimately the church is of value to the poor only if it tells them the truth that allows them to become less poor. The church has good news when it contributes to relationships being healed and to the emergence of truth, justice, peace, and righteousness.

I have to assume that there is some way to read this in which it doesn’t mean what this seems to mean. If a church is proclaiming the gospel of God, but without addressing physical needs, then that is a deficient church (cf. James). I would nevertheless venture to suggest that the gospel is “of value” even to people who die poor!

Part of the religion/modernity discussion involved reporting a community evaluation about who got credit for the success of an immunization campaign. The nature of the exercise is that people give their opinions by voting with seeds, a “Ten Seeds” exercise. This is how Figure 9-11 reports the results of one such exercise.

Who gets the credit for positive change? Development worker (2 seeds); Agency and its money (3 seeds); Effective technology (3 seeds); God of the Bible (0 seeds); Local gods (2 seeds)

Myers’s point in presenting the results was to show that, in this case, the God of the Bible got no credit for the immunization campaign. I would ask a different question. Why is there no option to give credit to, “Parents of children who took the responsible decision to adopt health practices that are uncontroversial throughout the developed and undeveloped world”? Because that is actually how those children got vaccinated. The parents made a decision to adopt technology responsibility.

And another bit on evangelism. I will preface this one by saying that I have known obnoxious evangelists in my day, but none of which have compelled me to commit such a critique to print:

Finally, the greatest danger to wrong-headed thinking about evangelism is that we will use evangelism as a way to play god in the lives of other people, believing we know the state of their soul, when they need to say yes to God, or that we know something about their future that they do not.

Dear reader, it is true that I don’t know the state of your soul. But I do know that you need to say yes to God right now. And I know something relevant to your future, which you may not know, namely that Jesus Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

Walking with the Poor: When you try to be holistic and end up just being offensive

I am about two-thirds of the way through Bryant L. Myers’s Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Myers is a long-time World Vision employee: a founding member in the 1970s, and an executive in the organization from the early 1980s until he took a professorship at Fuller Theological Seminary a few years ago. He is therefore a central figure in the evangelical Christian expression of aid work. This book is a synthesis of Myers’s own theology, and the prominent theoretical approaches to development work in the last few decades.

Here the book review pauses.

I think it will be uncontroversial for me to observe that evangelicals have relatively little to offer not only in terms of intellectual culture (cf. Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), and also relatively little to offer in other cultural domains. Contemporary Christian music, for instance, follows secular music trends pretty closely. Evangelical Christian films aspire to the production quality of secular Christian films. And so forth.

In some sense, this is the way it has to be: since evangelicals are focused on the gospel alone, then obviously our task is not to produce some cultural edifice, but rather to redeem the entire Creation by encountering it through the lens of lived Christian faith. The point is not to create but to redeem.

At the same time, it is possible for that very same enterprise to be carried out for quite different reasons: an insecure desire to show that we can do everything just as well as the secular world can do it, by golly. The result might then be a sort of adolescent paroxysm, where everything in the secular world is mimicked, not as a result of a reasoned consideration, but simply as a more general whoring after culture (pop or otherwise).

I do not say that this always happens; I know that it does happen. It is something to be aware of. It is the liability of being in a movement that is not in the driver’s seat of the broader culture.

Here the book review resumes.

Myer’s primary concern the book is for development work to be holistic and transformational. He shrinks back from any dichotomization of spiritual work (e.g., evangelism) and secular work (e.g., clean water and education). He says that both of these must be comprehended in the Christian approach to development. Therefore, as he reviews and critiques the various definitions of poverty, analyses of the causes of poverty, and approaches to development, he keeps bringing in the Christian perspective. Such-and-such author’s conception of injustice is consistent with the Christian view; such-and-such author acknowledges the church as a social structure but not as a source of potential transformation; such-and-such Christian author rightly acknowledges the social or spiritual dimensions of poverty. So we are always invited to think about the spiritual dimension of poverty, the spiritual dimension of development work, and so forth.

Let’s pause at the spiritual contribution to poverty. Here is a selection from Myers:

While development academics and researchers are increasingly paying more attention to the role of religion in development, the spiritual causes of poverty are often overlooked or undeclared. …. Jayakaran actually names the spiritual as a cause of poverty. This is the reason I have adopted his framework for this section on the causes of poverty.

The ellipsis includes mentions of shamans and witchcraft, charms and protections, and animistic beliefs as contributors to poverty; and factors such as alcohol, drugs, and domestic violence; and “principalities and powers” — a phrase borrowed from the apostle Paul, which is never defined (by Paul or by Myers!). Whether these factors are best considered as spiritual, rather than say sociological, moral, or (as the development gurus have it) “religious” is not really discussed. I am skeptical, but I won’t press that point here. Let’s get on to it:

I deny that there is any spiritual component to poverty.

Here’s my reasoning: let’s suppose that we can find a particular impoverished group of people somewhere and diagnose the causes of their poverty with precision. Let’s suppose further that there is some spiritual component to that poverty. Then let’s compare those people to:

  • Wealthy evangelical Christians in Orange County, California
  • Qatari Muslims — highest per capita GDP in the world
  • Secular residents of the United Kingdom
  • Prosperous Japanese Shinto industrialists
  • Any of the (Hindu) members of the Indian Tata group
  • etc., etc., etc.

If there is a spiritual component to poverty, then I must conclude that our hypothetical sample of poor people are somehow less spiritually successful (if that is the word) than evangelical Christians, Muslims, the secular, adherents of Shintoism, and Hindus. This is to say nothing of the various successful groups of Jews, Jains, Catholics, Orthodox, etc., etc., etc.

I’m just not able to fathom how there would be some spiritual cause to poverty, in spite of all of the worldly success of people of every sort of religion.

Here’s the root of the problem: Myers is drawing on a conception of poverty that has been growing over the last thirty years especially. To understand something as complex as a person’s economic decisions, you need to take a lot about that person into account. To understand why a particular community as a whole is not very successful economically, you need to take a lot about that community into account. So far, so good.

But there is a (*cough*, leftist, *cough*) tendency to recoil from considering people in economic terms, even as a theoretical construct. It feels much better to consider people as members of families, members of communities, as people with distinct cultural values, individual quirks, etc. etc. etc. So when Myers thinks about “the poor” — and that term is never challenged, by the way; somehow referring to an indeterminate group of individuals with a mass noun doesn’t raise red flags with anyone but me — when Myers thinks about “the poor,” he has to think about “poverty” in a way that comprehends the whole of human existence. It can’t simply be about money, after all.

But in point of fact, we’re not talking about the whole of humanity. We’re talking about poor people. No one is interested in starting a development organization in Qatar, where every citizen is guaranteed an income by virtue of the oil under the sands. No one is talking about starting a development organization in America, which has the largest economy in the world but also some of the most seemingly intractable social and cultural issues. We start development organizations in a very particular kind of country: a country with lots of poor people.

The result is that we’re talking a bunch of countries, in their various colonial and post-colonial funks, but far from limiting our discussion to economic matters, we have to critique their cultures, their system of government, and (evidently now) their faith. At the same time, those of us in the West, who have command of such awesome economic resources, must apparently be doing quite well in all those various domains of personhood. No reason to diagnose the ills of the social structures of Qatar and America! They’re evidently doing something right! So we begin by being holistic and end up being culturally imperialistic.

Let me suggest an alternative conception of poverty: the poor are poor because they can’t get better jobs. This conception has the advantage of being (1) the analysis of poverty that every poor person has given whom I have asked, and (2) the analysis of poverty that every right-thinking person will give who has not been specifically trained to think otherwise.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no further room for nuance. You could ask, for instance: why can’t this particular poor person get a better job? The reason might be: because he isn’t able to offer any services that anyone wants to pay more money for. The reason might be: because there are no opportunities to get employment with the skills that he does have. Any of those might lead to more uncomfortable and personal conclusions. Perhaps the person decided not to invest in education; perhaps the person is simply over his/her head in the modern economy. Perhaps the person lives in a society where trust issues make employing a non-family-member an act of astounding folly, which does limit one’s prospects for finding a better job.

But this conception of poverty does have the advantage of not condemning a person wholesale for being poor. Even in the economic powerhouse of the United States of America, I know people who are not very economically successful. They might be wonderful people otherwise, but for whatever reason, whether as a result of mistakes, or simply not having money matters modeled, they’re not very good with money. Or they are good with money, but they bought a house at the wrong time. Or they’re people who (gasp!) have other priorities in life than becoming wealthy. Some people are just better at creating wealth than others. In all society which I care to be a part of, there is nothing inherently embarrassing about that.

The point of all this is just to say that if we’re talking about poverty, let’s actually talk about money. The only thing that counts toward defining a poor person as poor is the size of his checkbook. We don’t need to blow things out of proportion and look at his family life, his religious practices, the way his community works, and so forth. Those of us who have enough money, got that money (mostly) by having well-paying jobs. It’s no blanket affirmation of the way the rest of our life works.

And to come back to the spiritual, from my perspective, anyone who doesn’t confess Jesus Christ as Lord is spiritually impoverished. I know extremely wealthy Christians and extremely poor Christians. I don’t think that an impoverished Hindu is worse off spiritually than a wealthy Muslim or a wealthy Buddhist. All of them need to hear and respond to the Gospel. Good for them having enough money, but as someone has said, Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions!

Among an alien people

We recently had a vacation in India. As is our custom, we did a lot of sightseeing, and saw the remains of many empires. In India we saw a lot of Mughal architecture, and also stuff in Jaipur and Udaipur which belonged to the maharajas of the Indian princely states, which in that case were independent up to the time of union. I always imagine myself back in those times, thinking about what it would be like to be either an emperor or a peon. I was convicted by the extent to which my attitude toward the ruling authority was a reflection on how I felt about their architecture. I was much more sympathetic to the Mughals than to the maharajas, though I couldn’t tell you one thing about the relative merits of their governance and administration of justice.

Three cheers for initiative

This BBC story showed up on the glowing rectangle a little while ago. A municipal government in Zimbabwe has decided to address a sewage problem with a series of synchronized toilet flushes.

Many residents of Zimbabwe’s second city have simultaneously flushed their toilets, as part of an official attempt to prevent blocked sewage pipes. Bulawayo Mayor Thaba Moyo told the BBC the “big flush” would keep pipes wet and so prevent them getting clogged up.

Now I’m not a plumber, but the tone of the BBC article, and extrapolating from Zimbabwean governance in general, suggests that this will not work. So we all smirk and return to our lives. But there’s this at the end of the article:

The proposal has had a mixed reception in the city. “Our leaders are a joke,” said Petros Ncube. “What they should be doing is finding money from donors to buy new sewer pipes,” he said.

I hope Petros Ncube is not representative of a typical Zimbabwean.

I will say this of the toilet flush plan: it will be clear if it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t work, we will know to blame Mayor Thabo Moyo. And if this episode is representative of other episodes, he should be replaced by his constituents. But they have no reason to hold him accountable if, to their thinking, government is something that distributes money obtained from other governments, and a leader is someone who begs money from other governments.

His Bondange and Our Bondage

My Bondage and My Freedom is a remarkable book. In appreciating it, one could take any number of approaches. Writing to an 1855 northern audience, Douglass takes the time to explain how slavery works: practically, psychologically, spiritually; and of course how it harms, again practically, psychologically, spiritually. The book is invaluable for that purpose, but I am more interested here in the man.

The turning point in Douglass’s life was his confrontation with Edward Covey, a man to whom he had been hired out to be broken. Douglass suffered under Covey for about six months, before one day confronting him physically:

Well, my dear reader, this battle with Mr. Covey—undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is—was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise. (emphases original)

This was, for Douglass, the point at which he stopped being a slave and became a man. He recorded a desire to be free from an early age, but this was the point at which he considered himself to have achieved it, in principle if not in fact.

I could wish for thirty million such experiences in the country where I live and work. People in this country are in the throes of the tribal-to-peasant transformation. The patron-client relationship is fundamental. Whether in the city or the village, they are looking for someone to take care of them.

And why would you work hard? If you fail, you fail. Why would you risk starting a business? The bribes, the cartels… If you succeed, everyone will hate you for succeeding, and your family will still take all your money. After all, if you get money, it’s because you’re taking it from someone else. The only honest advancement is through an NGO, which is the equivalent of winning the lottery.

When will people stand up and proclaim their freedom?

Of course, they wouldn’t call themselves slaves. And neither would we Westerners, though there are things which enslave us.

Back to Douglass. His transformation is all the more remarkable if we consider Douglass’s mental state. He describes quite clearly elsewhere in the book how, when well fed and well treated, his mind was constantly on escape. By contrast, when he was hungry and beaten, he could think only of his physical well being. He doesn’t actually draw attention to this point, but his moment of freedom occurs when he was physically weakest. All of his attention should have been on survival, and in spite of that he overcame himself, and overcame Covey.

So then. I am left filled with admiration for Frederick Douglass, but without a plan or a hope for this country. Douglass was influenced by two books in his time of bondage. One was the Bible. The other was The Columbian Orator, a collection of significant Enlightenment political speeches. Neither of those translates easily here.

Book review bits

As Wikipedia explains, MBMF is largely an expansion of Douglass’s earlier work, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. There’s a lot of repeated material in MBMF; today MBMF would probably count as a “revised and expanded” second edition, rather than a standalone work.

But the stories are just as good the second time. I read the Narrative about a year ago, and if anything it was like listening to my grandfather retell the same old, good stories. The new material has largely to do with his experiences in the United Kingdom, during two years of “semi-exile”; it was interesting, but not compelling.

One point of interest is Douglass’s religion. At the end of the Narrative there is a paragraph tacked on clarifying that he only meant to criticize hypocritical Christianity, not the true religion. I was left with an ambiguous feeling, because the explanation seemed… well, tacked-on. In MBMF, however, there was much greater focus on faith. He describes his conversion, and subsequent events in his faith life, in classic evangelical (Methodist) terms. There were plenty of biblical allusions that I just barely caught.

One wishes that English style had not changed so drastically in the last 150 years. I’ve read a good deal of 1800s prose, but the language was still a challenge for me. Here are the gems.

As one genuine bankbill is worth more than a thousand counterfeits, so is one man, with right on his side, worth more than a thousand in the wrong.

I, too, would invoke the spirit of patriotism; not in a narrow and restricted sense, but, I trust, with a broad and manly signification; not to cover up our national sins, but to inspire us with sincere repentance; not to hide our shame from the the(sic) world’s gaze, but utterly to abolish the cause of that shame; not to explain away our gross inconsistencies as a nation, but to remove the hateful, jarring, and incongruous elements from the land; not to sustain an egregious wrong, but to unite all our energies in the grand effort to remedy that wrong.

The man who has thoroughly embraced the principles of justice, love, and liberty, like the true preacher of Christianity, is less anxious to reproach the world of its sins, than to win it to repentance. His great work on earth is to exemplify, and to illustrate, and to ingraft those principles upon the living and practical understandings of all men within the reach of his influence. This is his work; long or short his years, many or few his adherents, powerful or weak his instrumentalities, through good report, or through bad report, this is his work.

To enslave men, successfully and safely, it is necessary to have their minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them.

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