Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Loving Neighbors 7000 Miles Away

Why Do They Do That? 5 – Conservatives and Global Poverty

Americans are the wealthiest people the world has ever seen, yet there are still billions of people in the world living in squalor little different from conditions there a thousand years ago. How can we permit this? When we can send them food and clothes and medicine and technology, why do we just let them continue in their poverty?

Christians can and should help those people. It’s too easy to lose sight of the extreme poverty that exists outside our country – we’ve got our own lives to live, and out of sight really is out of mind. We need to make our minds up to act and then do it, but we have to act wisely. As with so many other things, if we react purely based on emotion, we may well do more harm than good.

After looking at what the Bible says about helping the poor and why conservatives take the approach they do to poverty, it probably won’t surprise anyone if I suggest that global poverty is a much more complex issue than it first appears. Whole books have been written on this subject, but I think we can get an idea of what’s going on and, most importantly, why conservatives take the approach they do.

Americans typically throw money at problems, and sometimes that works. Global poverty, however, has resisted the billions that have been thrown at it because many of the underlying causes either are money-resistant or actually devour the money.

Systemic problems
Two systemic issues appear all over the world. The first, and the most pervasive, is corruption. Two excellent examples are Somalia and Zimbabwe. Since the early 90’s Americans have sent hundreds of millions of dollars in food to Somalia only to see it seized by local warlords (and sold for weapons). Zimbabwe may represent the best modern example of a country gone wrong. In 2000 “President” Mugabe seized privately owned farms and gave them to political supporters turning the bread basket of Africa into a basket case with food shortages and hyperinflation. Sending any support into countries like these is a waste of precious resources. The popular call to cancel the debts of poor countries should be examined in view of this – whose debts, exactly, are we canceling?

Related to the above is the problem of social issues. Some people are kept in poverty by the nature of their relationship with their neighbors. For example the Dalit “untouchables” in India are discriminated against by culture, if not by law. Only the meanest jobs and lowest wages are open to them. Why? Because, according to orthodox Hindu beliefs, untouchables are born into that state as karmic “justice” for past lives; only by suffering can these people hope for a better situation in their next lives. In these situations, food can mitigate their immediate suffering, but no meaningful improvements can be made without changes within these societies.

Resistance to change
Even when we think we could make a difference in poor people’s lives, sometimes the poor people themselves fight us. People who have always known a certain way of life can resist change, even when you tell them this will improve their lot.

There are areas of Africa where the soil, though no longer able to support traditional crops, can support other plants. The problem is getting farmers who have planted the same thing for generations to change. The same goes for new farming techniques. I can’t tell you why people are so resistant to change when they’re barely surviving, but sometimes they are.

A related problem conflates two issues – lifestyles and education. How do help people who have no desire to learn about modern sanitation or medicine? What do you do about people who insist on having unprotected sex in HIV-flooded areas? What can we say to people who insist that having sex with a virgin will cure their AIDS?

Westerners have gone to these areas and invested years and many millions of dollars in an attempt to better the lives of poor people who resist change. Writing a check is not going to solve this problem.

Help that doesn’t help
Sometimes writing a check is literally the worst thing we can do. When we send food to a country where farmers are trying to eek out a living, we depress food prices and make it that much harder for the poor to survive. The same goes for clothes and anything else that can be found in the country in question.

Akin to writing a check is the “fare trade” movement. Basically, fare trade is about paying above market prices for a commodity to benefit the producers. The problem is “artificially propping up the price of a commodity distorts [the balance of supply and demand] and removes the incentive for farmers to diversify. In fact, it does the opposite: it creates an incentive for others to start producing that crop (since it has a guaranteed higher price), thus increasing output and putting an even further downward pressure on price.” So fare trade pricing can actually make people not in on the deal poorer.

How Can We Help?
As the above author put it, “the larger, more complex and more distant the problem, the more resistant it is to simple, feel-good solutions.” The underlying causes behind global poverty are complex, messy, and difficult to change. So what can we do about it?

Conservatives prefer, for good reason, to help people in ways that encourage self-sufficiency and use market forces rather than government brute strength. Here are a few thoughts on applying those concepts. I’m certainly open to other suggestions.

Strings attached
The Constitution doesn’t provide for charity with taxpayer money – whether it’s local or international – but since it’s going to happen, let’s use it wisely. International aid should be given with the expectation of measurable reform in a reasonable time. If reform goals aren’t met, funds should be cut off. If funds are misused, they should be cut off.

Buy local – on the other side of the world
Whether it’s using government or private aid, food, clothes, and whatever else can be purchased from locals should be. It’s not popular with American farmers, but buying food in Africa for Africa helps more people (African farmers) and is a more efficient use of available funds (less transportation costs).

I’d like to see Christians send money to local churches. They can best distribute the money, using it to build homes, buy food, provide medicine, or whatever is needed. And when it comes through the church, it enables them to share the gospel with those they help.

If you don’t give money to churches, there are plenty of aid organizations that work in poor countries; pick one that uses the money wisely.

Invest in small, er, tiny businesses
The jury’s still out on the whole micro-finance concept, but it seems sound – in theory even if the practice may need work. We can give money to companies that make small, low-interest loans to people (usually women) who want to start small businesses in third world countries. With most of them you eventually get your money back sans interest (it goes to operating costs), or you can re-invest. It’s charity where you give someone a leg up instead of a handout.

Kiva’s the one I’ve been looking at, but there are quite a few to choose from, however we must choose carefully.

Education to change minds
The most bang for our buck is probably going to come from education. We not only need to teach techniques, we need to change mindsets. Frankly that’s extremely difficult to do, but it can be done with time. Lots of time. Government can do this, but so can churches. Of course, teaching that Dalits are people too can get churches in trouble, but that’s nothing new for us.

As much as possible, I’d like to see us work through neighboring countries – especially in Africa. One, it cuts down on charges of colonialism. Two, it cuts down on perceptions of dependence on America/Europeans. Just as welfare can create an unhealthy sense of dependence and helplessness, too much foreign aid may create self-defeating attitudes in the people we want to help. If we can avoid that, we should; Africans helping Africans and Asians helping Asians is a healthier alternative where it’s possible.

Christians want to help the poor, but we have to be smart about it. If we make ourselves feel better without actually improving their lot, we’ve only succeeded in throwing away money that could have been used for good.

Next Time
The next installment will shift directions a bit and look at the conservative philosophy on the judiciary.