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Enabling the Poor to Flourish

“Something must be done; anything must be done, whether it works or not.”

Sadly, this statement from Live Aid’s Bob Geldoff describes the approach of many Americans toward international aid and development efforts. Driven by a charitable desire to help those in need, we send clothing, food, medical supplies, and millions of dollars in financial assistance to the poor around the world. Certainly, these forms of aid are necessary as short-term solutions to crises and disaster situations. But when short-term aid becomes long-term provision for the poor, is it still an effective cure for poverty?

In our eagerness to help those in need, are we overlooking the unintended consequences of our charity? Might we, with all of our good intentions and lofty goals, actually be trapping the poor in a dehumanizing cycle of poverty and dependency, rather than freeing them to pursue their own flourishing and prosperity?

At a recent Values & Capitalism event celebrating the newly released book from the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, “For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty,” Peter Greer addressed these very questions. The President and CEO of HOPE International, Greer drew from his decades of experience working with the destitute and vulnerable around the world when he proposed:

Instead of being a ladder out of poverty, charity puts the most vulnerable in bondage… Though the West’s efforts through international aid have been well-intentioned, they have often done more harm than good. By focusing on what the poor lack, instead of what they have, the underlying message sent to the poor is this: you are incapable.

Prolonged charity can lead to unhealthy dependency—it quenches the potential of the poor for self-sufficiency. But if aid is not the answer, how can we care for the poor in a way that affirms their God-given dignity and unleashes their creative capabilities?

[pq]By focusing on what the poor lack, the underlying message sent to the poor is this: you are incapable.[/pq]

As Bono, lead singer for U2 and co-founder of the ONE Campaign, recently stated, aid and welfare are merely “Band-Aids” for poverty, while free enterprise is the cure. Indeed, AEI president Arthur Brooks agrees that free enterprise is the most effective antidote for poverty, as it is “the only system in history that has lifted up the poor and done so by the billions.”

Free enterprise serves as an engine for human flourishing not only by fostering entrepreneurship and job creation, but also by treating the poor as equals, as image-bearers of God. It focuses on the “dignity, creativity, and capacity of the poor, rather than their material deficit,” Greer pointed out.

However, despite the remarkable achievements of enterprise and entrepreneurship around the world, creating jobs and fostering economic growth is not enough. For poverty is not a material problem alone, but it has spiritual, emotional, and psychological facets as well.

As Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett observe, poverty is ultimately rooted in broken relationships with God, with other people and with creation. As we seek justice and prosperity for the poor, Michael Matheson Miller of the Acton Institute reminds us:

To desire the good of the other ultimately means promoting and encouraging human flourishing, all the while keeping the eternal destiny of the person in mind… Material needs should be at the service of promoting human flourishing, helping the person to become all God has called him to be.