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Help the Poor …and Promote Alcoholism?

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb. “Moonshine or the Kids?” Nicholas Kristof, writer for the New York Times, stimulated much uneasiness with this question in his recent column on global poverty. He said:
There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous: It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.
Kristof went on to cite some clear data to highlight this disturbing “ugly secret.” At the same time I read this article, I heard a radio report about the rising prices of vodka in Russia. In the report, they interviewed an unemployed man who was frustrated by the rising prices. He said, “I just so desperately need to find a job so I can afford to buy more vodka.” The comment stuck with me. We work in Russia and I wondered if this man had ever attempted to start a business through HOPE to “grow his family’s income.” It’s easy to romanticize the decision-making of poor people. Of course they’ll choose to send their kids to school over sending for a prostitute. Of course they’ll choose to feed their kids breakfast before feeding their alcohol addiction. But what makes us think that? What makes us wrongly assume that they don’t deal with the same brokenness that we do? This article and radio report made me uncomfortable as I contemplated whether HOPE’s work had ever helped poor Russians buy more vodka. I’m more convinced than ever that helping people materially is not enough. Helping is enabling. My friend, Dr. Rob Gailey, articulated it more clearly. He said that “economic development is about increasing people’s choices.” If we help an alcoholic poor person—and there is no heart change—we will simply enable him to buy higher qualities and quantities of alcohol. Without heart change, as the BBC reported, helping families in India might actually be enabling them to perform sex-selection abortions, a problem which “prosperity is actually aggravating.” In a sense, we could be enabling the oppressed to become the oppressors if we do not speak to more than business decisions. True change happens when we promote biblical values, boldly communicating the truth of the Gospel. Income growth is important, but it is only when hearts and minds are transformed that we will we see true change happen. When I hear stories like that of Mama Flores (video below), a salon owner who has trained and employed over 15 orphans through her business success, I am energized that our approach answers the unsettling questions which Kristof asks.