Giving wisely

Authors debate how to help the poor internationally

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007

Profiles of good U.S. poverty-fighting groups make up much of this issue, and we also have two articles on helping the poor abroad. Some key questions in both areas are similar: How much can compassionate people help the poor, and how much do they have to do themselves? How much of the problem is material and how much is spiritual?

Prime antagonists in a raging secular debate are economists Jeffrey Sachs, who favors top-down, big-spending programs, and William Easterly, who advocates decentralized, bottom-up approaches (WORLD, Jan. 11). So far Sachs is winning by style-he jetted around with actress Angelina Jolie-and Easterly by substance. When Easterly in The Washington Post thoughtfully reviewed Sachs' book The End of Poverty, Sachs replied with an ad hominem attack on his "crude . . . simplistic . . . vacuous . . . tendentious" critic.

Sachs also refused to answer questions from WORLD, even after his publicist promised that he would. Questions that Sachs may have found troubling were: "When you discuss cultural barriers to ending extreme poverty, why do you leave out animistic religions that leave people fearful of changing their environments? How can the interventions proposed by you and the UN Millennium Project work in the absence of market or democratic mechanisms that let planners know whether poor Africans need a project and are satisfied by the results?"

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Evangelicals, meanwhile, are asking and answering hard questions in two new books with dueling prescriptions: Glenn Schwartz's When Charity Destroys Dignity: Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement (World Mission Associates, 2007) and John Rowell's To Give or Not to Give: Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, & Redefining Sustainability (Authentic, 2007).

The word the titles share is "dependency," and that's the key issue. Schwartz argues well that sending money to new churches and new believers in poor areas of the world usually hurts rather than helps, since recipients come to expect that praying to God will give them handouts from humans. Schwartz writes that well-intentioned evangelicals who contribute big bucks only convince many among the poor that they are helpless and need outside assistance to play an active role in God's kingdom.

Schwartz knows his business: As a missionary and then as founder and executive director of World Mission Associates, he has traveled throughout Africa and seen that in some places humanitarian assistance is essential for survival, but in most places "people live in relative poverty, not absolute poverty, and actually have something to give back to God if they are told that is part of coming into right relationship with God."

The author of the competing book, John Rowell, directs the church-planting Ministry Resource Network and serves on the board of Food for the Hungry. He agrees that "whenever funds are given without regard to the capacity of nationals to manage, maintain, or multiply the investments made, or to make their own contributions along the way, dependency is a distinct possibility." He advocates thoughtful giving but in the end is willing to risk dependency because he emphasizes the biblical mandate for the wealthy to be generous.

Most of Rowell's book is valuable in its discussion of ways to be generous without creating dependency. Toward the end he is positive about the grandiose Sachs/UN Millennium gambit, and that might lead some readers to dismiss Rowell as one more Lady Bountiful ready to fling coins to the scrambling masses. But such dismissal is wrong, because Rowell's question "to give or not to give" is the right question as long as it's not the only question: The essential second question is how to give wisely, in the knowledge that foolish giving is harmful. The American evangelical church's recently renewed interest in helping African needs is wonderful to see. Rick Warren's P.E.A.C.E. plan-plant churches, equip servant leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick, educate the next generation-is right in its emphases, and it will be vital not to leave out the "P" and the "E." For, as Mission Frontiers editor Ralph Winter wisely notes, "If all the world's wealth were redistributed there would still be two kinds of people: those who would use it and replace it because they could earn the replacement, and those who would use it and then be just as poor as ever."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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