Virtual Voices
Andy Crouch
Anacleto Rapping/Genesis
Andy Crouch

Fighting international poverty: From problem-listing to asset-counting

Q&A

Here’s a further extension of the Q&A with Andy Crouch found in the March 22 issue of WORLD magazine. (See also “Bursting out all over: God’s creative act.”

What’s been the result of the billions of dollars of aid invested in Africa since World War II? Africa has a lower GDP now than it did when the colonial era ended. Billions and billions spent in highly technologized ways that did not address the patterns of image-bearing and idolatry and injustice in a deep enough way.

A host of books in the past few years with titles like When Helping Hurts are helping us to think about poverty in a way that goes beyond asserting our power and creating idols … The first step toward a better approach to the relief of poverty in the world would be to stop thinking of poverty as a problem—because we technological human beings, coming of age in this technological world, think that what you do with a problem is solve it by the application of sufficient amount of expertise and power. The problem with that: Poverty is an experience of human beings made in the image of God. When you come in with your technological bulldozer to solve their problems, you are not addressing the fundamental issue of poverty, which is the failure of image-bearing, the social conditions and the historical conditions that have made it impossible for these people to see themselves as agents of flourishing in their own story.

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You write, “We begin to believe that the only thing lacking in a needy world is our own will; that if we choose, we can end poverty and provide water and stop slavery and cure disease. In a world of omnipotence, with our ability to change the world taken for granted, charity becomes a matter of marketing; simply persuading the powerful to use their godlike powers for good.” I first gleaned this from the British writer Dorothy Sayers. Her book The Mind of the Maker is about creativity, and near the end is a chapter on why we should not think of the world in terms of problems that need solutions. She says this is an engineer’s mindset, when you look at the world and think “here’s a problem, and how do we solve this problem?” She says that all of the most interesting things about human life are not problems that have solutions in that engineering way.

Spanning a river with a bridge is an engineering problem … You can solve that problem and build a bridge. But Sayers says: When John and Mary meet and begin to fall in love, is that a problem with a solution? When the baby comes along after they are married, is the baby a problem that needs to be solved? No! A whole realm of human existence—the deepest, most important part—is not made up of problems and solutions.

How do you change the mindset in relief and development that’s led to so many billions of dollars being wasted? Asset-Based Community Development—ABCD—isa wonderful development tool being used in a lot of relief and development now, The essence of this approach to going into a community that may be very materially poor and begin by asking what resources the community has. So, you or I would walk into a village and immediately see children without shoes, people bathing in very dirty water, perhaps people drinking very dirty water, people cooking over open pits, and lots of homes with lots of smoke, and we could list 12 public health problems without even turning around.

Build on strengths … We should not start out saying, in that setting, “Help us list the problems you have and let’s start prioritizing your problems and figuring out which one we solve first.” This would have been an improvement over just coming in and saying, “Oh, I see your problems and I’m going to fix them now.” But with ABCD, the first question you ask is, “What is going best in your village? What are the greatest resources that you have? What are you most proud of in your village?”

That makes sense in any kind of teaching … All of us have experienced this in our own development. If your parents or your teachers every day had come to you and said, “Alright, let’s make a list of everything you’re doing most poorly, and let’s really focus on that.” We should build on strengths, and over time acquire the resources that allow us to solve some of these problems.

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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