November 2012

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Many non-profit organizations have good intentions. Compassionate people want to give to the less fortunate, doing their part to “end” poverty, hunger and suffering around the world. The problem is that particularly in the Global North, poverty is seen as simply a lack of material goods or resources. The well-meaning solutions are based on alleviating material symptoms by offering the goods or resources that appear to be lacking. Food, medical equipment, clothes, and money have been shipped to the Global South in staggering amounts. Unfortunately, this has done little to end the cycle of poverty. Why?

Poverty is a very complex issue that often manifests itself as a lack of material resources. Yet, poverty has much to do with the psychological, moral and relational health of a person. In a World Bank report, Voices of the Poor: Can anyone hear us?  40,000 poor people from 47 countries were interviewed regarding the issues of poverty. More than a lack of material resources, the lack of a voice, power and control over their lives, and equality for women contributed profoundly to a state of perpetual poverty. One poor woman from Moldova said, “Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease.  It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one to total despair.”  Furthermore, Bryant Myers in Walking With the Poor recognizes that “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life…”

I would submit to you that the average homeless person on the streets of America is not simply dealing with the fact that he doesn’t have a home. He has in some way lost the social safety net that most people rely on when they face difficulties. What appears to be the result of a loss of financial stability is likely related to a loss of relationships and the social equity that keeps us connected to those around us. The systemic causes of poverty are very difficult to discern in surface assessments. An honest and perhaps personally invasive assessment of what brought him to this broken place of dependency is needed to bring about systemic change.

We must realize that an aid and relief approach will not end poverty but will only relieve some of the symptoms. In order to provide the kind of systemic solutions that are needed we must also answer some hard questions. If your well-intentioned approach is doing more to keep someone in a state of poverty than it is actually helping, are you willing to change? Is your church or ministry willing to consider the implications of a long term, systemic approach to poverty that includes the healing of the whole person? 

Please feel free to respond to the Breakthroughs in Missional Thinking. We need your voice in this ongoing dialogue about how the Christian Church engages in missions in this rapidly changing world and culture.

Mark Mielbrecht
Director of Global Leadership Development