Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thoughts on Poverty

Time flies! I haven't been dry on ideas to write about, but I have been pretty lazy about actually getting them down on paper/blog...

In my not so lazy moments I've been doing a little bit of leisure reading: "Energy Services for the Millennium Development Goals," a 116 page UN report addressing energy needs and approaches for developing countries. It really is fascinating. Last week I began to delve into it during my flight to CU Boulder, where I checked out their Environmental Engineering for Developing Communities program. These things said, lately I've been thinking about what it means to provide help for a developing country. How can we help them? What do developing communities really need? What does "poverty" or "third world" even mean? I have more questions than I have answers, so please, share your thoughts!!

I'll introduce my thoughts with a story. When I was in Nigeria two years ago, my friend and I met a pastor whose wife just gave birth to their son. He was radiant, and we began to talk about family and life in Nigeria and America. I commented on how wonderfully genuine the families were in Nigeria, and how its friendliness made it such a beautiful place. He agreed, but admitted that Nigeria was nothing like the grandeur of New York City, in which he dreamed of living. My friend and I looked at each other with skepticism... is it really worth sacrificing a beautiful culture for independent, impersonal skyscrapers?

Everyone is familiar with the basic third world needs: food, clean water, medicines, etc. Seems straight forward, right? But when you look into it, there is a lot more than meets the eye. Agriculture can be improved with machines, education and economies can be improved through electricity and computers with internet, and communication through cell phones. These improvements enable women to work and children to go to school. Infrastructure can be installed and buildings built, and the list of possible improvements goes on. These can all be very good, but I do question the motivations and the aims of these developments, both as a means of challenging my own convictions as well as ensuring the best for these communities. The big question I'm asking is, "what is our end goal?" What would the world look like if tomorrow all the objectives were achieved and everything was "developed" to a sufficient point so as no one was in poverty? Here are my meager ramblings:

#1 The UN report focuses on moving communities from poverty to the first rung of competitive global economics, which means training professionals, creating small businesses, and introducing modern technology. Should every world culture have computers? Can poverty only be eliminated through a globalized economy? Should all women in all cultures work? Should electricity and agricultural machines that help increase productivity also introduce developing communities to electronic entertainments, reliance on oil, specialization, and the replacement of human labor with technology? Our goal is not to "westernize" these cultures, but how do we develop communities without just making them more like us? Where do we draw the line between aid and assimilation?

#2 On a more philosophical note, perhaps my question poses no real answer. Not because it is impossible to meet the objectives set out by the UN and eradicate poverty, but because the definition of poverty will always change over time. The global poverty scale is measured by monetary value per day (extreme poverty equals less than $1/day USD). Of course, this must be relative to the rest of the world's living standard. What used to be the norm is now considered poverty. In the future, will those with land line phones, bulky slow computers, and gasoline powered cars be poor? There must be some distinction between cultural poverty and subsistence poverty.

#3 Is it accurate to define poverty by monetary value alone? I think that money is just one factor, albeit a major one, that affects poverty; but at the core, it should not define it. Money is merely a tool by which we reach more fundamental needs: nourishment, safety, freedom, and fulfillment, for example. While these are more difficult to quantify, I think they need to be considered in order to properly address poverty. In a general sense, I would define poverty as anything that oppresses people from meeting these goals, whether it's monetary, social, political, emotional, mental, or spiritual. For example, Nigeria has been ranked the friendliest country in the world, yet America's divorce rate can't boast the same accolade. From my own personal experiences, and many others, those with less are usually more thankful and of all things, generous, than those with more. From this point of view, poverty is all around us. Which leads me to my last thought...

#4 The gospel. I'm finding more and more that all throughout the Bible poverty is viewed by this holistic perspective. Yes, the gospel is about spiritual freedom, but at its core it is also a social and physical message. It's about feeding the poor, caring for orphans and widows, and sheltering the homeless. Moreover, it calls us to serve the broken-hearted, to live in an interdependent, accountable community, to care for the environment, to commit to sacrificial love, and to heal the sick. And these are not just practices that Christians are supposed to do; they are the change, restoration, and reconciliation that define the Christian faith. And so I think the Bible has a lot to say about poverty, about getting rid of oppression. And I think it's a good place to start laying a foundation for how to address poverty.

All that said, there are still a lot of questions, and a lot of room for interpretation. Here are my thoughts. What are yours?