Category: Effective Compassion

Last Wednesday, I was privileged to attend the Samaritan Awards Gala in Washington, D.C. I have to say up front that Acton’s Effective Compassion events are probably the most enjoyable for me to attend because invariably one comes into contact with a group of very special, very dedicated people who are completely devoted to what our society would term “lost causes,” and having great success.

Ken Ortman

While there were a number of award-winning programs at the Gala this year, I’d like to take some time to focus on the 2005 Samaritan Award Grand Prize Winners, Ken and Sheila Ortman of Lives Under Construction Boys Ranch in Lampe, Missouri. Ken and Sheila were joined in D.C. by their daughter Melissa, who serves as the Development Director for the Ranch, and 7 young men who are currently residents in their program.

Sheila Ortman

Ken, Sheila and Melissa are wonderful people – remarkably kind, decent, and humble – who are doing amazing work with young men who come out of shockingly difficult circumstances. They are hard workers – Ken remarked during a conversation that he couldn’t imagine working at a job like mine, which involves a lot of sitting at a desk – who moved from their South Dakota farm to southwestern Missouri in order to start a new life working with troubled boys. And they are successful – the LUC program has a 92 percent success rate over the last 20 years, turning many young men away from lives of crime and substance abuse and toward a productive life in society. They do so by establishing a structured environment within which the boys can learn respect for God, authority figures, and gain a proper view of themselves as persons.

Melissa Ortman

We had the chance to meet 7 of the young men who live at the ranch, and the transformation in their lives is evident and remarkable. By all outward appearances, these boys were just like any other group of young people touring Washington, D.C. You’d never know that each of them had likely had severe drug or behavioral problems and numerous encounters with the law. They were a group of normal, if somewhat rambunctious teens.

The LUC Bunch on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

It is truly a blessing to meet people like the Ortmans, and it was great as well to watch the boys – many of whom were on their first trip to a large city. As I noted earlier, I always enjoy Acton’s Effective Compassion events, but having these young men along added a spirit and sense of adventure to this trip that will make it unforgettable for me.

If you haven’t done so in the past, I encourage you to check out the many fine charities like LUC Boys Ranch that are in our online Samaritan Guide, which is an excellent resource for anyone looking for effective private charities across the United States. Many of the programs in the guide are very small, but doing amazing work, and are well worth your attention and support.

I had an opportunity to talk with a few of the boys and with Ken, Sheila and Melissa. To hear my conversation with the Ortmans, click here (4 mb mp3 file). To hear from the boys, click here (1.9 mb mp3 file).

The news from across the pond today is that the UK government is announcing that it will miss its target set in 1999 to reduce the number of children in poverty by 1 million. According to the BBC, “Department for Work and Pension figures show the number of children in poverty has fallen by 700,000 since 1999, missing the target by 300,000.”

This has resulted in the typical responses when government programs fail: calls to “redouble” efforts and to increase funding, spin the results as a measure of success, and acknowledge that there is “still much to be done.”

But one member of the government seems to have an idea of the right solution. “The Conservatives’ David Ruffley, spokesman on welfare reform, said it was ‘disappointing’. He said his party agreed on the aim but not the means of reducing child poverty.”

“Child poverty is a scourge in society. And the numbers are too high. But what I think needs to be done is more creative and imaginative thinking,” he said.

Government should not be at the front lines of the fight against poverty for one simple reason: it does not create wealth. Entrepreneurs and commercial enterprises do. And as such government certainly should not be the only element in combatting poverty.

David Laws MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, gets at the heart of the issue when he says, “It is no surprise the Government is failing to deliver when the CSA is in chaos, tax credits are a mess and our lone parents employment rate is one of the lowest in Europe” (emphasis added).

That final point is crucial. Unless the government is going to create jobs for these parents in one of its many departments and bureaus, it falls to businesses to employ them. This is how it should be, of course, and any responsible poverty fighting strategy needs to reckon with this reality.

Bono and the One Campaign want us to sign a petition encouraging the government to spend 1 percent of the U.S. budget for aid to developing countries. The One Campaign states that this would “transform the futures and hopes of an entire generation of the poorest countries.”

Now I admire the intentions of Bono to fight against poverty and he puts his money where is mouth is. But how do we know that increased aid will make a difference? How will the money be spent? Billions of dollars of aid have poured into developing nations, often with minimal if any positive results. Why does increasing something that really hasn’t worked going to make it better. I would understand and support it if we saw results that aid really makes a difference in providing a foundation for sustainable growth that would enable developing nations to lift themselves out of poverty, but this has not been the case. Aid often goes to the hands of corrupt leaders or gets squandered away. Further it is too often connected to ideology that has little or nothing to do with development or poverty, e.g., population control. How many millions of dollars a year go into population control programs despite little or no evidence of a causal relationship between increased population and poverty? In fact, population can often be a positive element for economic growth. See Jacqueline Kasun’s book The War Against Population or Julian Simon’s the Ultimate Resource.

But what if the problem is not insufficient aid, but something else?
According to Hernando de Soto the problem is the Mystery of Capital. There are billions of dollars of “dead” assets in the developing world. Assets that cannot be turned into capital and thus can’t be an engine for economic growth. There is also a lot of saving in the developing world. De Soto writes:

Even in the poorest countries the poor save. The value of savings among the poor is, in fact, immense—forty times all the foreign aid received throughout the world since 1945. In Egypt, for instance, the wealth that the poor have accumulated is worth fifty-five times as much as the sum of all direct foreign investment ever recorded there including the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam. In Haiti, the poorest nation in Latin America, the total assets of the poor are more than one hundred and fifty times greater than all the foreign investment received since Haiti’s independence from France in 1804.

He then writes:

If the United States were to hike its foreign aid budget level to the level recommended by the United Nations—0.7% of national income—it would take the richest country on earth more than 150 years to transfer to the world’s poor resources equal to what they already possess.

Because these assets are not properly documented with legal title etc, they cannot be turned into capital to start businesses and create wealth like they are in the developed world where we do this every time an entrepreneur mortgages his house to start a business. Now DeSoto’s work is not a panacea, but it addresses some serious problems that need to be addressed. It also recognizes that rule of law, private property, and economic and entrepreneurial opportunity are needed for development.

The One Campaign is exciting, and it is supported by host of cool people. But although it feels good it doesn’t mean that it is the answer. The problem is a lot more complex than the One people make it out to be, but their way has been tried and tried to little avail. Maybe government aid isn’t the answer after all.

An interesting piece in Tuesday’s Financial Times (registration req.) by Jagdish Bhagwati, economist at Columbia University. In the form of a letter to U2 front man Bono, Dr. Bhagwati offers a (I think) stinging criticism of attempts to save Africa through appeals for more governmental spending. (This is especially interesting since Bono plays off the songsheet of another Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs.) If you can find a copy of the article, I highly recommend it, but in the meantime, here is a sample:

But, if you have erred in allying yourself with the development experts who wrongly focus exclusively on aid spending in Africa itself, a greater folly is to have tied your initiative to the aid target of 0.7 per cent of GNP. This target goes back to 1969 and has not been met except by a tiny fraction of donors, essentially the Scandinavian countries. The problem is that the target relates to government spending. Fiscal spending is subject to what economists call “hard budget contraints.” There are always many demands on the government. The US, for instance, has just had a colossal increase in spending on the Iraq war and on Hurricane Katrina relief and reconstruction…

How, then, are we to translate the enthusiastic altruism that you have generated, dear Bono, into larger, sustained flows of aid? Surely the answer is to go after personal, rather than governmental, flows…

So, if you take seriously the estimated audience for Live8 concerts at 2bn, halve it for those who were there for a lark or are impoverished themselves, and halve it again for those who attended the concerts twice, you would have half a billion who could sign up for an average pledge of $50 a head as a supplement to their normal giving, yielding a net sum of $25bn outright. The money would be worth almost twice that amount in actual aid, since they would be grants wheras most aid consists of loans that must be repaid.

This would mean abandoning some of your current allies. But you can do nothing less if your efforts are to yield results. In a recent interview, you said that you expected your music would endure forever but poverty would have ended in a hundred years. I wish you good luck on your music. But not even a hundred years would suffice to end poverty if you fail to correct your course.

Bono and Sachs: Does The Edge feel left out?

Although I am a year behind here, I have just started reading Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, paperback just released by Penguin (with a foreword by Bono!). I’ll avoid the urge to comment on everything that strikes me this or that way in the book–and I most certainly am not going to try to go head to head with Sachs on economic matters. But, being a student of language, I would like to point out a subtlety some might consider benign, but I suspect is of relevance. It exists in the following passage from the Preface to the Paperback Edition: (more…)

I was watching my favorite rerun on TV Land the other day, Bonanza. If you don’t know Bonanza, you should. It’s perhaps the classic TV western, and I was watching episode #68 from Season Three, “Springtime.”

One of Ben Cartwright’s friends, Jedidiah Milbank is injured during a roughousing mud-wrestling match between Adam, Hoss and Little Joe. As reparation Ben volunteers the three boys to take care of Milbank’s business for him. It just so happens that there are three tasks, so each of the boys gets one.

Adam Cartwright gets the final task and it is to evict a family from a ranch for non-payment. It seems that Milbank had set up an arrangement for the family to pay for half of the ranch up front, and the rest in monthly installments. Well, the family was a number of months behind, and Milbank was eager to foreclose.

The eldest Cartwright brother dutifully rides off to the ranch, and happens upon a pleasant but beleaguered clan. It seems that the family had tied up most of their capital in a prize bull, who had been mauled by a bear before it could sire more than a few calves. And all but a handful of those calves were drowned in spring floods. When the water pump broke so they could no longer irrigate their crops, the family was left without any source of revenue.

That’s the situation when Adam arrives. The pieces of the pump need to be repaired, but one necessary part must be purchased new and costs $200. The family just doesn’t have it. Instead of foreclosing on the home, Adam, who shares his father’s “strong moral code,” decides to help out the down-and-out family. They aren’t poor because of the lack of effort or work, but simply because of circumstances and poor decisions such as tying up capital in the risky move to buy the stud bull.

So what does Adam do? He helps the father fix the pieces of the well that can be repaired and comes up with a plan to use the pump to double the land that can be irrigated. This will potentially double the family’s crop, helping them to get their heads above water again. The family will need to sell the few remaining calves from the stud stock to pay for the expensive replacement part for the water pump. In the meantime, Adam loans the family the money to get current on their debt to Milbank, averting the disaster of eviction.

Why am I talking about this episode?

I believe it is a great example of how compassion can work within the capital market system. Certainly Milbank filled the role of the archetypal greedy capitalist, but the Cartwrights themselves own a 1,000 acre ranch and are incredibly wealthy by the standards of the day. The difference between Milbank and the Cartwrights is in how they used their wealth and power. By the letter of the law and justice, Milbank had a right to foreclose. By contrast, it was compassion that motivated Adam.

The Heidelberg Catechism, a traditional symbol of Reformed Christianity, notes that one of the reasons we work is so that we can be good stewards of our wealth. It reads, “I faithfully labour, so that I may be able to relieve the needy” (Q&A 111). That’s exactly what Adam Cartwright was doing with his wealth.

And he did it in such a way that it was oriented toward the family regaining their own financial independence. He loaned them part of the money, as a sort of nineteenth-century version of a micro-capital investment, but also made sure they had to invest what they had in their own future by selling the remaining calves.

There’s a lesson to be learned in all this. The United States is in an analogous situation with respect to the developing world as the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights were to that struggling family. We can choose to embody the “cowboy compassion” of the Cartwrights or the craven greed of Jedidiah Milbank.

A great way to invest in the future economic development in poorer nations is through micro-loan investment. Very often it is difficult to get reasonable long-term or even short-term capital loans in these countries, because of the volatility of the currency and government corruption (for more on banking and corruption, see these two issues of the Christian Social Thought Series: Banking, Justice and the Common Good and A Theory of Corruption).

Here are some groups that do micro-loans in developing economies that are worth checking out: Five Talents, Opportunity International, and Kiva.


It may not seem like it, but the settlement reached between the ACLU and the US Department of Health and Human Services is really going to be good news in the long run for the abstinence-program Silver Ring Thing.

In a deal struck yesterday, Silver Ring Thing (SRT) has been barred from all future federal grants and funding, unless it makes programmatic changes to “ensure the money isn’t used for religious purposes.” SRT has received about $1 million in government money over the last three years, and the settlement concludes a case filed by the ACLU last May.

I’ve discussed the SRT funding situation in a couple previous posts (here and here). The bottom line is this: SRT should be able to find plenty of funding from churches and religious groups to do what it needs to do. And in the process, it won’t be beholden to the fickleness of politics or the changing demands of government bureaucracy. It will be free to do what it does best: promote the desperately needed Christian view of purity and sexuality among our nation’s youth.

Blog author: kwoods
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
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The February 11 issue of WORLD Magazine includes a culture feature, “Giving their names back.” Profiled in the article is Citizens for Community Values (CCV), a nonprofit in Memphis that does a victim assistance program called “A Way Out.” It’s a reclamation program of sorts, literally reclaiming women ensnarled in the sex trade industry, and giving them back their lives, reclamation evidenced by names.

The very nature of the sex industry, be it topless dancing, stripping or prostitution, requires anonymity–no names. And having no name reflects the ultimate devaluation of the human person. One of the women in this program said, “I felt like I was just a joke that God had accidentally made.”

Imago Dei may seem an odd term in this context, but in fact, it is the very core value of “A Way Out”: The reality of the imago Dei, being created in the image of God, having inherent worth, value and dignity. And the excellent way in which just two staff people, George Kuykendall and Carol Wiley empower women with so many problems and issues, oftentimes beaten, drug addicted, dumped naked on a busy street is the reason that the program was selected as a 2005 Acton Institute Samaritan Award Winnner.

While well-meaning Christian leaders protest public funding cuts for poverty and social programs, getting themselves arrested for blocking the entrance to the House office building, other effective compassion workers like George and Carol aren’t focused on whether the ultimate issue is fraud in government programs or tax cuts. Since “A Way Out” doesn’t depend on public funds, George and Carol just keep patiently returning again and again to help the hookers and strippers near the Memphis airport. They just keep connecting them to mentors who help them leave the sex trade, find good work, save money, learn how to live.

Each person has dignity, has value expressed in a name, and effective compassion programs, even very tiny ones in Memphis, are reclaiming those names, one woman at a time. This is the translation of imago Dei that matters.

To find nonprofits that embody the principles of effective compassion near you, visit the Samaritan Guide.

Wired News passes along this article by Chris Kohler, “U.N. Game Wins Hearts and Minds.” The story gives a brief overview and history of the video game created by the United Nations World Food Programme, Food Force.

Kohler writes, “The United Nations created the game after witnessing the success of the U.S. Army’s recruitment game, America’s Army.” The game takes players through six stages of work to get desperately needed food and supplies to vulnerable and malnourished populations.

Justin Roche, the game’s project manager, points out that Food Force is a non-violent game that competes with first-person shooters like America’s Army. “We really are the antithesis of the plethora of violent games that dominate the market,” he said. “Not one shot is fired, yet we are competing for kids’ time often devoted to shoot’em-ups.”

The Washington Post published an article yesterday highlighting the usage of virtual combat games to train a generation of new soldiers (HT: Slashdot). “The technology in games has facilitated a revolution in the art of warfare,” says David Bartlett, the former chief of operations at the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office, a high-level office within the Defense Department and the focal point for computer-generated training at the Pentagon.

Roche also said of Food Force,”We have many e-mails from children, saying that they would like to come and work for us when they are older. It’s wonderful to think that our little game is having this kind of impact.”

Check out my review of Food Force here. I conclude that the game is good as far as it goes: “Larger structural issues about the WFP and the UN remain outside the scope of the game, but nevertheless are reflected in the game’s guiding ethos and makeup. We can only hope that the WFP’s stated commitment to the independence of those it helps is manifested by policies that actually give those in need economic freedom and the hope of development. Addressing the root causes of poverty can be the only real long-term solution to poverty, hunger, and the devastation brought about by natural disasters.”

Got bureaucrat?

Blog author: kwoods
Monday, February 13, 2006
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A friend forwarded a Website link for The Nonprofit Congress recently that was downright scary. It appears to be the epitome of good intentions fraught with unintended consequences. Or perhaps the consequences are not unintended. The Congress is an apparent call to advocacy (i.e., political pressuring) within the National Council of Nonprofit Associations.

To the group’s credit, the “why” is a forthright statement of their view and values: The time has come for nonprofits of all sizes and scope to come together. The nonprofit charitable sector has long served our nation with distinction – from helping individuals survive (through health care, domestic violence centers, meals, and other human services) to helping local communities thrive (through artistic, cultural, educational, environmental, and other enriching services). Every American has been touched at one time or another by the work of a nonprofit. Good intentions.

Unintended consequences: Rather than championing the nonprofits’ unique abilities to provide individualized solutions, the Nonprofit Congress labels such efforts “fragmented and isolated” and frankly seems to be advocating that onerous “one size fits all” strategy for which government programs are so famous.

With that perspective, however, what this Nonprofit Congress wants to DO is not surprising: forge a collective identity based on shared values; develop a unified vision and message; and exercise a collective voice.

I would argue that a primary value of nonprofits is their lack of a collective identity or message and the freedom to contribute or help based on divergent values. That reality has been revealed within the Nonprofit Panel of Independent Sector — literally battling government agencies and federal policy makers for the continued independent existence of the nonprofit sector.

But with a Revere-like ‘call to arms,’ the council invites nonprofits to join the movement, forge a “stronger, bolder, more prominent role for nonprofits.” Hmmm … sounds like burgeoning political power to me, fashioned under the banner of “but we help people and communities. We do good things.”

Peter Drucker, arguably the most visionary management guru of this century, said that it is more important to do the right thing, than to do things right. Doing the right thing — helping individuals and communities–does not include sacrificing nonprofit uniqueness to leverage potential political muscle. And those who think so need to recalibrate their compassion quotient. The nonprofit sector may be “like herding cats,” but “unionizing” isn’t the strategy to help individuals or communities.