Returning from a conference earlier this week, I had the chance to speak with Garreth Bloor, a student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, about his engagement with politics, the role of religion and civil society, and “Mama Africa’s” story of microfinance success.
Three days ago I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, for Acton’s conference at Strathmore University. Driving about the city the last few days, I have been amazed by the number of small-medium businesses located in the kiosks along streets. These simple, tin/wood structures are bustling with enterprising and entrepreneurial souls working hard to better their lives and those of others.
In a Nairobi bread kiosk
With such diligent and enthusiastic people, why is Kenya such a poor country?
In discussions with students and staff at Strathmore, I have heard many stories outlining the significant problems with law, property, and inter-tribal (low non-kin) trust. You wonder:
• How can a country thrive when officials do not equally distribute justice? Where bribes and connections determine legal decisions?
• How can an entrepreneur access the necessary start-up capital for his business when he is considered a squatter in the home he built because he cannot access a title to the land?
• How can local or foreign investors expand their businesses when they are not members of a certain tribe and so are not well trusted?
These are the struggles, not only of Kenya, but of the developing world. These are the problems that need to be addressed in order to have a strong market economy that has the power to reduce poverty world-wide. These are some of the many questions asked and discussed at today’s conference titled Economic and Cultural Transformation: Breaking the Shackles of Poverty.
More than 170 people attended this conference, co-sponsored by Strathmore’s Governance Centre. We heard the speakers discuss both the theory and the practice of moving out of poverty through enterprise. By building up the institutions of rule of law, private property, and a culture of trust, the creative power of individuals is able to be unleashed and drive innovation and business. A new mindset is needed – not to rely on big government or foreign aid, but upon the many entrepreneurs who create wealth and help countries rise out of poverty.
Ray’s post pointed to something that’s been bugging me about Jim Wallis’ “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. As with the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign (“Transportation is a moral issue.” What isn’t these days?), Wallis’ campaign assumes the moral high ground by appropriating the Holy Name of Jesus Christ to advance his highly politicized, partisan advocacy. Jesus becomes an advertising slogan. And what is implicit here is that those who oppose Wallis are somehow at odds with the Gospel of Christ; those who agree with him are on Christ’s side and especially as it concerns “the least of these.”
But watch the video above and listen to the language of this MSNBC program host. What Wallis and his organization have done is give occasion for the use of Christ’s name for the most partisan, mocking and disrespectful purposes. Wallis should be ashamed of himself, but instead he lets this all pass so he can right away get to his simplistic talking points about “the budget as a moral document.” He arrogantly does this as the voice for the “faith community.”
Did I say simplistic? I should have added “dishonest” to my description of what Wallis is doing.
No serious person would take Wallis’ sound bites or the Sojourners campaign as a real help to understanding our nation’s grave budget and debt problems. In that respect, what Wallis is doing is aggravating a problem that has cried out for honest, bipartisan cooperation for many years. He makes inflammatory assertions about cuts to programs for nutrition, malarial bed nets, and the like, and generally raises false alarms about budget cutters abandoning “the most vulnerable.” Really? If this were true, it would cast those Christians on the other side of Wallis — those who honestly believe we need to do something serious about the budget and mounting debt — as haters of the poor. Look at the White House chart on the budget and show me where this abandonment is happening. Just the opposite.
And all these vague, unattributed assertions, like the bed nets. If you don’t see it the way Wallis sees it, you must be indifferent to children dying of malaria. Right? That’s insulting to say the least. How many mosquito nets flow into Africa annually? Where do they come from? What share of these is funded by U.S. taxpayers? Are they effective? We don’t get answers to these questions. Maybe Wallis should read this article in the left leaning Guardian newspaper that explains why “Mosquito nets can’t conquer malaria.” How is malaria defeated? Economic growth.
Against his claims of abandoning the poor, Wallis harps on defense spending. Again, this is a dishonest diversion. Defense spending is not the main problem as this chart vividly shows (HT: Heritage Foundation).
Should defense spending be treated as a sacred cow? No. Is there waste in the defense budget? Undoubtedly. But let’s not make vague assertions about children going hungry because of redundant or unneeded military programs.
What’s more, Wallis seems to be impervious to the fact that spending on welfare and War on Poverty programs has been a massive and costly failure. His use of anecdote and selectively trivial factoids serves as a smokescreen for this reality. Is is possible that government nutrition programs might be wasteful or redundant? He doesn’t seem to be aware of that possibility. In a recent report on duplication in government programs, the GAO said this about nutrition programs:
Domestic food and nutrition assistance is provided through a decentralized system of primarily 18 different federal programs that shows signs of overlap and inefficient use of resources. [But] not enough is known about the effectiveness of many of these programs. Research suggests that participation in 7 of the 18 programs— including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and SNAP—is associated with positive health and nutrition outcomes consistent with programs’ goals, such as raising the level of nutrition among low-income households, safeguarding the health and well-being of the nation’s children, and strengthening the agricultural economy. Yet little is known about the effectiveness of the remaining 11 programs because they have not been well studied.
Reality gets complicated. Talking points are easier. Writing in 2005, Washington Post columnist George Will described how a freshman Sen. Barack Obama used a string of “old banalities” to attack the Bush administration for not doing enough to alleviate the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina. Will wrote:
[Obama] included the requisite lament about the president’s inadequate “empathy” and an amazing criticism of the government’s “historic indifference” and its “passive indifference” that “is as bad as active malice.” The senator, 44, is just 30 months older than the “war on poverty” that President Johnson declared in January 1964. Since then the indifference that is as bad as active malice has been expressed in more than $6.6 trillion of anti-poverty spending, strictly defined.
At least Obama had the decency not to invoke the name of the Lord. As for the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign, the “faith community” hasn’t been spared that.
God and Money passes along a news story about a church in Nebraska raising money “to buy motorcycles (probably not Harleys) for pastors in the African country of Tanzania. Pastors there serving multiple congregations cannot simulcast their sermons–they have to walk upwards of 60 miles to be with their flock.”
It brings to mind the early American Methodist practice of sending out circuit riders. But it also illustrates the kinds of needs that can be met in unconventional ways. This is the key insight that allows a venture like World Bicycle Relief to be effective.
We often bring our own preconceptions about what life should be like when we encounter and engage those in other parts of the world. That’s how we come up with the idea that what the poor in Africa need are laptops and access to the Internet. No. What is really needed now is much more basic, things like bicycles and motorcycles.
I think holistic biblical stewardship understood as a form of whole-life discipleship may be just the motif or infrastructure that the ecumenical movement has needed “to move purposefully forward.” At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an unprecedented opportunity exists to disciple the church in the fundamental pattern of holistic stewardship. As the church becomes increasingly aware of issues of sustainability, seeks to understand the role of business, and expands the message of the grace of giving as a central motif of the Christian life, an environment for personal and corporate transformation takes root.
Dr. Grabill and Brett Elder (of Acton’s strategic partner, the Stewardship Council) are both in Cape Town over the next weeks to participate in the event in a number of ways.
For a really stunning and inspiring story of how the concept of stewardship can enliven and enrich our lives, check out the story of Bishop Hannington of Uganda, now appearing on the Grace of Giving site.
Faith and Policy: Free markets, not aid, will help poor nations best
Rev. Robert Sirico
At the recent G8 and G20 meetings in Toronto, a hue and cry was raised by nongovernmental organizations and other activists about the failure of industrialized countries to make good on promises to raise aid to the developing world.
Instead, the activists should have called for a summit of African and Asian leaders and others who are calling for expanded trade, not more dependency in the form of foreign aid.
It has not been aid, after all, that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China and India but the move to market-oriented reforms, freer competition and the unleashing of the creative, entrepreneurial spark in the human person. In a recent book, one of India’s former finance ministers put it this way: “We got more done for the poor by pursuing the competition agenda for a few years than we got done by pursuing a poverty agenda for decades.”
The poverty agenda ignores, for the most part, market mechanisms in favors of huge grants to government leaders, who often pocket large chunks of the aid. The market makes room for the free interactions of people pursuing their own limited economic goals, in an almost infinite number of daily interactions. The market economy, despite the superficial appearance of chaos, ends up creating a larger social or common good for the largest number of people.
When we speak of the idea of the common good, we need to also be mindful of the political and juridical institutions that are most likely to bring it about. The answer is not to be found in the “commonality of goods” but in the very institutions that the socialists worked so hard to discredit. Let me list them: private property in the means of production, stable money to serve as a means of exchange, the freedom of enterprise that allows people to start businesses, the free association of workers, the enforcement of contracts, and a vibrant trade within and among nations (with benefits that would ultimately flow to Michigan) to permit the fullest possible flowering of the division of labor.
In an interview with Der Spiegel published this month, when Rwandan President Paul Kagame was asked a question about Africans complaining of exploitation, he responded that it was the wrong question: “Why don’t we talk about how we can get on our feet on our own? We do not always want to be the victims and to serve as a battleground for foreign interests.”
The market economy moves Africa and other developing nations away from dependency and offers the hope of real growth, a growth that provides vastly improved conditions for all.
Our gifts are to be put to work for the common good, and as such our talents and our wealth need to be put into action — not reduced to a line item in some aid bureaucrat’s master plan.