Last week in Rome the Acton Institute presented a promotional video for the PovertyCure initiative before an international audience of businessmen, scholars, journalists, graduate students and missionaries in attendance at the Institute’s May 18 development economics conference: “Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation.” The Acton Institute is one of many partners in this new initiative made up of a network of individuals and organizations looking for free-enterprise solutions to poverty.

The video caused quite a stir in the hearts and minds of the attendees. So I solicited some feedback from the audience, a great percentage of whom hailed from countries with developing and emerging markets.

A missionary Ph.D. student at the Pontifical Gregorian University told me after the presentation: “This brief trailer has already brought to my clear attention the real hindrances to economic growth in South America and throughout (other) developing and emerging markets. And more importantly, what impressed me was what we have to do — through our own pastoral outreach — to begin changing the pervasive dependency on government hand-outs.”

One of the Vatican beat journalists present at the showing, Edward Pentin (who contributes to the National Catholic Register and Zenit, among others) had the chance to interview Acton’s president, Rev. Robert Sirico, about the video’s purpose and potential impact on changing common opinions on failing aid-based development economic systems.

In responding to Pentin’s questions, Rev. Sirico said the video’s aim is “to challenge the development community to really focus on developing, that is, opening spheres of economic productivity and cooperation … allowing the others to contribute to their own prosperity.”

Below you can find the May 19 Zenit article (or go here) and the Poverty Cure video.

Fostering prosperity
by Edward Pentin

Vast amounts of state aid and governments imposing endless regulations are not the way to solve global poverty; rather it will be done through trade, private enterprise and helping populations in poor countries to contribute to their own prosperity.

This is the view shared by members of PovertyCure — an international network of individuals and NGOs who are seeking to encourage anti-poverty solutions through fostering opportunity and unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit in the developing world.

A leading partner and one of the main organizers of the network is the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Its president and co-founder, Father Robert Sirico, told ZENIT there is “plenty of data across the board” that has long been known to create prosperity — namely low taxation, low regulation and increased market globalization. “This doesn’t come without some problems as the Pope and others have indicated, but this is the first time in human history where we know how to solve poverty.”

Father Sirico said one of the overarching aims of PovertyCure is “to challenge the development community to really focus on developing, that is opening spheres of economic productivity and cooperation,” allowing the others to “contribute to their own prosperity.” “When I put it like that it sounds so clear and simple,” he said, “but it is and that’s what’s frustrating.”

The American priest noted the challenges of overcoming a static mindset that believes government aid is the only real solution to global poverty. But he also highlighted a “perhaps more sinister” problem which is a “huge institutional vested interest in leaving the situation as it is.” He was referring to the thousands of people employed through aid program bureaucracies that are averse to change for fear it will put them out of a job. Father Sirico said it is “ridiculous to spend significant proportions of development money on supporting bureaucracies to administer programs.”

Instead he prefers what, in Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI calls “fiscal subsidiarity” — a form of creating credits in various nations not for foreign governments to invest in developing nations but for the citizens to invest in businesses in poor countries, and to have their tax burden lightened with respect to the investment that they give. “That’s one approach,” he said. “The other is to obviously drop the scandalous trade barriers that separate people and create pockets of interest in maintaining unfair portions of the market.”

When put to him that some aid agencies believe international aid should be a mix of private entrepreneurship and state aid, Father Sirico said governments should be “the last in and not be the most dominant” in a development situation which tends to always be very delicate. “The problem is that government is very heavy handed and bureaucrats develop self interest in justifying their existence,” he said. “So it sounds very reasonable to say you want to have a partnership but when the partner is a huge gorilla, and the other partners are small little enterprises, the gorilla has the say.”

He therefore prefers to approach the issue “through the lens of subsidiarity.” Otherwise, he said, there’s a tendency on the part of government to “suck all the air out of the room” and not allow scope for enterprise.

He readily concedes, however, that what he is advocating is not a panacea, nor that the free market is naturally moral. “People caricature my approach, saying [I believe] the market is virtuous,” he said. “But the market will reflect all of the vices and virtues that people will reflect in their own private life because that’s in fact what the market is.”
For this reason, he calls “for a more robust form of evangelization.” It’s evangelization, he said, that “really shows us what we need to do rather than covering it over with regulations and giving the impression that if we made regulations then we’ve solved the problem. That’s simply not the truth in terms of human misery.”

Father Sirico was speaking on the sidelines of a May 18 Acton conference in Rome on the transformation of the Asian economy through the expansion of trade, commerce, and entrepreneurship. He said that Asia is one of the “great examples” that “really underscores our point.”

In its vision statement, PovertyCure states that Christ calls us to solidarity with the poor, but this means more than just material assistance. “It means seeing the poor not as objects or experiments, but as partners and brothers and sisters, as fellow creatures made in the image of God with the capacity to solve problems and create new wealth for themselves and their families. At a practical level, it means integrating them into our networks of exchange and productivity.”

The Acton Institute and its co-members of PovertyCure are inviting other partners and NGOs to join the network. More details can be found on its Web site at: www.povertycure.org

Thanks to P. Koshy @pkoshyin and Saurabh Srivastava @SKS_Mumbai for linking this 1996 Religion & Liberty gem on Twitter. Author Mario Gómez-Zimmerman argues that Hinduism “pre-figures capitalism much closer than socialism.” More:

As it is true for all the great religions, Hinduism warns human beings about the dangers of accumulating wealth, and at times demands them to renounce it. But in all cases, wealth is attacked because it is likely to subject man to dependency, fostering egoism, greed, and avarice, and not for being an evil in itself. In fact, wealth is considered a good to be pursued within the spheres of worldly affairs, trying at the same time to remain detached from it, which is the way to spiritual evolution. In Hinduism, this aspect is commonly referred to as renouncing the fruit of labor. It is made with the provision that renunciation must be a voluntary act, because it is acknowledged that only a few are prepared to follow the path to perfection in a strict manner. Literature on this is vast, so I will limit myself to sample what Sai Baba and Prabhupada (the first considered by many as the Avatar of our time, the second the founder of the International Society for the Conscience of Krishna) have to say about this. To quote Sai Baba: “When a man has a right to engage in Karma, he has a right also for the fruit; no one can deny this or refuse his right. On his part, Prabhupada states that, according to the Law of Karma, wealth is the result of a good previous labor, and that the Lord leaves man independent to engage in the activities proper to the material world.

Read “The Capitalist Structures of Hinduism” in Religion & Liberty.

David Bahnsen and Douglas Wilson have engaged in a fascinating conversation about Ron Paul. To follow the threads of critique and concern on either side, first read Bahnsen’s “The Undiscerning and Dangerous Appreciation of Ron Paul.” Then read Wilson’s “Bright Lights and Big Bugs.”

Much of the conversation focuses on the role of government (or lack thereof), from a biblical perspective (or lack thereof), specifically with regard to foreign policy. As Bahnsen puts it, “As I got older and wiser, I began to realize that the heir of Friedrich Hayek was Milton Friedman, not Murray Rothbard, and that this ‘Austrian economics movement’ was a front for an extremist form of anti-war zealotry. Every single conference break was filled with the most radical of conspiracy theorists you have ever heard, and the political intentions of the major brains behind their operation were not hidden: Utter anarchy.”

A critical component of Bahnsen’s argument is the connection he draws between Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell: “Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell are joined at the hip.” Read the whole thing to see the implications that Bahnsen draws.

Wilson’s response is worth looking at closely as well. In discussing the implications of a “guilt by association” approach, Wilson writes, that “all these concerns come to a practical head when you think about the reconstructionist movement.”

Thus, concludes Wilson,

a lot of the associational difficulties that attend Ron Paul’s crowd are exactly the same as those which attended the recons. We are talking in many cases about the very same people. I believe that if we were to cross check the subscription lists for the various newsletters concerned, the results would be informative and edifying. Gary North writes for Lew Rockwell, and Gary North also worked with Jim Jordan, who has worked with Gary Demar, who worked with Peter Leithart, who works alongside me, who is friends with David Bahnsen, who works with Andrew Sandlin, who was a successor to Rushdoony, who was North’s father-in-law, who worked on Ron Paul’s staff, and on it goes.

One of the few scholarly treatments of the engagement between Christian Reconstruction and libertarian political and economic thought appears in the Journal of Markets & Morality. Read “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Glenn Moots and Timothy Terrell for some worthwhile background to the conversation between Bahnsen and Wilson on Ron Paul.

As Moots and Terrell write, “Christian Reconstruction is in no small sense the gateway for libertarianism and Austrian economics to make its way into the thinking of the religious right. While there are clearly points of disagreement, libertarianism’s link to Christian Reconstruction is much stronger than its link to other groups within the religious right.”

RomeReports, a television news agency focusing on the Vatican, covered the Acton Institute’s Rome conference on May 18: Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation.

The following RomeReports video is an excellent overview of some of the obstacles that China still faces if it expects to sustain its current economic success.

In the video Dr. Raquel Vaz-Pinto, a panelist from the Catholic University of Portugal and an expert on Chinese culture, spoke frankly about such issues, while criticizing the welfare time-bomb, the one-child policy, and the state of religious freedom in China while pleading for a more active Church in promoting a socially responsible economic culture.

Acton On The AirLast week, the Acton Institute held a conference in Rome examining the rise of Asian Economies. One of the keynote speakers was Thomas Hong-Soon Han, the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Holy See. Vatican Radio spoke with him about the topic of the conference; you can listen to the interview using the audio player below:

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To conclude the Acton Institute’s May 18 Rome conference, Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation, panelist Fr. Bernardo Cervellera reminded the audience of a fundamental principle to sustain the long term growth of any free economy: spiritually meaningful work.

Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, the outspoken missionary of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME) and editorial director of AsiaNews (a leading Catholic news agency) recounted some controversial stories from his nearly twenty years experience in China as a professor of Western civilization and foreign journalist.

Fr Cervellera, author of Mission China: The Empire between Market and Repression, expressed his concern for the “conversion of China” before it can truly become successful economically in the long term (coincidentally on the same day the pope asked us to do the same for China during his Wednesday public audience. See also the video of the audience.).

During the afternoon session of the Acton’s international conference series dedicated to Poverty, Entrepreneurship and Integral Development, Fr. Cervellera followed the inspiring testimony and practical proposals of successful Christian entrepreneurs in Asia, including financial moguls Charles Gave and Michael Hintze and social venture capitalist Kim Tan, of Malaysian origin, who has financed successful businesses throughout the developing world.

The PIME missionary spoke frankly about moral-anthropological underpinnings to sustain hard working, enterprising economies while referring to a tragic case in the booming industrial province of Guangdong where the free market experiment is underway.

Fr. Cervellera told the shocking story of “a wave of recent worker suicides at Foxconn”, a leading manufacturer of electronic components for Apple’s iPhone, Nokia, Siemens, and Sony.

Within the last year, Cervellera said there has been about “about twelve or thirteen suicides at the company where, every now and then, another worker would jump from a window of the adjacent workers’ dormitory.”

He noted that the Foxconn employees enjoyed a nice housing perk in addition to decent wages of about 1800 yuan a month, much more than average pay in the Chinese manufacturing sector.

But they worked like cogs in a machine with strictly calculated bathroom breaks and were forbidden to talk to one another at work stations.

Cervellera explained that the string of Foxconn worker suicides could not be remedied by “professional counseling, 70 percent salary increases, …or even a no-suicide clause written into Foxconn employees’ contracts”.

“The suicides continued and only came to a halt only when the company added safety nets to under the apartment building’s windows.”

Cervellera said the Foxconn suicides was a clear indication of a widespread spiritual vacuum in Chinese business culture, as most companies do not inspire or foster meaning in their workers’ daily lives.

He forewarned the audience that China must seek a symbiosis between economic and spiritual growth, where a “ a boom in faith and economic production occur together.”

Fr. Bernardo Cervellera said that all human success, especially economic success, must flourish under protected religious freedom – “the freedom to seek and apply spiritual value in our daily work and enterprise.” Without this, such freedom to succeed at the workplace ends up being meaningless, hollow, without real human significance:

“What does this all mean?… Many Chinese businesses have imbalanced focus in production and profit, without giving deep value to work itself and to the person who labors in a unique, talented capacity”, Cervellera said.

At the end of the conference, Acton introduced the extended trailer to its new documentary – Poverty Cure – where some of the moral anthropological obstacles to an enterprise culture in developing regions are brought to vivid light.

Poverty Cure

Blog author: jballor
Friday, May 20, 2011
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Over at the Comment site, I review Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly—and the Stark Choices Ahead. In “War of the Worldviews,” I note that the strongest elements of Moyo’s work are related to her analysis of the causes and the trends of global economic power. “Faced with the combined might of the Rest,” writes Moyo, “the West is forced to grapple with a relentless onslaught of challengers from all corners of the globe. And all these countries are growing in confidence, gaining in competence, and jockeying for a frontline position in the world’s economic race.”

A recently released World Bank report echoes Moyo’s sentiments, which are broadly shared by many forecasts. As Motoko Rich at the NYT Economix blog summarizes, “A new report from the World Bank predicts that by 2025, China, along with five other emerging economies — Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia — will account for more than half of all global growth, up from one-third now.”

One way of understanding these trends is that it is simply what you get in an age of global competition. Nations like China, India, and Brazil are increasingly able to make sustained GDP gains because of increased access to global markets, particularly the US. And the US is forced to adapt to remain competitive, and in many cases this hasn’t happened. It’s not clear at all why all this is such a bad thing. After all, it’s not that the US will cease to be affluent in the foreseeable future. It’s just that other nations won’t be as relatively poor.

Even so, Moyo can’t help but cast these developments in negative terms for the West: “…even while globalization could contribute to a rising tide for all boats, it is clear that the relative quality of life will almost certainly have to decline in the West to accommodate a rise in the Rest.” Thus the relatively greater quality of life enjoyed in the West will decline compared to the Rest. But why must this be so dire for the West?

The weakest part of Moyo’s project comes through in her attempts to provide prescriptive guidance for the West to avoid this “precarious path of forecast decline.” All you really need to know about her suggestions appears in this line: “there is, after all, nothing inherently wrong with a socialist state per se if it’s well engineered and designed and can finance itself.”

Moyo wants the US to adopt the Chinese model of state-directed markets because of the “the speed with which policies can be taken and implemented.” Deliberative democracy is just too slow, too cumbersome, and too captive to special interests. We need a lean, mean set of government committees to run the economy properly and efficiently.

What’s difficult for me to understand is why, given the West’s historical success by embodying “a fully fledged capitalist society of entrepreneurs,” we should abandon that model. Moyo should instead be calling the West back to its strengths, its foundations in “democracy and the sanctity of the rights of the individual elevated above all else,” instead of issuing the siren song of state-driven capitalism. If it is really a competition between state-run and entrepreneurial “capitalism,” it’s not clear at all (as Moyo seems to think) that the statists will win.

It seems to me that the West will only truly be “lost” when we give up our commitments to the inherent dignity and rights of the individual, the rule of law, freedom of association, exchange, religion, and expression. The thrust of Moyo’s book is a classic, “It became necessary to destroy the West to save it,” project, and that’s one that’s simply not worth fighting for.

I’ve written a fair bit over recent months about trends in charitable giving and Christian tithing. One the latter point, I touched on the importance of tithing in my latest “On the Square” feature at the First Things site. I’m looking forward to getting a look at Douglas LeBlanc’s book, Tithing: Test Me in This. We are seeing right now just how critical faithful charity can be in the midst of disaster.

The Barna Group recently released a major new research study focusing on many of these trends, “Donors Proceed with Caution, Tithing Declines.” This data is worth looking at more closely and there’s a lot to digest. But here’s how Barna initially frames the study:

“The economic downturn influenced donations later than it affected other aspects of our spending,” explained David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “Once it kicked in, though, donors have cut back significantly in their giving to churches and nonprofits. Now, even as the economy shows some signs of improvement, donors are still reluctant to return to their previous levels of generosity. They may be less shell-shocked than 15 months ago, but they are still cautious.

Has the economic downturn impacted your giving? If so, how?

I wrote several blogs last week about the value and importance of the Church Fathers. One of the early Greek Fathers was Clement of Alexandria, born in Athens around A.D. 150. His parents were pagans. He was converted to faith in Christ and began to travel widely searching for faithful Christian teachers. He attended the famous School of Theology in Alexandria, founded by Pantaenus in A.D. 180. After he settled there he became the director of the school, thus Clement of Alexandria. A few years after he became the director he was forced to quickly flee during the persecution of Septimius Severus. He took refuge in Cappadocia, where he died in A.D. 215, thus he is called a Cappadocian Father.

StClementOfAlexandriaSt. Clement is considered one of the forerunners of what we now call systematic theology. He was the first Christian writer to recognize secular philosophy (Neoplatonism) and incorporate some of its major ideas in service of the Christian faith. Most of his literary output has been lost but one work, on riches and wealth, is still considered valuable to the church. Commenting on Mark 10:17-22 Clement addressed some of the common interpretations of this text by saying:

1. Our Lord was not telling Christians to get rid of their wealth. He was telling them to banish from their souls the primacy of riches. “Unfettered greed can suffocate the seed of true life.”

2. It is not something new to renounce riches and distribute them to the poor. This, said Clement, was done long before Jesus came. Some did this to devote themselves to the arts and in search of vain knowledge while others sought fame and glory by this means.

3. What our Lord does command here is something new, something proper to God who alone gives life. Clement writes:

He does not command what the letter says and what others have already done. He is asking for something greater, more divine, more perfect than that which is stated –that we denude the soul itself of its disordered passions, that we pull out the roots and fling away what is foreign to the spirit. Here, then, is the teaching proper to a believer, and the doctrine worthy of the Savior. Those, who before Christ’s coming despised material goods, certainly gave up their riches and lost them, but the passions of the soul increased even more. For having believed that they had done something superhuman, they came to indulge in pride, petulance, vainglory, despising others.

Clement wrote that a person could give everything away only to doubly regret his decision. To teach that Jesus intends for every disciple to give up everything contradicts statements like those of Luke 16:9, which urges us to make friends by the use of wealth. “Riches then should not be rejected if they can be of use to our neighbor. They are accurately called possessions because they are possessed by people, and goods or utilities because with them one can do good and because they have been ordained by God for the use of men.”

What Clement is saying is that goods and possessions can be instruments in the hands of skilled servants who use them to bless others and advance great good. “Riches, then, are also an instrument.” If rightly used they can bring about justice and service. He added, “In themselves riches are blameless.”

So what is the problem with riches? Riches present an opportunity to do great good or serious evil. “The one to be accused is the person who has the ability, through the choice he makes, to put it to good use or to misuse it. And this is up to the mind and judgment of man, who is free and able to manage what is given him for his use.” Simply put, we are required to be good stewards of all goods and possessions we have been given by whatever means.

So the problem riches present to us, concludes Clement, is in how they are used by our disordered passions. “The rich – who are going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom – will have to understand these words intelligently, and not in a dull and superficial way.”

My experience with people who possess great means is that this is an accurate understanding of the true problem. The real problem is not in riches themselves but in human passions and desires. Wealthy people can bring immense blessing to people and mission. Make no mistake about this, prosperity is always to be preferred to poverty. But those who prosper must understand that they bear greater responsibility to deal with their passions and desires and to use their possessions and goods for the kingdom of God.

My commentary is about the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck the South in late April. The focus of this piece is primarily what is going on in Alabama, but it is true for the entire region that was affected. I’d like to thank Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa for lending his time to talk with me about his experiences. There were so many inspirational anecdotes and stories he offered. I only wish there was room to include them all. I will follow up with more of his story in a separate piece for Religion & Liberty. This is the link to the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. The commentary is printed below.

Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity

by Ray Nothstine

Traffic was “reminiscent of a fall football weekend,” declared an AP report last week from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Volunteer armies, faith-based charities, and other service organizations descended upon affected areas in the wake of tornadoes that killed 238 people in Alabama alone. Now, following the whirlwind, we are seeing the compassion and strength of a faith-filled region.

As federal groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency work to repair their reputation following intense criticism after Hurricane Katrina, the experienced workers from faith-based charities are leading on several fronts. Many church groups now have state of the art kitchen trailers that can easily feed 25,000 a day. University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts “extremely decentralized” and added, “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”

One grassroots organization is proving to be effective at meeting immediate needs through social networking. Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, which has partnered with the Christian Service Mission, is a group of Auburn University sports fans who have united on Facebook to reach out to their rivals. Fans post a need and somebody responds nearly instantaneously to address the situation or share updates. Toomer’s Facebook network has exploded and they are now assisting flood victims and the tornado-ravaged community of Smithville, Miss. In a letter thanking the governor of Alabama for his leadership during the crisis, Toomer’s declared:

In one way or another, none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith-based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.

In an interview, Tuscaloosa resident Jeff Bell described the tornado as “destruction like I have never seen in my life.” Bell, who took shelter during the storm in the basement of a Baptist church, said he prayed what he thought was his final prayer. Bell said of the recovery, “What I am seeing is spiritually amazing. Black and white churches are forming a bond as well as all different denominations.”

Bell, who lost his job because of the tornado, praised the business community. “Small business owners who have lost everything are finding ways to help their employees,” he said. Big business has contributed, too. Hyundai Motor Company alone pledged $1.5 million for recovery efforts.

One of the strengths of faith-based charities is they do not have to make income tests before they help people in need. Unfortunately, sometimes when FEMA does help an individual its bureaucratic tentacles can cause more harm than good. This was the case in Iowa after flooding in 2008, where individuals and families applied for money after their homes were destroyed. After months and months of waiting, they finally received funds. But this year 179 recipients were later told they were never eligible and had to pay it back in 30 days. Some had to return as much as $30,000. A recent report said that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

For many in the South, church life is the center of community. Members do not just spend Sunday in the pews but attend myriad weekly activities at their centers of worship. To say the church is the pulse of a community is no exaggeration.

Christianity proclaims a future regeneration of a disordered world. The Church is that earthly reminder and Sunday worship is a powerful symbol of a gathering of the redeemed for the day of restoration. It remains a comforting place for questions of “Why?” during disasters and trial. Alabama is second to only Mississippi as the most religious state, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The gospel, as embodied by Christ, is the story of giving and sacrificing for those we do not know. It is little wonder that government assistance efforts are playing catch-up across the South. “Southerners have long tended to be conservative on issues of government, stressing provision from family and churches rather than government intervention in times of crisis,” says Charles Wilson Reagan professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Alabama, affectionately nicknamed “The Heart of Dixie,” is no longer just a powerful symbol for the region or the Old South. It has become a universal symbol for what a faith-filled community can do when its people are unleashed as a force for good.