The Poor We’ll Always Have?

By Arthur B. Keys, Jr.

As a boy in rural Pennsylvania, I came to understand that growing food and creating sustenance are a function of hard work and even harder thinking.

Though growing enough food to support those who don’t grow it looks easy, it’s anything but that. Significant individual and collective creativity is required to transform seed, soil, and water into distributable surplus. Reliable supplies of surplus food are only a recent human achievement.

Those surpluses helped bring about a fundamental change in human expectations – the conviction that poverty can be overcome through human action.

For Jesus and the early church, what we call poverty was a fact of life. That’s not to say He accepted it as a permanent part of the human condition. Indeed, the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, which appears in all four canonical Gospels, provides us with Jesus’ powerful vision of a world in which abundant food is shared freely among all people.

A Permanent Stain?

This story made an especially deep impression on me as a young boy living in farm country. In the biblical world, the elimination of extreme poverty occurs when God decisively intervenes in history and establishes “a new heaven and new earth.”

Apparently no one imagined that mere humans could achieve sustenance and abundance on earth. Ambitions of communal nurture extended only to the modest efforts of small groups, and only then with the ongoing assistance of others. Paul writes a number of times about “the saints” in Jerusalem. He describes this group’s communal life of sharing according to need, in which no one wanted for the basics. What is striking, however, is that Paul also writes about collecting money from other early churches to help support this community of “saints.”

Their way of life was not, to use a modern term, sustainable. They had not overcome poverty as much as delayed it. Paul makes it clear that he and those about whom he writes expect Jesus to return in the near future to establish the world of shared abundance without end that he talked about and demonstrated in his miracles.

What makes the approach to poverty today so fundamentally different from that in Jesus’ time is the consensus that now exists among most churches, governments, non-profits, and others: reducing and eventually eliminating poverty should be a human goal achievable in the foreseeable future. The elimination of poverty, as an element of the radical vision of Jesus along with other prophets, has become almost universally accepted as conventional wisdom.

In recent decades, poverty strategies have evolved from local self-help initiatives for fellow believers, here in the U.S. and abroad, to sustained actions by large organizations working in dozens of countries. These large organizations, often global in scale and scope, now work on behalf of all people in need who profess every imaginable type of religious commitment – or none at all. We’ve moved a long way from ancient days when one small group of like-minded believers supported another while waiting for the Kingdom to appear.

The elimination of poverty, as an element of the radical vision of Jesus along with other prophets, has become almost universally accepted as conventional wisdom.

In important ways, global non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become a new form of “mission.” Though they are organized like businesses and often deliberately eschew denominational or religious trappings, they are often run and staffed by clergy and others with a faith background. They work with churches and faith-based groups as well as with secular groups, community-based organizations, local governments, and sometimes even the military. They are dedicated to assisting those in dire need, a mission that creates a distinct sense of community. NGOs have many of the markers of a mission organization – but their “mission” is defined by a modern, secular, in-it-for-the-long-haul version of the early church’s anticipatory end-time worldview.

Incomes and Outcomes

These “mission-driven” global NGOs are successful in addressing and overcoming poverty when they align themselves with a single goal – economic development. In the past forty years, countries that have sustained significant economic growth – like Japan, China, South Korea, and Taiwan – have also experienced a significant reduction in the number of people living in poverty. NGOs, and the church organizations that work with and through them, are effective when they partner with local institutions that know how to achieve practical economic goals with measurable outcomes. Usually this means encouraging the sale of goods for local or global markets, resulting in long-term wealth creation.

Reducing poverty and hunger also means working effectively with national governments and transnational governing institutions, finding successful markets, and using concrete metrics to measure progress. Governments today are more consciously organized around economic development than at almost any time in history. It could be argued that no matter what the ideology or form of government, economic development is the state’s primary source of legitimacy in today’s world.

That makes governments powerful potential allies in the effort to eliminate poverty. Modern states have the capacity to mobilize resources and effect change on a scale the early church could never imagine. Not all do, of course. Corruption, instability, and civil war persist as obstacles. Corruption is an especially insidious hindrance that reduces incentives to participate in the formal economy. But in the past decade, leading governments and transnational organizations like the World Bank have gotten serious about tying development assistance to compliance with anti-fraud and corruption protections and other measures of “good governance.”

This is a long-term effort, and developed nations’ programs to combat it are long overdue. But the larger trend shouldn’t be overlooked: in the modern world, improving citizens’ material conditions is considered a normal function of government, and governments are judged by how well they achieve this goal.

Reducing poverty must focus on those communities damaged or destroyed by natural disaster, or caught in the middle of armed conflict. These are people in greatest need – “the least among us.” Serving them means taking risks to try to make a difference, with the creativity that understands that lived faith has never been a matter of simple or inflexible rules. 

Success in Indonesia

An example of how all this can come together in practice occurred in Indonesia. International Relief and Development (IRD) launched a successful project to help Indonesians recover from the economic and financial crisis of the late 1990s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shipped 128,000 metric tons of wheat to Indonesia from 1999 to 2008. But rather than simply handing over the wheat, the two governments invited my organization to devise a food-aid program based on sustainable business principles. We worked with the U.S. Wheat Association, the American Soy Bean Association, and several Indonesian companies, including Tiga Pilar Sejahtera Food (TPS). TPS factories produce rice vermicelli, egg noodles, and wheat biscuits.

TPS received USDA-donated flour to produce a new line of fortified noodles, distributed and sold in high-unemployment areas. In return, TPS was required to reinvest a portion of its proceeds in new production to expand output and increase jobs. My organization also collected a portion of the profits, which we used to fund water-treatment facilities, snacks for school children, and health services.

Even though we acknowledge that the utopian vision of economic and social peace on earth will not likely be achieved, we live and act in a world in which these social ills are now considered unacceptable.

Since 1999, the program has produced nearly two billion packets of fortified noodles to feed about four million low-income Indonesians monthly. It has also produced thousands of jobs in milling, noodle production, marketing, distribution, and sales. It helped provide basic education and healthcare for thousands of people, enabling them to seek higher-paying and steady work. This in turn created more demand for the products and other locally produced goods and services. The circle continues, each year lifting more people out of poverty. IRD has worked with public and private groups to develop similar noodle production and distribution systems in Cambodia and Cameroon.

Governments today are more consciously organized around economic development than at almost any time in history.

As important as they are, such successes are relative. The world remains engulfed in conflict, injustice, poverty, and plain indifference. Jesus preached against social realities that His listeners usually assumed to be outside human control. Even though we acknowledge that the utopian vision of economic and social peace on earth will not likely be achieved, we live and act in a world in which these social ills are now considered unacceptable. Perhaps for the first time in history, the largest institutions in the world are being measured by how effectively they address these human-generated shortcomings, especially economic deprivation. In decidedly imperfect but important ways, much of the world’s population, including those who run it, subscribe to some version of the vision of attending to “the least of these” laid out in the ancient Scriptures.

Rededication Time

This vision will be evident during the United Nations summit in September 2010, when the world’s nations rededicate themselves to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Adopted by world leaders in 2000, the eight MDGs are broken down into twenty-one quantifiable targets to be achieved by 2015. These include income poverty, hunger, maternal and child mortality, disease, inadequate shelter, gender inequality, and environmental degradation. Though it is unlikely all the goals will be achieved in the next five years, they identify common human needs, generate and focus resources to address them, and measure results.

Any setbacks in achieving the MDGs may be viewed as largely political, often taking the form of instability and conflict. One lesson of the last decade should be the primacy of civil stability in economic and human development. Religious organizations have great potential for brokering peace that creates stability. For example, the recent peace accord in Sudan is dependent on Christian groups like the Sudan Council of Churches and Muslim clerics like Ahmed al-Mahdi finding ways to increase religious tolerance and freedom of religion. The peace achieved is anything but perfect. But it has reduced the level of violence and enabled NGOs to help Sudan’s people build healthcare systems and other core elements of a sustainable economy and society. Faith groups interested in reducing poverty should increase their commitment to those organizations working to end conflict and promote civil stability.

In addition to doing so through our own indi- vidual faith groups, we can work for, give to and otherwise support the global NGOs that work to bring relief and, more important, build sustainable development to every corner of the globe. Jesus’ vision of a world free of abject need might never come to pass on this earth. But we’re closer to achieving marked improvements in the world’s economic and social conditions than most people realize. Though a world with less poverty won’t look like anything Jesus – or those of us who grew up in rural Pennsylvania – could ever imagine, it can be a taste of the heaven on earth that inspired so many of his followers throughout the ages. It should inspire us as well.

Arthur B. Keys, Jr. ’73 M.Div. is president and CEO of Inter- national Relief and Development (IRD), which he founded in 1998. Since that time, he has overseen the distribution of more than $1.75 billion in humanitarian assistance to Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. Gulf Coast. He is a past recipient of the YDS William Sloane Coffin ’56 Award for Peace and Justice.