Is Foreign Aid a Sacred Cow? | by Victor V. Claar

Below is a commentary written by Victor Claar and published by PovertyCure’s parent organization, the Acton Institute. The commentary addresses a letter written by leaders of the ministry and NGO world that urged the United States Congress to protect federal funding for foreign aid from budget cuts. Several PovertyCure friends and partners signed this letter. Our hope in posting this commentary is to kindly remind them and our readers why entrepreneurship, economic growth, and a focus on the creative capacity of the poor, not foreign aid, is the best path forward to realizing a world without extreme poverty.

Our aim is not to promote nor defend any particular legislative agenda. Our aim is simply to add our view to the larger conversation about the merits and deficiencies of foreign aid.

In case you missed it – understandably – in the barrage of news stories and Saint Patrick’s Day posts last week, a group of 106 faith leaders have collaborated on a letter they have signed and sent to the Democrat and Republican leadership of both houses of Congress. The letter implores Congress not to reduce the size of the U.S. International Affairs Budget, and was occasioned by President Donald J. Trump’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.

Since the final passage of the Budgeting and Accounting Act of 1921, the president has been charged with delivering a proposed budget to Congress no later than the first Monday in February. Far from final, this “executive budget” usually serves as a starting point for budgetary discussions and negotiations.

In Trump’s proposed budget, he asks Congress for a $10.9 billion reduction – roughly 28 percent – of the funds currently allocated to international diplomatic and aid programs, and channeled through institutions such as the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Though these numbers sound large, keep in mind that the overall federal budget lies north of $3 trillion, making the share of federal budget funds devoted to international affairs – currently around $50 billion — less than one percent of total spending. Along with proposed cuts elsewhere, the suggested reduction in the portion of the budget designated for international affairs would be reallocated to Trump’s proposed increases in national defense.

The president is not the first to suggest that cuts to international affairs spending might be worth considering. Late last year the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) specifically evaluated reductions in international affairs funds as one of several options aimed at deficit reduction over the next ten years. In their proposal, international affairs funding would be reduced by 25 percent: not far off from the president’s own proposed reduction, albeit with a different goal.

In weighing costs versus benefits of such a cut, the CBO cites a June 2016 Congressional Research Service report that concluded, “In most cases, clear evidence of the success or failure of U.S. assistance programs is lacking, both at the program level and in aggregate.” The report explains why in its summary:

… historically, most aid programs have not been evaluated for the purpose of determining their actual impact. Many programs are not even evaluated on basic performance. The purpose and methodologies of foreign aid evaluation have varied over the decades, responding to political and fiscal circumstances … Persistent challenges to effective evaluation include unclear aid objectives, funding and personnel constraints, emphasis on accountability for funds, methodological challenges, compressed timelines, country ownership and donor coordination commitments, security, and agency and personnel incentives. As a result of these challenges, aid agencies do not undertake evaluation of all foreign aid activities, and evaluations, when carried out, may differ considerably in quality.

While the Congressional Research Service and the CBO humbly confess they simply do not know whether, or to what extent, international aid results in better outcomes – either for us or for the rest of the planet’s population – the 106 faith leaders mentioned above appear quite certain in their claim that, with a mere one percent of the federal budget, “the International Affairs Budget has helped alleviate the suffering of millions; drastically cutting the number of people living in extreme poverty in half, stopping the spread of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDs and Ebola, and nearly eliminating polio.”

These are bold claims — especially given the ambivalence of the CBO and the Congressional Research Service regarding the alleged impact of initiatives like direct aid.

While many of the world’s politicians would like to take credit for cutting extreme global poverty in half in just 20 years, and the aforementioned faith leaders seem quite ready to thank politicians for their achievements, the source of this success is far simpler: economic growth. As the Economist magazine has put it, “ … the biggest poverty-reduction measure of all is liberalising markets to let poor people get richer. That means freeing trade between countries … and within them.”

It hasn’t been aid that has lifted people out of poverty, but trade and access to markets.

And such economic growth normally occurs most easily in places that possess a few essential elements that provide a fertile environment in which economic growth can take hold: rule of law; private property; free association and exchange; access to markets; a culture of trust; and a vital network of churches, communities, and cultures that encourage respect for the dignity of the human person.

This is not to say that there is no role for foreign partners, whether private or public ones, in helping the remaining “bottom billion” forge a pathway out of poverty. For example, in an NBER working paper prepared for the World Economic Forum, Elsa Artadi and Xavier Sala-i-Martin identify some of the key factors that continue to hold back many African nations, including “low levels of education, poor health, adverse geography, closed economies, too much public expenditure and too many military conflicts.” We will need to think far more creatively, and be far more patient, as we work to overcome obstacles like these that lie along the pathways out of poverty for much of Africa.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing either for or against the president’s proposals regarding international affairs. I am merely pointing out that the faith leaders’ claim that the U.S. International Affairs Budget has cut global poverty in half grossly overstates what government aid alone can accomplish.


Header image used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0), some modifications made.

Victor V. Claar is professor of economics at Henderson State University, the public liberal arts university of Arkansas. He is a coauthor of Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices, and author of the Acton Institute’s Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution

Imago Dei and Implications for Poverty


The idea that all humans are “created equal” would have struck most peoples of the ancient world as ludicrous, since humans are obviously not equal in wealth, rank or natural abilities. Aristotle merely summarized conventional wisdom when he asserted that some are fitted to serve as slaves while others are born with the natural capacity and authority to rule. As sociologist and historian Rodney Stark notes, the institution of slavery was universal for most of human history.

The idea of human equality, however, received a foothold in Western thought from the Hebrew idea that every human is created in the image of God (Imago Dei) and so possesses inherent dignity and worth. This understanding was reinforced by the specifically Christian doctrine that God entered human history as a man, died for the sins of all humanity, and that in Christ “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.”

Imago Dei Becoming a Reality in History

These ideas worked in the face of hatred, greed, and hypocrisy to gradually improve the rights of medieval European peasants, and to undergird the abolition movements of England, Europe, and the United States. The idea also can have an important role in helping the poor and oppressed of today’s world to achieve liberty and flourish.

When our poverty-fighting ideas are founded up the fact that all people are made in the image of God and are therefore, created equal, we realize that we must abandon paternalism and embrace partnership. We further realize that poverty does not exist due to people’s incapacity. Instead, our focus shifts to the fact that people are poor because they are excluded from circles of exchange, living without the rule of law, cannot get title to their property, and cannot access justice in the courts.

Stewards in the Image of God

The biblical account of humans made in the image of God also undergirds the idea of humans as stewards of the rest of creation. It’s been argued that the West is the first civilization in history to extend the rights of private property to a substantial percentage of its members, in part because of this idea that humans are made in the image of God and given stewardship responsibility by God.

This view of the human person suggests that such people are meant to have a stewardship responsibility over what has come into their possession by honest means, a responsibility that should be honored and encouraged by the state rather than violated. This view of the human person also emphasizes the creative capacity of humans, since they are understood to be made in the image of the Creator.

Implications for Poverty

Materialist anthropologies have tended to lapse into fixed-pie or zero-sum-game thinking when it comes to questions of wealth and poverty. In this view, people are reduced to mouths to feed with ever-decreasing amounts of resources. Alternatively, the Judeo-Christian understanding of humans sees people as sub-creators that have the ability to innovate and take resources and make them stretch further than could ever have been done in the past. When we rightly see all people as Imago Dei, the battle against poverty gets brighter.


PovertyCure Issues: Education

Learning is action and the proper starting point is understanding the person and the foundations of human flourishing.  Today we continue our series of PovertyCure Issues focusing on the Human Person, specifically Education.  You can see our other PovertyCure Issues Posts by clicking here.

The singular issue is improving human capital.  ~ Carl Schramm

Education and Economic Development

Education in developing countries can help improve life in obvious ways, such as economic growth, political stability and personal health. Unfortunately, developing countries tend to be behind the rest of the world in basic education, especially women’s education. Still, increased education funding is not a silver bullet, and not only because foreign aid for education often gets misdirected by inefficient and corrupt bureaucracies. With education, as with most issues in poverty relief, good intentions need to be yoked to sound economics and a right understanding of the human person if they are to generate positive results for the poor.

Education in Developing Countries and Foreign Aid

In his essay, “After Empire,” Theodore Dalrymple describes a negative consequence of formal education that he observed while living and working in Tanzania: “The aim of education was, in almost every case, that at least one family member should escape … rural life and get into government service, from which he would be in a position to extort from the only productive people in the country—namely, the peasants from whom he had sprung.” As Dalrymple says in the PovertyCure interview, “The purpose of education was to get a job in the government so that you became a member of this parasitic class,” meaning the ruling political class, which “had actually an interest in making sure that no one else flourished, because that would be the end of aid.” In other words, badly focused Western education efforts in Tanzania resulted in people leaving the real foundation of the economy, its farming, to join the government in extorting from the remaining farmers, with devastating consequences for the society. Without care taken to prevent problems like this, formal education can actually worsen the situation in a developing economy.

The international push for free primary education has attracted billions of dollars in support for planting government schools all over the globe. The cause seems unquestionable, but James Tooley, a Professor of Education Policy at Newcastle University, has noticed some troubling unintended consequences. Kenya has experienced some of these actions directly. Propelled by a $55 million grant from the World Bank in 2003, the Kenyan government instituted Free Primary Education (FPE), a program which official sources estimated, “would allow an extra 1.3 million children to be enrolled in public school: all of them children not previously enrolled in school.”

But the results were less than hoped for and the effect on local entrepreneurs was stark. “Private-school owners in Kibera alone reported a total enrollment decline of some 6,500 after Free Primary Education was initiated; some schools closed altogether,” said Tooley. Also contrary to early predictions, the government schools posted only subtle increases in enrollment numbers, and according to local school owners, “FPE caused an overall net decline in [school] attendance of nearly 8,000 children from one slum alone.” However well-intended, the “international community” ended up crowding out local education pioneers instead of partnering with them.

Subsidiarity and the Vision of Education in Developing Countries

To effectively improve education in developing countries, subsidiarity needs to play an important role, allowing local knowledge to shape the sort of education children receive. What may be best for a child in suburban Boston may not be the best curriculum for an equally bright kid in a farming village in India. Or there may be substantial overlap. But a one-size-fits-all mentality will not allow anyone to make an informed decision on this score.

More fundamentally, an effective educational system must begin with a true understanding of the nature of the human person. An educational system that buys into a redistributionist and zero-sum view of wealth, for instance, is less likely to encourage children to aspire to wealth-creating activities in their professional lives. Consider the example that Dalrymple gives of education in Tanzania when he lived there. Notice that in that example, an understanding of local needs by itself would not have been enough to break the cycle of parents seeking to train their children to enter the government bureaucracy: families’ local knowledge apparently was informing them that there were so few opportunities for advancement outside of government service that they shouldn’t bother trying to educate their kids to be entrepreneurs or scientists or engineers. Thus, fruitful transformation requires holistic change—in this case, an effort to reform both the vision of a good education and the cultural institutions beyond the school so that some children not only develop wealth-creating skills, but also have opportunities to use their training to create new wealth for themselves and their communities.

Education at the Sonrise School in Rwanda—Training Job Makers

The example of the Sonrise School in Rwanda, founded by Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana, offers one positive example. Bishop John has sought to fashion an educational experience that nurtures the creative and leadership capabilities of the school’s students, many of whom were orphans. “Instead of training job seekers, we train job makers,” he says. “We need to be able to move from aid to production.” At the same time, and for several years now, the country’s political leaders have been working to make Rwanda a more business-friendly environment—friendly both to investors from the developed world and for indigenous entrepreneurs. If Rwanda’s strong rate of economic growth since the latter half of the 1990s is any indication, these efforts are paying dividends. Such institutional reforms mean that children who are taught entrepreneurial skills are more likely to have a positive outlet for such skills, a fact that will encourage Rwandan families to search out and cultivate entrepreneurial talent in their children. In this way, a vicious circle may eventually be replaced by a virtuous one.

Entrepreneurs Meeting Education Needs

We sometimes treat “the poor” as if they were somehow uniquely incapable of rising out of poverty without our assistance. We often assume, if we don’t provide them with everything they need, including education, that no one will. Yet if we look closely (and with a bit more humility), we see indigenous solutions everywhere.

Part of Tooley’s research was undertaken in Kibera, Kenya, the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa. “Kibera has, according to various estimates, anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people crowded into an area of about 630 acres, smaller than Manhattan’s Central Park,” Tooley notes. It is also a place where private property ownership is difficult to achieve. Many of the homes and businesses are labeled temporary structures, and the owners are unable to gain land title and recognition by the government.

Despite the challenging business landscape, Tooley found entrepreneurs stepping in to fill educational needs. “…We found 76 private elementary and high schools, enrolling more than 12,000 students. The schools are typically run by local entrepreneurs, a third of whom are women who have seen the possibility of making a living from running a school,” he explains. The schools also offered shelter for the poorest, including orphans.

Surprising discoveries were also made in the Gansu province, a remote and mountainous region situated on the upper and lower reaches of the Yellow River in northwest China. “Roughly half of its counties, with 62 percent of the population, are considered ‘impoverished’,” says Tooley. Looking beyond the major towns and bustling villages, where public schools are common, Tooley’s team scaled the steep mountain paths to discover “a total of 696 private schools, 593 of them serving some 61,000 children in the most remote villages.” “Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Gansu’s private schools were set up by individuals, or the villages themselves, because government schools are simply too far away or hard to get to,” says Tooley. Locals identified the vital need for education and acted to meet the need.

Government Education in Developing Countries vs. Low Cost Private Schools

Another area of study connected to education reform in developing countries is the question of public vs. private education. Efforts have been made by organizations such as the United Nations to increase worldwide primary education through donor-funded public schools, in the belief that only rich families have access to private education. Despite the expectations, however, studies show that poor families around the world frequently opt to pay for low-cost private education rather than the free education provided by government schools. Tooley researched this phenomenon, and in “Backing the Wrong Horse,” he reports, “Across the developing world the poor are eschewing free, disturbed by its low quality and lack of accountability. Meanwhile, educational entrepreneurs from the poor communities themselves set up affordable private schools to cater to the unfulfilled demand.”

In his study, Tooley found that private schools outperformed their public counterparts in nearly every level of comparison. Public education suffers from problems such as lack of accountability; indifferent teachers who often fail even to show up at schools, and overcrowding. Tooley quotes a woman in Kenya who uses an analogy to describe the situation: “If you go to a market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they will be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and veg, you have to pay for them.”

Tooley found the rate of teacher absenteeism to be higher in most government schools than private schools. In addition, student performance in many private schools was noticeably higher. In Hyderabad, India Tooley observed that “students attending recognized and unrecognized private schools outperformed their peers in government schools by a full standard deviation in both English and math (after accounting for differences in their observable characteristics).”

While publicly-funded schools initially have a larger pool of resources to draw from, the educational experience in private schools may be just as good, if not better. Tooley observed a private school in Ghana consisting of little more than an iron roof and rickety poles. When speaking with the school’s owner, he gained a much different perspective than one might expect from merely looking at the architecture. “Education is not about buildings,” she scolded. “What matters is what is in the teacher’s heart. In our hearts, we love the children and do our best for them.”

This richness is an aspect not always present in government-funded schools, which lack accountability to the parents. Tooley maintains that “when parents pay fees they demand more of the schools, and the schools themselves are more accountable to the parents.” Making a financial commitment to education empowers parents to be more conscious of and committed to the education process, and urges schools to be good stewards of the resources given to them by parents.

Education in Developing Countries: Parent Choice and Accountability

Riddhi Shah cites competition, parental choice and accountability as factors that help to sustain the high standard of education in private schools, allowing them to outperform public schools at a very low cost. Some have suggested more funding to improve public schools, but in her article, “Class Difference,” Shah quotes an Indian mother criticizing the idea: “The problem isn’t the money … The problem is the teachers don’t have to listen to us.” Tooley suggests helping extremely poor families pay for private schools with government vouchers, to ensure that parents can put pressure on schools to perform and choose the right education for their children.

Even when given the option of sending their children to public school at no cost, a significant number of parents in the developing world seek out alternate options. In Ghana, the government has built schools across the country. The tuition is free, but the quality is generally low, sending frustrated parents looking for private solutions. The PovertyCure DVD Series features interviews of Ghanaian parents who have opted for private schools providing high-quality education at a fraction of the teacher cost.

This desire for private education is reflected in the high number of private schools within portions of the country. In the Ga district of Ghana, which surrounds the capital city of Accra, Tooley’s researchers found “a total of 799 schools, 25 percent of which were government, 52 percent recognized private, and 23 percent unrecognized private.”

Competition and Partnership in the Education Process

While entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill the high-quality education void across the developing world, sustainable private education requires something more. Recognition of these schools by the government is needed, as well as a legal framework that allows for their expansion. Some countries have made great strides in this area. In Peru, for example, the law on for-profit education was liberalized, with the goal of allowing international companies involvement in the education process. As competition is good for the development of high-quality goods and services, it is also beneficial for education.

In addition, outside investment in private education can yield high-level growth and a long-term impact, providing resources initially lacking in school start-ups. Tooley and others believe the high-quality education provided by private schools makes this a worthwhile venture, not just for communities themselves, but countries as a whole. He co-founded Omega Schools, which creates private schools in Ghana that benefit low income families and empower students. In just three years, the Omega Schools chain has grown to 20 schools and 11,000 students.

Key Voices:

James Tooley on Parent-Teacher Accountability
When I first came to Ghana, I met with just astonishment because private schools they say are for the rich, the elite, the middle classes. So the question arises: why are parents paying fees to go to private schools when they could get government schools for free? I think it comes down to probably two main reasons. One is when parents pay fees, they demand more of the schools. The second reason is that the schools themselves are accountable to the parents.

James Tooley on The Low Cost of Private
What we found in my study was that in poor areas like this, the majority of school children are in private schools, and these schools outperform the government schools at a fraction of the teacher cost.

James Tooley on Competition
In a small village like this, there are six private schools. Can you imagine that? Small village, six private schools? They are all in competition. They all want to innovate, to improve and raise standards. That’s why competition is good. It’s good for the parents; good for the children; it’s good for the system.

James Tooley on What’s best for the kids
People say, ‘you’ve got to have public education, these are the poor people, public education has got to work there.’ Some people might say, ‘you’ve got to have private education’, but who cares? Let’s cut through all that and say, ‘what works for the children? What works for the children of the poor?’ And then we can have a real discussion. Drop your ideological baggage. What I found in this research all over the world in every single country is that parents the worldover are the same as parent

Marc Coleman on The Economic Advantages of Education
I would say the excellence of our education system [in Ireland], up until the 1980’s, in providing a highly-skilled and flexible workforce was a key ingredient in attracting foreign direct investment … to attract those industries, you need to have an excellent education system.

Marc Coleman on Education as a Transmitter of Economic Prosperity
You’ve got to be consistent. If you’re buying into free markets and free trade in the way you deal with the outside world, you’ve got to have free markets and trade in your domestic economy. But you’ve also got to have a certain amount of social fairness. And education is crucial to distributing economic opportunity. You’ve got to make sure that access to education is spread to everybody. You’ve got to make sure that access to health is spread to everybody.  These are the basic transmitters of economic prosperity. And if you do that, then you will find that you do transmit the wealth across the whole of society; and as a happy byproduct, you have more buy-in from all different sections of society. And that’s very important to a developing economy. Because if you don’t do that, what can go wrong very quickly, particularly in some developing economies, is that you get a very strong opposition to globalization and you get political instability, and perhaps unrest.  And that can threaten the whole project, and that can actually send a country going backwards, into insularity, into protectionism, and into oligarchy.


PovertyCure Issues: Dignity and Capacity of the Poor

The first thing I would say to those who say that we must come and give, otherwise these people are incapable of improving their situation or getting out of their poverty, is to ask them ‘Why?’ – Theodore Dalrymple


Inherent Human Dignity

The materially poor are often viewed as inferior in worth and dignity to the materially wealthy. Historically, this has led to neglect, exploitation and enslavement. But a more insidious way that such prejudice manifests itself is when the well-intended view the poor primarily as objects of pity to be saved by gestures of charitable good will. Such a reaction to extreme poverty involves at least a half truth. Our desire to help is rooted in a proper recognition of our human solidarity with those who are suffering. But that sense of solidarity is compromised when we fail to see the capacity of the poor alongside their need.

The Danger of Dependency

In ancient Rome, the impoverished masses were satisfied in their lowly state by the state providing “bread and circuses.” In other words, they were given free food and entertainment rather than economic freedom along with the opportunity to develop and use their natural abilities. This has been a recurring pattern. Political interests often dictate the creation of generous welfare programs and unconditional aid. A sop is easier to provide than a solution. Unfortunately, these programs often have the unintended consequence of undermining the cultural fabric of poor communities, encouraging what psychiatrist and author Theodore Dalrymple refers to as “the underclass,” a subculture marked by despondency, family breakdown and high levels of crime and substance abuse.

While temporary relief programs may genuinely assist the poor, it is important that these programs be designed to avoid fostering dependency and damaging a community’s social fabric. When people are dependent for long periods of time on handouts—whether from the government or from private charity—their ability to provide for themselves by serving others is impaired and their dignity threatened.

The Capacity of the Poor

In light of mounting sociological data underscoring the culturally destructive effects of long-term social welfare for poor communities, many poverty fighters encourage charities to focus on helping the person caught in poverty develop and employ his creative capacities. They warn that such efforts need to be accompanied by humility and a keen awareness that spiritual poverty exists in every class.

At the same time, this call for humility is distinct from a form of relativism that insists that every worldview, every value system, is equal and nobody from one class or culture should try to impart its cultural treasures to another. Instead, the poverty fighters who emphasize the role of enterprise and capacity development seek to match a humble partnership approach with efforts at spiritual and cultural formation, education and, where needed, training in good work habits and skills. They also tend to emphasize that such efforts need to be shaped by the principle of subsidiarity, which emphasizes the importance of local knowledge and face-to-face compassion. In this way, those seeking to help the poor are better able to identify what the poor actually need, as opposed to what we perceive from afar that they need.

From Paternalism to Partnerships

Doug Seebeck, the founder of Partners Worldwide, tells the story of getting a job as a young agricultural consultant in Bangladesh. As he explained in his interview for the PovertyCure initiative, he went over expecting to teach advanced farming techniques, but as he worked with them face to face, he quickly realized that they were excellent farmers, wringing from their small plots of land an enormous harvest given their resources. So finally he asked them what they thought they needed to boost productivity. They said that it would be great if they could have water in the dry season, since—except for the lack of water—the conditions were far better for farming at that time of the year. There were reserves of fresh water near enough to make this feasible; the problem was that the farmers were too poor and lacking in connections to invest in an irrigation system. Seebeck went to work with them on bringing fresh water to their farms in the dry season, and in this way they were able leverage the agricultural skills that these poor farmers already possessed.

Christian Charity and the Dignity and Capacity of the Poor

Among Christian communities, the power of the poor also can be cultivated and encouraged by remembering that the biblical call to be generous extends to rich and poor alike. This is the core message of International Steward, a non-profit organization begun by Brett Elder to encourage churches in poor regions of the world to practice generosity. Elder points to the Gospel story of Jesus praising the poor widow who gave to God her last two pennies as emblematic of what materially wealth Christians all too often forget: The poor also have a calling and capacity to be generous stewards of the things God has entrusted to them. Often rich Christians see Christians in extreme poverty and, in a rush to help, they forget that the poor also have stewardship capacity, even in conditions that would seem to disallow saving and giving.

When International Steward delivered this message to a church in Nairobi, Kenya, its Sunday collections increased from an average of $188 per week to more than $400. In another case in Uganda, Bishop Hannington Bahemuka took the message of International Steward and, working with his congregation, transformed their war-torn village from one of dependency to one of generosity and a growing independence marked by a successful effort to build their own church and care for war orphans. As they recognized their own dignity and capacity, they began to flourish in ways that before would have seemed impossible.

Key Voices

Robert Woodson on Mischaracterizing the Poor

“The idea of empowering neighborhood people is a radical idea because it’s not something that’s understood on either the left or the right of the political center. I think Bill Bennet, the former secretary of education, summarized it beautifully. He said ‘When liberals look at poor people they see a sea of victims and when conservatives look at poor people they see a sea of aliens.'”

Damian Von Stauffenberg on the Role and the Limits of Charity

“Charity has its place in emergency situations.… A life that is lived on as a recipient of charity is a miserable life. I think, in our DNA, the way God made us, we are made as co-creators. God wants us to perfect and to really finish His creation. And if you’re simply a recipient of charity, you’re not doing that; you’re not fulfilling your real destiny, which is this creative capacity that God has endowed us with, we’re letting that creative capacity sit idle. I think that’s—at probably at the deepest level that I can reach—what’s so inadequate about the traditional response to poverty.”

Damian Von Stauffenberg on the Power of the Poor

“They can create wealth for themselves. They can become productive. The poor become productive and that’s how you create rich countries. That’s how a small, poor agricultural economy like Switzerland becomes what you have seen when you studied in Geneva. It’s that process. And that’s the answer to development.”

Rev. Robert A. Sirico on Overlooking the Capacity of the Poor

It’s so often the case that when people come from the developed world to the developing world and they see the wretchedness of poverty in such close proximity, they experience a kind of a guilt about their own prosperity and translate that guilt into policies that fail to recognize that these people are made of the same stuff as the people in the first world, that they have the same capacity that enabled the developed world to be so prosperous in the first place.

Eric Kacou on the Role of Individuals

I believe that individuals are critical in the prosperity creation process inasmuch as they are the ones that are at the beginning and the middle and at the end of the prosperity creation process. As it relates to assets, there has been a focus in developing countries mostly on physical assets, on financial resources, on infrastructure, on natural resources. What is really required is an understanding that all those resources are just wealth in potential.

Kim Tan on the Dignity of the Poor

I think what people want if you ask the poor, if given a choice between a handout or a hand up that helps them really to have a sense of dignity and independence, to be able to put food on their table by themselves through their own effort. They all want to be able to do that. You know, that is, that is a part of the human aspiration and I think we need to find ways of doing that and it’s enterprise that can really help people do that.

C. Neal Johnson on Our God-Given Creativity

God is an incredibly creative individual, and He said that I’m making men and women in my own image. He made us to be creative individuals … He gave a number of things to humanity and to mankind and said, ‘Look, this is who I want you to be. This is who I’ve made you to be. I want you to take dominion. I want you to exercise your creative gifts.’

C. Neal Johnson on Handouts vs. Paychecks

It’s easier to write a check than it is to give of yourself.… All too often that’s what the people in the pews have done and the churches have told us, that the NGOs have told us – that’s all they need, they want our money … But when you go to find people in these countries, and they don’t have jobs and you realize what they need is not just a check, but they need a job, they need meaningful work. God made us creative, he made us to work—what they need is the kind of dignity that comes with a paycheck that says, ‘Somebody values my services, somebody values my life, and that I have dignity.’

Rudy Carrasco on Capacity and Responsibility

Every single person on the face of the planet is created in God’s image. Everybody has the same heavenly Father. Everybody has capacity, talent, and ability. Everybody has responsibility. Everybody has stewardship responsibility. I don’t care what dirt hovel you’re living in, in Brazil or Mexico City or Manila. You have a responsibility to be a steward of the resources under your control because you have a heavenly Father who has put great things inside of you and that’s waiting to be called out and developed and extracted.

Carroll Ríos de Rodríguez on Poverty in Guatemala

Poverty is a very important aspect of life in Guatemala. It’s all around us. And you cannot grow up, not seeing poverty around you. You have to be very callous not to care or not to reflect on it. The president of the University Francisco Marroquin actually, that was his turning point. He was thinking, how do I alleviate poverty? What is it that we should do to alleviate poverty? And the response was not through charity or through handouts because he realized that that was temporary relief and that there was something more that had to be done in order to alleviate poverty.

Ismael Hernandez on Capacity of the Poor

A lot of things are being done, but we don’t sit down to think about, “What are the principles of the free society?” How can we help and elevate people to realize that they are made in the image and likeness of God? And they have the inner capacity, the moral strength. They are made in the image of God, which means they have the capacity of knowing the truth, reason, and doing the good. They are the answer. That is the problem. We have always seen external, external reasons of our problem, white people, capitalism, America itself. In reality, we are the problem. But we are the solution. And when we realize that, an horizon of opportunity just opens up immediately. And that’s what we are trying to do with the Freedom and Virtue Institute.

Marcos Hilding Ohlsson on Creating Wealth and Developing Incentives to Progress

The solution to poverty? We should ask ourselves how we can create wealth. And especially in these neighborhoods, we can look at how can people flourish or work in society or in families or in small communities to be able to create wealth, to be able to create value. And actually I think that there is, there’s two parts of it. One is a mental structure, that they start to believe in themselves and that they have something to give to society, that they’ve got something to offer. And that will encourage them to be able to create something or to give something. And on the other side, we need a proper place where they can develop these incentives. Like, we have to create incentives for them to work. I think in that sense we should reduce incentives for people not to work. For example, now they receive a social welfare if you don’t work.

Juan José Daboub on Using our God-Given Talents

There is one parable in the Bible that I really love and I think captures part of what I am trying to say, and that’s the Parable of the Talents. You know, we all were given certain gifts by God. It is our job to multiply them.




  1. Gilbert Meilaender, Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person (Encounter Books, 2009).
  2. The History Guide, Lectures on Ancient and Medieval History: A Brief Social History of the Roman Empire