Dignity & 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

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.’

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  • 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.’

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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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.  


Table of Contents

  • Inherent Human Dignity
  • The Danger of Dependency
  • The Capacity of the Poor
  • From Paternalism to Partnerships
  • Christian Charity and the Dignity and Capacity of the Poor

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.


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