The Shift from ‘Alleviating Poverty’ to ‘Creating Prosperity’

via the Q Ideas Blog

We see poverty in the developing world and we ask—what can I do? So we send food, water, clothes. We sponsor children, build wells, start schools and go on mission trips; we wear wristbands, we sign petitions, we advocate. But what if the question that animates our activity is the wrong one?

What if instead of asking how we can alleviate poverty, we asked, “How do people in the developing world create prosperity for their families and their communities?” This sounds like a simple shift, but it can transform the way we think about poverty and the poorest among us because it takes the focus off ourselves and puts it where it belongs. People in need are not objects of our charity, they are subjects, and should be seen as the protagonists of their own development. Changing the question helps lead to an inter-subjective relationship.

Ask people in the developing world what they want most, and they don’t mention more aid or charity. They want jobs; they want the opportunity to build businesses; they want access to markets, to broader circles of exchange so they can provide for their families. As Ghanaian entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse told me, “The people here are not stupid. They’re just disconnected from global trade.”

Another African business person I learned from was Joshua Omoga, a Kenyan shop owner who lives in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. After years of trying to find work, he borrowed several dollars from a friend and started selling vegetables on the street. He slowly grew the business, working from 5 in the morning until 10 at night, and now sells sundry goods—fruits and vegetables, small bags of flour and oil for baking—from the tiny shop attached to his house. He’d like to grow his business; but in Kibera there is virtually no titled property, and he cannot register his business. He is trapped in the “informal” economy.

Joshua said he’s now saving to send his son to primary school and hoping to save enough to move out of Kibera where he can get titled property and enter into the formal economy. Joshua doesn’t lack motivation or entrepreneurial hustle, and his biggest needs can’t be provided by another donation. What he needs most is a framework of justice that enables entrepreneurs to flourish. Joshua’s story is all too familiar in the developing world. Herman Chinery-Hesse, puts it bluntly. “Property rights are a terrible, terrible problem,” he says. “You are stuck in a hole in a village with all your skills and all your talent and that’s just unfortunately the way it is.”

The insight is easy to miss: We can make the mistake of thinking about poverty as primarily a lack of material goods, so we try to solve this by providing food, wells, electricity or education. How often have we heard it said that if Christians were more generous and joined together to help the developing world we could end poverty? Well, we should be more generous; we should be less attached to material things. This will help our souls, build our communities and, in situations of dire emergencies, make the difference between life and death. But it is a mistake to think this will end poverty ...

Read the rest of Michael Matheson Miller's article on the Q Ideas Blog. Michael was a featured speaker at the 2013 Q Conference in Los Angeles, CA.

Follow Michael Matheson Miller on Twitter @mmathesonmiller.

Jul 152013
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