Ending Poverty: Three Hopeful Signs by Peter Greer

Photo by  Jordan Opel

Photo by Jordan Opel

Could we see the end of extreme poverty in our lifetime?

Just two hundred years ago, almost the entire world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, less than 10 percent do. (In the past forty years alone, the percent of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by over 30 percentage points.)

In my years of work in Christ-centered economic development, I have had the privilege of visiting places ranging from the small towns in Haiti to remote villages in northern Afghanistan. And I have come to realize that while poverty runs rampant in our world, the situation in so many communities is unquestionably getting better. Even with the depth and complexities of poverty, the situation is not hopeless. The Church is on the move.

Love in Action

Jesus said that the world would know that we are His followers in how we love. And we consistently see Jesus model love and care for some of the most marginalized in society: widows, orphans, foreigners, and those living in poverty.

For generations, the Church has recognized the importance of following in Christ’s footsteps to love and care for those on the margins. The Church has run toward those in poverty—showing the world what it stands for and not only what it stands against. Today, there are growing numbers of people and organizations committed to bringing the love of Christ to individuals around the world and empowering whole communities to flourish.

Here are three hopeful trends as the Church addresses global poverty:

  1. Stand with local leaders.

Our culture is obsessed with superheroes. In ten years, Marvel movies alone have totaledover $17 billion in the box office worldwide. In elementary school, our son loved his Spiderman outfit, and now our youngest proudly wears his Black Panther costume. We celebrate the heroes who risk their lives for the sake of others. Regardless of age, gender, or social class, heroes—both in real-life and on the screen—captivate our attention.

Unfortunately, this hero-centric perspective translated into our early poverty alleviation efforts as well.

When the Church first came onto the scene of global poverty, we were foreigners trying to play the part of the hero. We handed out blankets, donated clothes, painted buildings, and gave out food. Even with good intentions, our short-term-missions trips too often fell prey to paternalistic attitudes as we saw ourselves as the hero of the story.

But in the last few years, there has been a growing realization and repentance for massively underestimating the capacity and competency of the global Church. We’ve seen how infinitely more capable the global team is to engage in long-term effective poverty alleviation. We’ve seen the brilliant leadership expertise of people like Christine Baingana—CEO of Urwego Bank, the microfinance institution I worked for when I first arrived in Rwanda. (There is simply no question that she is an infinitely more capable and equipped leader of Urwego than I ever was or will be!) We’ve seen the incredible knowledge of Jean de Dieu Bizimana—HOPE International’s country director in Burundi—and the passion he has to serve the underserved in his community. We celebrate the fathers and mothers, businesspeople and church leaders effecting change in their neighborhoods. We celebrate the expertise and passion of our brothers and sisters around the world who seek to love and serve their communities with excellence. (Since they know their culture, their resources, and their people better than we do, they do the work better.) And we celebrate because the Church is recognizing its identity as a global Church. We need each other in this mission!

  1. Recognize assets.

Although we might have looked at a person or community in poverty through a needs-based lens in the past, recently we have changed our focus. Instead of seeing “not enough,” we see an individual’s assets, skills, and dreams. Instead of seeing “the poor,” we see a mother with a sewing machine, a passion to make clothes, and a firm determination to provide for her children. Instead of seeing a “needy person,” we see a father with a small field, a knack for farming, and a dream to build a home for his family. We see people as the solution.

The greatest Gift-Giver of all time entrusted each of us with unique gifts, skills, and abilities. In Romans 12:6, Paul writes that “we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” What a mistake it would be if we didn’t recognize them in ourselves and in others!

While in Burundi several months ago, I had the privilege of meeting a construction team who, at the time, didn’t have nails for their upcoming project. So, they began to make nails by hand by using small scraps of metal. This is but one example of the millions of men and women around the world who, every day, inspire us with their hard work, innovation, and resourcefulness.

We celebrate the shift from seeing needs to seeing capacity. We celebrate the resourcefulness, diligence, and creativity of our brothers and sisters around the world to transform their communities. We have much to learn from them.

  1. Champion employment.

It’s been said that “the world’s best welfare program is a job.” And today, there is a growing cadre of organizations who understand the importance of work.

Jobs for Life is just one of these organizations. With a mission to equip the Church to prepare individuals for meaningful work, Jobs for Life wants to see all people flourish in their work and relationships.

They understand that work provides dignity, value, and purpose. Work verifies our identity, creates communities, produces jobs, and renews cities. Today, many are without work or underemployed, and this robs them of their God-given dignity and purpose.

In their initiative Flip the List, Jobs for Life seeks to transform the way the American Church fights poverty. Right now, the Church pushes back against poverty by handing out food (62 percent), providing housing (55 percent), and giving away clothing (22 percent). Only two percent of the Church’s poverty-alleviation efforts are geared towards employment.

Jobs for Life’s goal of “flipping the list” is to move employment from the bottom to the top of the list. When the Church focuses on meaningful employment first, provision for food, housing, and clothing will naturally follow as families increase their capacity. Flipping the List empowers men and women to provide for themselves—replacing a cycle of poverty with one of dignity.

We celebrate that an increasing number of organizations and efforts have been addressing poverty in a dignity-affirming, God-honoring, and jobs-centered way.

New Approach, Lasting Change

The Church is beginning to combat extreme poverty in a more complete way. It focuses on long-term systemic change and lasting employment patterns, not short-term quick fixes. It emphasizes the importance of partnerships and local champions, not external “saviors” descending to solve the problems of those considered less fortunate. The hope of the Gospel is integrated through tangible acts of compassion that have long-term reach.

This is a movement where discipleship, job creation, training, and financial services are building on local relationships to empower communities to break free from poverty.

“Poverty does not belong in a civilized human society,” Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus said, “Its proper place is in a museum.” As the Church continues to stand up for local leaders, identify skills and assets, and champion employment-based solutions, we may realize that the end of extreme poverty is much closer than we think.

Author’s Note: This article was originally published in the January/February issues of Mission Frontiers magazine.