Poverty, some argue, can only be effectively tackled by governments enforcing top-down, big-P Poverty reduction policies and programs. But a host of religious groups haven’t gotten the memo. Innovative faith-based initiatives worldwide are tackling poverty using bottom-up, small-p poverty alleviation approaches that empower individuals to be resourceful, resilient and self-reliant.
Indeed, a central aspect of religious freedom is that it gives faith groups license to innovate and contribute to the wellbeing of individuals, communities and nations. But where religious freedom is curtailed, so are such innovations. For instance, reform-minded Saudi princess Basmah bint Saud argues, religion “should not be a shield behind which we hide from the world but a driving force that inspires us to innovate and contribute to our surroundings.”
In this new installment of an ongoing series on the connection between religious freedom and sustainable development, Brian Grim describes these small-p initiatives and concludes with a case study of how one faith group – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – is directly targeting and reducing poverty in its congregations worldwide. Such faith-based activities are facilitated by religious freedom and directly contribute to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1 – Ending poverty in all its forms everywhere.
The causes of poverty are complex. On the macro, big-P level, Poverty is sometimes associated with systematic inequality far beyond the direct control of individuals. These can be national or global in scope.
Big-P trends at the national level may include such things as caste (e.g., India’s Dalits or untouchables), gender (e.g., Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic isolation of women), ethnicity/nationality (e.g., poverty among Native Americans) or religion (e.g., economic discrimination against Baha’is in Iran).
National governments try to address such systematic causes in various ways, including the Indian governments “scheduled caste” affirmative action programs, Saudi Arabia’s Fund for the Support of Women’s Projects under Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, and the U.S. government’s Tribal Law and Order Act.
Big-P trends at the global level cited by many include such things as the huge debts owed by developing nations to developed nations, despite earlier forgiveness of billions of dollars of debt. The World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral, bilateral and commercial creditors try to address globalized symptoms through multiple programs including the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI). And the United Nations works through the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the proposed 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
On the micro, small-p level, poverty is often explained as a result of individual circumstances and/or characteristics. These include education, skills, connections, experience, intelligence, health, handicaps, age, work orientation, cultural orientation, etc.
Religious groups are known for their programs to address poverty and/or care for the poor. For instance, almsgiving, one of the five pillars of Islam, is widely practiced by Muslims worldwide according to a Pew Research survey of 38,000 Muslims. And Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and many other faiths have a wide variety of organizations to care for the poor. And earlier this year, global religious and faith-based leaders convened at the World Bank to issue a call and commitment to end extreme poverty by 2030.
Familiar to many is the work of global organizations like Caritas, which shares the mission of the Catholic Church to serve the poor and to promote charity and justice throughout the world. Caritas development initiatives range from investment and training in agriculture and business to building homes and schools. Among other well know initiatives is World Vision, a global Christian relief, development and advocacy organization dedicated to working with children, families and communities to overcome poverty and injustice.
What many people do not know is that faith-based thinking on poverty has moved far beyond just delivering aid or “teaching a man to fish.” As Doug Seebeck, president of Partners Worldwide, says, “They know how to fish! The oft-quoted Chinese proverb tells us that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. People at the margins know how to fish, but they don’t have access to the pond. They aren’t able to engage and participate in the economic systems, markets, relationships, networks of support and collaboration and cooperation, tools, and models many of us take for granted.”
Such faith-based poverty alleviation programs are using a bottom-up, small-p approach. For instance, PovertyCure, a new faith-based network of some 300+ partner organizations working in 144 countries highlights how people have moved from poverty to prosperity, sharing what faith leaders have learned along the way.
This new wave focuses on “self-reliance” or “self-empowerment” rather than the delivery of aid, or as Alejandro A. Chafuen writing in Forbes puts it, From Aid To Enterprise: How To Intelligently Cure Poverty. Chafuen is a senior fellow with the Acton Institute, which is one of the lead sponsors of PovertyCure. The Acton Institute seeks to propel this approach within faith-based communities by integrating Judeo-Christian teachings with free market principles. While the Acton Institute is not a Catholic organization, it is led by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, Pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is influencing the thinking of many U.S. Catholics. (See an Acton critique of the recent Papal encyclical on the environment.)
The Economic Principles of Self-reliance
Is poverty and the lack of empowerment it brings inevitable? No, says author Paul Godfrey, Professor of Strategy and Associate Academic Director of the Melvin J. Ballard Center for Economic Self-Reliance at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management. In his recent book, More than Money (Stanford University Press, 2013), he shows how organizations can win the fight against poverty and create prosperity for people at the base of the pyramid in the developing and developed world.
Godfrey argues that small-p poverty alleviation can have a big impact. More than Money provides an excellent survey of how five types of interrelated capital — institutional, human, social, organizational, and physical — enable development and sustainable growth. “Little p poverty gives way to individual and family flourishing when self-reliance leads individuals to acquire, employ, leverage, and preserve all five types of capital,” says Godfrey.
Godfrey’s work builds on three key lessons he has learned about the process and promise of eliminating poverty: First, we don’t eliminate poverty; individuals and families work themselves out of poverty and into prosperity. Second, eliminating poverty requires more than money, which alone often ends up in alleviating the symptoms of poverty but usually fails to create lasting solutions. Third, work, when it is most effective, requires organization. An effective organization has the capability to look past the thick branches of poverty and attack the roots. The following short videos by Paul Godfrey outline self-reliance economic principles.
Case Study: LDS Self-Reliance Global Initiative
Perhaps the most widespread and well developed new model of this enterprise-based, bottoms-up approach to tackling poverty is one carried out by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Religious freedom is a critical element to the LDS Church’s ability to deliver this innovative initiative to their members in countries worldwide, including some of the world’s poorest. Where religious freedom is limited, the LDS Church has greater difficulty in carrying out the initiative, if it can do so at all.
Theological reasoning is a common element of many faith-based programs to alleviate poverty. For Muslims, it is one of the faith’s five pillars. For Catholics, it is often expressed as a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable based on the basic moral test contained in the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46).
As a Catholic myself, I’ve been particularly struck by the innovative approach to poverty alleviation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons or Latter-Day Saints (LDS). For members of the LDS Church, attending to the needs of the poor is not only counted as service to God, but seen as essential to retaining a remission of one’s sins and walking guiltless before God (see Attitudes Toward Poverty by David J. Cherrington in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism).
To help fulfill this mission to the poor and needy, the LDS Church established an extensive Welfare Services program in 1935. Among the many faith-based approaches to poverty alleviation, this program is also animated by the church’s teaching on what Mormons refer to as “self-reliance.” The purpose of LDS welfare program is to “promote self-reliance and to care for and serve the poor and needy.”
Indeed, work is a guiding principle in the LDS Church’s welfare program, which directly involves promoting self-reliance as a way of life. President Thomas S. Monson, considered by Mormons to be a living prophet, has taught that self-reliance — “the ability, commitment, and effort to provide the necessities of life for self and family” — is an essential element of human temporal and spiritual well-being. For Mormons, “temporal welfare” is a term that deals with people’s condition on earth, and is intrinsically tied to a person’s spiritual condition.
The Global Initiative
The LDS Church now reports that it has more members outside the United States (8.9 million) as it has in the U.S. (6.5 million). Much of this growth has occurred recently, particularly in Mexico, South and Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region.
LDS Church leaders found that many of its members in these new growth areas struggled with temporal welfare issues, i.e., poverty, jobs, education and business skills. To address this, in just a few years years the LDS Church has rolled out a global self-reliance initiative, one that many Mormons in the U.S. don’t know about because it has not yet been rolled out in the U.S. The initiative began in sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin and South America, and is only now being rolled out in Europe. The U.S. will be the last region for the initiative.
The reason the initiative was able to be rolled out globally with relatively modest costs is that it is not an independent program, but a voluntary service provided through each congregation. Instead of creating a new infrastructure to offer the self-reliance services, they are provided as a regular program of the congregations, somewhat similar to how Sunday School classes are a standard feature of any congregation. The main difference is that instead of being based in a single LDS congregation (called a ward), a group of LDS congregations (called a stake, usually made up of five to twelve wards) go together to have one ward be designated to host a Self-Reliance Center, where members of any of the congregations in the stake can come for assistance.
What Are Self-Reliance Centers?
Self-reliance centers provide Internet access, mentoring, and other helpful resources to job seekers, the self-employed, and prospective students. Stakes establish self-reliance centers in Church buildings; they are staffed by missionaries and volunteers. A self-reliance center may share a location with existing family history centers, which are also spread worldwide.
Self-reliance centers are places where returning missionaries, unemployed or underemployed LDS Church members, and others struggling with self-reliance can receive assistance. In the centers, members receive guidance that will help them learn practical steps to become self-reliant as well as the doctrines of self-reliance.
The centers have curriculum and offer services on topics such as: How to start or grow your business; How to find employment; How to gain a good education; Personal mentoring; and Networking opportunities.
The LDS Church has documented the initiative’s success among their members in a series of videos, several of which are included below.
Self-Reliance Initiative Impact
Dorothy: Groundnut Paste – A self-employment group member discusses how the program taught her to expand her product offering to better meet the needs of the customer. (3:27 min.)
Bishop Diaz – A bishop discusses the economic challenges his members face and how the self-reliance program has helped them. (1:59)
Rafael: Job in 6 days! – A job search group member discusses his successful six-day job search following a period of seven months of unemployment. (2:20)
Daniel & Christiana: General Store – A self-employment group member discusses how the program taught him marketing and better customer relations. He also discusses the role of prayer and faith in his business. (3:04)
Education for a Better Life – Elder Joseph W. Sitati discusses how he overcame hurdles to get a good education in Kenya. Pursuing an education allowed him to find his wife, a secure job and the gospel of Jesus Christ. (4:55)
More resources on overcoming small-p poverty
Paul Godfrey: radio interview
Jason Musyoka, South Africa’s New Middle Class and its Entanglement with Big ‘P’ and Little ‘P’ Poverty
Christiaensen, Luc, Lionel Demery, and Stefano Paternostro, “Macro and micro perspectives of growth and poverty in Africa,”. The World Bank Economic Review, Vol. 17, no. 3 (September 2003), pp. 317-347.
More on India and Saudi Arabia
BBC News, “India’s Dalits still fighting untouchability,” BBC, 27 June 2012.
Fadaak, Talha Female Poverty in Saudi Arabia: A study of poor female headed households, social policies and programmes in Jeddah City, LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing, 2012.
Mosse, David, “A Relational Approach to Durable Poverty, Inequality and Power,”The Journal of Development Studies Volume 46, Issue 7, 2010.
Nelson, Soraya Sarhaddi, “Poverty Hides Amid Saudi Arabia’s Oil Wealth,” NPR, May 19, 2011.
Shah, Ghanshyam, Harsh Mander, Sukhadeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande and Amita Baviskar, Untouchability in Rural India, Sage Publications, 2006.
Kevin Sullivan, “Saudi Arabia’s riches conceal a growing problem of poverty,” The Guardian, January 1, 2013.