This month Christianity Today‘s cover story is focused on international development. CT’s editor-in-chief David Neff introduces the issue by mentioning the unique historical moment in which we find ourselves, exemplified by the 58: campaign, a collaboration of Christian relief and development organizations making the bold claim that we as Christians can end extreme poverty. I praised and critiqued the campaign’s book here.
The 58: campaign raises some important questions, and so does CT’s two-part cover story. For instance, What sorts of development initiatives really work? And as Christians, how do we understand the proper roles of governments and individuals in alleviating poverty? Those are good questions to consider.
First, the roles. Mark Galli, CT’s senior managing editor and author of several books, writes in “The Best Ways to Fight Poverty — Really” that while good macroeconomic policies have lifted millions out of poverty in places like India and China, as Christians we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of small, relational acts of neighborliness toward those in need wherever we are. This, of course, is something the state is too clumsy to do, though he suggests governments do have a role to play in creating good economic environments, and I’d agree. The government getting out of the way is essential for economic growth in many ways, but the state also has a responsibility to uphold justice, particularly for the vulnerable, and this has definite economic implications. Finding that balance is a source of contention for many on both sides of the aisle, but it’s essential that we try. While I wouldn’t consider Galli a development expert (and I don’t think he’d claim to be one), I do think he gives all of us some good food for thought nonetheless.
Second, the practicalities. Bruce Wydick, an economist at the University of San Francisco, writes “Cost-Effective Compassion.” Wydick is a development expert, and a Christian too. He surveyed a number of fellow development economists at places like Duke, Yale, Stanford and the World Bank, asking them to rank in terms of cost-effectiveness and impact ten approaches to poverty intervention that ordinary donors are commonly asked to support. The findings may surprise you: providing clean water, funding de-worming programs for children, and providing mosquito nets ranked as the three most effective approaches, with child sponsorship coming in at number four. Buying fair trade coffee and providing laptops for children were the two that came in with the lowest rankings.
At the end of the piece, Wydick offers some good take-aways — things that all of us should keep in mind when seeking to do the most good with the money we give. Most important, I think, is his point that great marketing doesn’t necessarily mean any given anti-poverty strategy is a good one; so it’s always good to do your research before giving. Additionally, judging organizations merely on the basis of the percentage of donor money spent on programs (as opposed to funds used for marketing and other overhead costs) isn’t enough; we need rigorous, independent scrutiny of programs to show whether those programs actually do any good, and whether they might also do some harm.
I’m grateful that a magazine like CT would give this topic such prominence, and I do hope you’ll read both parts of the cover story in full. As Wydick emphasizes, it’s good to be educated about which initiatives and campaigns work and which ones aren’t as good of an “investment.” But it’s also important to be reminded that an over-emphasis on pragmatism — an obsession with “what works” — can paradoxically be dehumanizing. People shouldn’t be viewed as projects, after all.
What are your reactions to these two perspectives on development from CT? Does any of it change how you’ll engage with issues of poverty? Does it change which projects or organizations you’ll support? Do you think it’s possible for NGOs to pursue “what works” while also keeping front and center the need to honor the dignity of those they serve?
[Photo credit: Blood Water Mission via permissiontoperuse.com]