the best ways to fight poverty – really???: a response to mark galli

The following post is a response to an article in Christianity Today entitled “The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really” by Mark Galli (editor). It is worth reading Mark’s article before launching into mine.

The Better Ways to Fight Poverty – Really: A Response to Mark Galli

In Christianity Today’s February issue Cover Story, “The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really“, Mark Galli offers a thought-provoking sketch of the current state of global poverty and a generous critique of action on poverty within the Church.

Galli’s insights, however, are undermined by a number of critical flaws, notably his understanding of development, global poverty trends and the intersection of eschatology and Christian and ecclesial practice. Perhaps most concerning is Galli’s interpretation of poverty and Christian action within the biblical narrative.

There is no doubting Galli’s concern for Christians to engage with the poor. “It would be foolish to stop caring for the poor,” he says, “We are not called to obey Jesus only if our efforts are guaranteed to make a difference.” To that I say, Amen.

Galli, however, goes on to suggest that such Christian engagement with the poor is meant to be personal, in the sense that it should not attempt to go beyond the level of individual charity into the realm of “national and global initiatives”. In other words, Galli does not believe it is the task of the Church to attempt to end poverty, but merely to bind the wounds of those who must endure it.

Poverty in the Biblical Narrative?

I find this somewhat disconcerting in light of the biblical narrative. For Jesus and his contemporaries the culturally defining episode in Israel’s history was the Exodus. In this story God miraculously rescues the downtrodden Israelites from the oppressive hand of an imperial ruler. But the story does not simply conclude with rescue.

According to the tradition Israel is then called by God to become a nation of people who worship and obey him through adherence to the Law of Moses. This law, far from being an arbitrary set of rules, was a way of life that distinguished Israel from the other nations. This was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the social aspects of the Law in which Israel was called to care for the poor and marginalised.

This was not merely a call to personal charity, but a call to form a society in which poverty does not exist – “But there will be no poor among you…” (Deut. 15:4).

God, in his wisdom, knows that Israel will not fulfil this call, and so the remainder of Deuteronomy 15 provides instructions for how to address the inevitably of poverty rearing its ugly head, despite God’s will that it would not. “There will never cease to be poor in the land,” (Deut. 15:11a), far from being a resignation to the inevitability of poverty, is clearly a call to unendingly serve the poor when the next sentence is remembered – “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” (Deut. 15:11b)

What is interesting is that this is the passage that Jesus paraphrases when he says, “For you will always have the poor among you.” Galli’s quotation of this sentence would have us believe that churches should refrain from addressing the macro issues of poverty since it is a fact of life. Read in the context of Deut. 15, however, Jesus is saying no such thing because God has instituted clear laws to deal with the human inevitability of poverty.

What Jesus does say is another matter. In his ministry program, set out in Luke 4:18-19, Jesus tells us that his mission is “to proclaim good news to the poor.” Who exactly are the poor? Is this referring to the actual poor, or a kind of ‘spiritual’ poverty? And what, exactly, does this good news mean for them? Surely what follows should shed some light:

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

This is no mere spiritual condition. The final phrase is perhaps the most interesting. Jesus tells us his mission is ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’, or in other words, to proclaim the year of the Jubilee.

This takes us back to Deut. 15 in which God declared regular times of redistribution where debts would be forgiven, slaves freed and land would be returned to its original owners. This is no mere call to “personal” charity; it is a call to root out issues at the very core of the perpetuation of poverty – usury, corruption and over-accumulation.

Could it be that this proclamation was central to the mission of Jesus? Certainly Jesus confronted unjust systems and corrupt leaders, not least the Temple and its powerbrokers. Could it be that Jesus stood in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, people who unswervingly critiqued the powerful for their injustice against the poor and needy? And why might the prophets have done this in the first place? Could it be that God calls his people beyond charity, to a place of proclaiming to those in power their responsibility to care for the poor, and to work towards a world in which there is no poverty, even if this will not eventuate until the return of Christ?

In short, Galli’s assertion that Christians are called only to personal forms of charity creates a false dichotomy with the wider work of addressing systemic poverty. As far as I can see, this dichotomy is not present in the Bible – both are the task of the Christian.

This is made even more apparent by the fact that in our global village our lifestyles are so very related to the plight of the poor. Galli’s portrayal of the current situation of global poverty seems to overlook this, and so a look into the issue of contemporary poverty is an important next step.

Development and Global Poverty: Correcting some Misunderstandings

Galli’s reporting on the state of global poverty seems entirely reliant on the 2011 Brookings Institution Policy Brief, Poverty in Numbers. This report cites the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), specifically MDG 1a (halve the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day), arguing that about three years ago this goal was met. To the average reader this sounds promising, as if progress on poverty was substantial.

What goes unmentioned, however, is that there is debate amongst development theorists over how appropriate the MDGs are as indicators of the true state of global poverty. In his paper The First United Nations Millennium Development Goal: a cause for celebration? Thomas Pogge of the Australian National University argues that a drop in number is not necessarily equal to a drop in proportion. To illustrate, Galli’s assertion that MDG1a was met three years ago is true, statistically speaking. However, in terms of raw numbers the amount of people has not dropped anywhere close to that. Between 1990-2005 the percentage of those living in extreme poverty did drop from about 46 per cent to 27 per cent, but in real numbers this was only a drop from 1.8 billion to 1.4 billion (UNDP figures) in light of population growth.

More importantly, the MDGs are, methodologically speaking, a set of indicators for which there is not always available or comparable data, and for which there is no consistent methodology across countries (Maligalig, “Measuring the Millennium Development Goals Indicators,” 2003 provides a helpful overview). The MDGs can be a helpful indicator, but they are an oversimplification designed to motivate action, and are not necessarily definitive in addressing the complex state of poverty. In any case, MDG1 addresses what we call “extreme” poverty (living under $1.25 a day), not poverty generally; Galli’s claim that poverty has been halved, as related to MDG1, is a misunderstanding of that particular goal.

For Galli to claim with such certainty that poverty has been halved is hard to accept in the face of unclear indicators and debate in the development sector. It is not at all clear that as a species we are making significant progress on the issue of poverty.

It is also untrue to say, as Galli does, that poverty is being reduced in any major way in Africa. Galli again cites the Brookings Institution brief which claims the rate of extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa is down below 50 per cent, which is true, except that it was not that much higher in 1990 at 58 per cent (according to UNDP figures; the World Bank figures show a shallower decline). Again, percentages hide the raw numbers – according to the UN the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa increased by 100 million people between 1990-2005. The reality is more complex than the figures quoted by Galli would suggest.

More central, however, is Galli’s claim that the church has been behind on this issue. This is true, in my view. But I’m not sure where Galli derives the idea that Christian activists are saying “churches should create their own anti-poverty initiatives (like microfinance)” – this is a terrible idea! Such initiatives would inevitably be disastrous, since most Western churches do not have the training and expertise to navigate the difficulties inherent in such projects. And why should they? Local Western churches are, quite simply, not in the business of development. This does not, however, mean that the Church does not have a role to play.

Even more central to Galli’s article is the claim that macroeconomics is responsible for lifting most people out of poverty. This seems to be based on a commonly implied and erroneous definition of poverty as being those who live on less than $1.25 a day. There are, in fact, many development theorists who would argue that this figure is misleading, leading to an underestimation of the number of poor and an overestimation as to the effects of economic growth (Jan Vandemoortele, “Are we really reducing global poverty?,” 2002). The fact that urban slum communities are increasing at a frightening rate should warn us, for example, that urban drift and the resulting rise in income does not necessarily equal liberation from poverty.

A crucial fact that casts doubt on Galli’s faith in “trickle-down” economic growth is that most of the world’s poor, about 75 per cent, now live in middle-income countries (Sumner, “Global Poverty and the New Bottom Billion,” 2010). The effects of economic growth are debated by development economists, though Galli simply assumes growth is the key element to alleviating poverty. The Aboriginal people of Australia, an OECD country, might disagree – they have, on the whole, not experienced the blessings of Australia’s booming economy. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Aboriginal people have a life expectancy 20 years lower than the rest of the country, and a 2004 Senate Inquiry reported that about 30 per cent live in income poverty. This is despite the fact that Australia’s GDP doubled between 2000-2010. Economic growth might play a part in poverty reduction, but to claim that “sheer economic growth has effected this change” over-against all other factors is reductionist and simply doesn’t stand up against all the available data.

The truth is that poverty reduction does not come solely through government; it also comes through faithful people working hard on the ground to develop communities. Galli seems to ignore the immense effects of small-scale grassroots community development, particularly amongst rural communities in the developing world. Community development doesn’t just result from growth, since no community is built simply on money. In any case, development through economic growth only occurs when people have access to the incoming wealth; that 75 per cent of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries suggests this is not always the case.

A more fundamental problem with Galli’s article is the separation of poverty reduction from other issues (“abortion, human rights, and a hundred other causes”) – this quite simply misunderstands the nature of poverty. Poverty is not simply a lack of money; it is, at its core, a dislocation of relationships that leaves people without the power to make their own choices or to thrive as human beings. In fact, the coercion of some indigenous or marginalised peoples into the monetised economy and away from their subsistence lifestyles has actually made them poorer. As a result they contribute to the overall macroeconomic growth of an economy, which skews the figures and the gives a false impression that poverty is being overcome.

Human rights, climate change, globalisation “and a hundred other causes” all have a part to play in this drama. Governments currently do not deal well with the multi-dimensional phenomenon that is poverty since it occurs on levels beyond just economics. Churches must speak up to tell our governments how they can fight poverty in holistic ways that address the multi-dimensional causes including war, human rights abuses, climate change and trade.

In fact, it is when the people of God follow the call to ‘make poverty personal’ and invest themselves in not just acts of charity but walking deeply in solidarity with the poor that they will find themselves with a unique and credible voice for speaking into the decisions that are made by our leaders.

Concordantly Galli’s statement that “doing our little part makes very little difference when it comes to large-scale poverty” is, in my view, quite simply false – since we live in a globalised world we must come to terms with the fact that supply chains for goods and services are now wrapped all the way around the planet, sometimes multiple times. I again refer to Thomas Pogge, who says:

… affluent countries, partly through the global institutional order they impose, bear a great causal and moral responsibility for the massive global persistence of severe poverty. Citizens of these countries thus have not merely a positive duty to assist innocent persons mired in life-threatening poverty, but also a more stringent negative duty to work politically and personally toward ceasing, or compensating for, their contribution to this ongoing catastrophe.

For the Christian, the question is who is my neighbour in such a globalised world?

Who are our Neighbours? A Call to Action is a Globalised World

My consumer choices necessarily affect people I have never met, whether it be producers of cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire, cotton in India, or coffee in Colombia. It may be true that doing my part alone makes very little difference, but when we join together to do our part to change our lifestyles for the benefit of the poor real differences can be made. The same goes for when we speak up to lobby our governments to act holistically on poverty; the Jubilee 2000 movement is a beautiful example.

Galli argues that poverty will probably never end until the renewal of all things, and with this I agree. I also affirm his claim that our acts now point towards that final renewal. However, I’m not sure why a dichotomy must be created between effective action, motivated by love of neighbour, and eschatological witness.

Galli paints a picture of Christian action that is too humble for its own good, almost impotent, a charitable cleaning up act after government has done its job. I don’t know how he derives this from the model of Christ that I presented above. Surely a truly eschatological witness, in which we proclaim the eventual end to poverty at the coming of Christ, seeks to incarnate Christ’s very proclamation, precisely by striving to compassionately end poverty, even if such a goal will not be fully realised for now. If, for Galli, the concern is enacting obedience over-against pragmatism, then surely Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, or his command to love our neighbour (defined as everyone!) act as a jolt-from-slumber for obedience in serving the poor that incorporates our personal relationships, life choices, and how we speak up to those who lead us.

It seems that for Galli there is some confusion over what exactly churches should do about poverty. I know of no activists who suggest individual churches should “match the sweep of national and global initiatives”. Rather they tend to suggest churches pray, support the work amongst the poor of other local churches in regions of endemic poverty, change their own consumption habits and speak out to government and corporate powers.

If Galli is suggesting that poverty activists have argued for individual church congregations to involve themselves in international poverty efforts, he is creating a caricature, a strawman – the way the Church involves itself is not as independent cells trying to stretch across the globe but as a universal body with different parts serving those in their local region. To set a dichotomy between personalised engagement in a church’s “sweet spot” and effective global action implies a faulty ecclesiology – the Church acts as one across the globe. To define the Church merely in terms of local congregations is to necessarily preclude the kind of global change that can in fact be brought about by God’s people. Indeed, perhaps the Church’s seeming impotence to change the state of global poverty is indicative of its current health, not of its potential. Again, Jubilee 2000 is a poignant example.

In suggesting ways churches can act, Galli’s example of child sponsorship undermines his entire point. Child sponsorship, as a development methodology, is ineffective – that is precisely why many organisations have moved away from it, retaining only the marketing aspect. The money actually goes largely into community development, and that is in fact what “works”. Given Galli suggests the church can help those who are personally put in our midst, I do not understand how a sponsor child technically fits into that scope; child sponsorship is by definition the kind of global initiative that Galli rejects. What is truly personal about it? If anything it keeps the poor at arm’s length, rather than ‘making poverty personal’ in a way that then provides a foundation for engaging the causes of their poverty with credibility and authenticity. Since Jesus walked with the poor I believe the challenge is for us to do the same.

In the end, Jesus’ call to love our neighbour is complicated in our modern world by globalisation. When chains of production extend right around the world, and when my choices affect those on the other end of that chain, should I not consider those people my neighbour? It is true, I may not be able to personally effect much change in their lives. However, when the (universal) Church acts together, not merely local institutions but the fullness of the body of Christ, including individuals working in the development sector, supporting each other (even financially)… real change can come to a world weighed down by the demon of poverty, and the Kingdom of God can be made known.


Posted on February 13, 2012, in Advocacy, Church/Ecclesiology, Economics, Mission and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Where to start with regard to Galli’s dreck? I believe there are two important approaches, both of which you have highlighted here:

    1) Galli sets up a straw-man of Christian activism and a counter-straw-man of macroeconomic development. That is, he misappropriates fact and statistics in order to make certain claims about development, many of which you’ve covered. In order to improve your post for submission, it might be worthwhile referencing some of the alternative positions you allude to; I’m thinking particularly of Sen’s Development as Freedom here. I think you can also do some work to refute his suggestion that advocacy for better and more effective aid is futility, which he doesn’t appear to address directly but seemingly just assumes we should accept as faulty post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    But, more importantly:

    2) Galli sets up an indefensible narrative about why Christians should care about poverty. Again, you address this briefly in your definition of poverty and how it’s broader than mere economics, but I think it’s a mistake to ignore the important biblical narratives around justice, particularly economic justice, as core to our calling as Christians and our motivations for seeing an ‘end to poverty’. I recall here in particular Mott & Sider (2000) “Economic Justice: A Biblical Paradigm” Transformation 17:2, pp 50-63.

    What I think makes this most clear is Galli’s trite dismissal of the church with the proof-text “The poor will always be with you” from Mark 12:42/John 12:8 (on page 3 of his article). This is a classic misuse of the verse, which Jesus knowingly quotes directly from Deut 15:11, and in it’s original context I would argue is deeply scathing of an attitude of futility towards the poor.

    Deut 15:4-5 says “There should be no poor among you; for in the land the LORD is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” The chapter continues on to explain how we must treat the poor when we come across them, and concludes with an apparently contradictory statement in 15:11: “There will always be poor in the land”.

    Why the alternating stances on poverty? Because the LORD knows that Israel will not keep the laws God gives them. He knows they will sin, and because of their sin, there will be poor people, those who are socially, economically and politically marginalised. And so 15:11 is a condemnation; a recognition that we cannot obey God fully. In this way the Victorian morality with regards to the poor (see De Botton (2004) Status Anxiety ) is seen to be perversely true: the poor are a manifestation of immorality, but not their own, as Victorian society suggested; instead the existence of the poor is a sign of our (the rich’s) own immorality, our own inhumanity.

    Galli is thus like all the other “scheming swindlers” (I can’t help a Kirkegaard reference here) in the church trying to find a way to escape his own guilt and responsibility through a bourgeois mis-reading of the biblical narrative, rather than simply doing what scripture commands.

    Sorry, that’s pretty long. Let me know what you think of my take; I’m keen with this idea of you submitting this article as a reply to Galli.

  2. Couldn’t have said it better myself Matt. While I don’t doubt dor a minute Galli’s sincerity and concern, his ignorance of development, advocacy and Western lifestyle issues is really shown up by your critique. As I was reading Galli’s article, the thought came to me that his mindset seems to reflect a comfortable, somewhat detached middle-classness.

    I also agree with yours and Galli’s assessment that “poverty will probably never end until the renewal of all things…[and that]…our acts now point towards that final renewal.”

    I must say also though that, whilst I agree with your statement that child sponsorship is not necessarily personal, for some aid and development organisations, it does at least provide an opportnuity for relationship between the child’s community and the sponsor’s community. Granted this is no substitute for ‘opening your homes to the homeless poor’ as Isaiah advocates, but it is not as impersonal as perhaps you make out. Having said that though, if we think that by sponsoring a child we are doing our bit, we are sadly mistaken.

    Thanks for a detailed critique Matt.

    • Hi Nils,

      Welcome to life.remixed, and thanks so much for your kind comments.

      I just headed over to your blog. Lots of good material there! I particularly enjoyed a recent post on forgiveness, great stuff!

      I look forward to seeing more of you. Where are you from? Based on your links I imagine you are Australian.



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