Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Overcoming Poverty: Are Millennium Development Goals The Only Strategy?

David W. Virtue

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Churches in more than half of the world's countries serve people deeply mired in poverty. Churches are embracing micro credit, which is helping millions of families develop financial stability.

A new book, "A Billion Bootstraps," explains why micro credit works so well. Longtime ministry leader, Eric Thurman, and philanthropist Phil Smith, who has made significant contributions to Christian micro credit programs in Rwanda, Russia, and numerous other countries wrote the book. Thurman has headed major international organizations including Opportunity International, HOPE International and Geneva Global. He has traveled extensively overseas working in African countries with Anglican leaders fighting poverty.

VirtueOnline interviewed Thurman on the publication of his book "A Billion Bootstraps".

With The Episcopal Church adopting the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals as the mission of the Church, I asked Thurman: for his perspective on what works in the face of severe global poverty and whether relieving poverty is the Church's mission.

VOL: Some might question if economic development is even the work of the Church. What do you say to that?

Thurman: You are not likely to hear those misgivings from church leaders in the Global South. They face poverty every day. I spent a week recently in Pakistan with several hundred church leaders. Our Pakistani Christian brothers and sisters are the poorest people in their country. We are trying to change that and become a blessing to the wider community as well.

VOL: Where else are you applying micro credit principles?

Thurman: One of my dearest friends for the last 30 years is Bishop Edward Muhima of the North Kigezi Anglican Diocese in western Uganda. Churches in his young diocese of a quarter million people are growing rapidly, but mind-numbing poverty in that rural area is everywhere. He considers poverty ministry a priority. He worked hard and volunteered much of his personal time several years ago to found UGAFODE, a micro credit program.

VOL: The story of church growth is thrilling, but the poverty is very discouraging. What hope can you offer?

Thurman: It is interesting that poverty can be so relentless in many of the same parts of the world where church growth is amazingly strong. I'm thrilled that the Gospel is, as it should be, "good news for the poor." But we should not leave people stuck in poverty when a way out is possible for many of them. I want to see more of God's people at the forefront of this important movement.

VOL: Is there a biblical basis for poverty programs?

Thurman: Absolutely. The Bible makes clear that God has a special love and concern for the poor. The poor are a dominant theme in the Old Testament. One out of every 16 verses in the New Testament references poor people and poverty in some way, and one out of 10 verses in the Gospels. In all, our Bible contains more than 2,000 passages about poverty. God cares. Psalm 69:33 says, "God hears the needy." He loves these people.

VOL: Some poverty efforts have been riddled with corruption and failed. What does actually work to end poverty?

Thurman: Sadly, it is true that a lot of resources have been, and are still being dumped into failed programs. Since World War II, more than two trillion dollars has been poured into foreign aid. While some programs produced benefits, other important goals failed miserably. For instance, one study shows that, in Africa, food emergencies occur three times more often now than 20 years ago.

Yet in contrast with these failures, there is something that really works. First, begin with a high view of poor people. Recognize that each person is made in the image of God and God has given each individual at least one talent, usually more. By making a tiny amount of money available to them, as little as $50 in some places, these people will set up and run micro-businesses that can support their families. There is really only one lasting solution to poverty: help people develop means to earn a reliable living. These reliable incomes, then, ultimately lead them to support their churches.

VOL: Your book is filled with stories. Give me just a couple of examples of businesses poor people are starting with micro loans.

Thurman: Tuck shops are common across Africa. We would call them convenience stores in the U.S. With a loan of only $50 or $100, a woman buys a supply of household supplies like soap, toothpaste, cooking oil, and salt. She keeps her inventory "tucked away" in a corner of her home and sells small, affordable quantities to her neighbors, like single bars of soap. That helps them and she makes a little profit. A man might use his loan to buy a simple air pump and a few hand tools to fix flat tires.

VOL: Who are some good groups running micro credit programs?

Thurman: The book has an appendix in the back listing many excellent groups. The Five Talents Fund (www.fivetalents.org) ties directly to Anglican churches. HOPE International (www.hopeinternational.org) and Opportunity International (www.opportunity.org) are two more leading Christian groups that operate micro credit programs with strong Anglican connections. Many other Christian groups offer micro credit: World Relief, World Concern, World Vision, and MEDA, a Mennonite group. Keep in mind there are countless successful local programs all over the world operating independently of the big international groups. These may be known only in their home country, but often do superlative work. URWEGO in Rwanda is an excellent micro credit organization, which works closely with the Anglican Church there.

VOL: Is "A Billion Bootstraps" a Christian book?

Thurman: There are references in the book to working with church planters, and to delivering other kinds of spiritual ministry along with micro credit. But no, the book is published by a top general market publisher. It was written for a broad audience. All the ideas in it, however, are highly practical for Christian ministries anywhere.

VOL: Should individual churches in developing countries set up micro credit programs?

Thurman: People should read the book to be clear as to what's involved. I want to see churches, especially those in poverty-afflicted communities, get involved in economic ministry. It is difficult, however, to run an excellent loan program that is small. What usually works best is for churches to find ways to team up with specialized, quality micro credit programs. Churches can organize groups from the community who then borrow from these lenders. The churches can enhance the program by offering other kinds of assistance to people getting credit. Chapter Six explains this: Phil Smith and I call it Micro credit Plus. These "plus" services can be short classes on literacy, health and nutrition, or Bible clubs for the kids. A lot of good can come from churches hosting groups of borrowers. Let the church be the center of activity in a community. Teaming up with a good micro credit program is a great way for a church to be at the forefront of progress. It opens doors for many other kinds of ministry.

VOL: The Episcopal Church has embraced Millennium Development Goals as a way to reduce poverty. Should that be a rallying call for Western churches? The Episcopal Church seems to be making it the centerpiece of its missions program.

Thurman: Yes and no. Yes, in that the Gospel is good news for the poor. That is right at the core of Scripture. No, in that the U.N. Millennium Development Goals do not represent the whole mission of the Church. Poverty involves much more than just money, yet the MDGs don't focus on heart change. Poverty often aggravates spiritual problems. I have seen direct links between poverty and crime, injustice, prostitution, family violence, and cruelty of all kinds. I have witnessed literal slavery feeding on poverty. Holistic ministry to downtrodden people requires both spiritual ministry and financial help. The whole Gospel addresses poverty both inside and outside the victim. Churches are called to minister beyond just the external symptoms of poverty.

Furthermore, if a poverty program is successful and a person becomes prosperous by local standards, what is the spiritual consequence? It is not much of a prize if people improve their temporal lives only to be lost eternally.

When progress happens, churches need to point people to the goodness of God that made it all happen. As Deuteronomy 8:18 says, "It is the Lord who gives the ability to make wealth."

For me, it is a question of who sets the agenda. Should the United Nations set the agenda for churches? I think the Church has a much higher and wider calling. I love that people move out of poverty. What is far better, however, is that people are so completely transformed that not only are they free from poverty, but also made completely new in Christ. That holistic view of progress is unique to the Church of Jesus Christ.

VOL: Where can people buy "A Billion Bootstraps"?

Thurman: The book is in major bookstores worldwide. Many airport booksellers carry it. It is now available online from Amazon.com, BarnsAndNoble.com, and online bookstores across the globe, or from our website, www.abillionbootstraps.com. The Table of Contents and a free sample chapter is available at the website. The book is shortly coming out in a second printing.

David Virtue is the webmaster of Virtue Online.

Read the entire article on the Virtue Online website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of Virtue Online.

Posted: 20-Jun-07

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