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Three months ago I started a journey, in monthly installments, to two fictional cities—Assetsville and Needsville—both cities representative of poor communities in Africa. While the issues, such as education, health care and sanitation, in these cities are identical, the responses to these issues could not be more different—both in philosophy and methodology.

“Is HOPE the solution for global poverty?” It is a question I am asked often, and the question which inspired the past few months’ musings. My answer to this question is a resounding no. I do not believe HOPE is the solution to global poverty. Christ-centered microfinance is wonderfully effective, but it is not a miracle cure. What I do believe is that the principles undergirding HOPE, and the work of the fantastic organizations I highlighted over the past few weeks, are the solution.
Effective service and ministry to poor communities and individuals should affirm:

  • Assets trump needs: All individuals, regardless of how great their needs, are created in the image of God and abounding in strengths, skills, and dreams. The doctor-patient approach to poverty (“you have problems – I can cure them”) will never achieve lasting change—it will simply reveal, and even create, more needs and deeper problems. Over time, this perspective will create unhealthy dependency, eroding the autonomy and creativity of communities and individuals.
  • Their solutions over our ideas: Regardless of the clout of our graduate degrees, or the breadth of our professional backgrounds, the best solutions to community challenges reside within the members of the communities. We need to unlock ingenuity, not rest on our pedigrees.
  • An exit strategy versus an empire strategy: Transitioning to (or starting with) local leadership should be the goal. It is financially—and even philosophically—prohibitive to employ Westerners to permanently staff organizations in communities abroad. All international (non-local) workers should be focused on working themselves out of a job.
  • Dignity above desperation in our messaging: It is easy to motivate people to act with shocking images of babies with bloated stomachs and starving moms with flies in their eyes. But, easy is not always best. I believe we need to abandon guilt marketing and communicate the worth and beauty of all people and communities, even those who suffer from seemingly catastrophic material poverty.
  • We are all poor: What if we viewed hunger the same way we viewed over-eating? What if we viewed the challenge of living in a shanty as the mirrored challenge of keeping up with the Joneses? What if we viewed the problem of not having enough money as a counter-problem to the addiction to money? Each person and community has issues, though some may be more hidden, more below-the-surface, than others. We need to abandon the “savior complex,” serve with humility, and recognize that we are all broken people in need of help.
  • Helping is enabling: If you help a vengeful poor person – and there is no heart change – he will simply become a wealthy tyrant. Helping individuals and communities without speaking to heart issues is like baking a cake with vinegar. The size of the cake, quality of ingredients and intricacy of the decorations are irrelevant if sin is not addressed. We are only enabling the oppressed to become the oppressors if we do not boldly communicate the truth of the Gospel.

Here’s my summary encouragement: Ask the hard questions of the ministries and organizations where you are volunteering and giving financially. Examine whether you would be more likely to find their philosophy, theology and methodology in Needsville or Assetsville. Our resources—time, talents and treasure—are finite and precious. We care called to invest them wisely.