FROM MY BOOKSHELF: What to Do About Poverty?

By LeRoy Lawson

Jeffrey D. Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Ruby K. Payne, Philip Devol, Terie Dreussi Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities (Aha! Process, 2001).



What can one 21st century middle-class American—or even one nation—do while much of the world sinks in poverty’s maelstrom?

I don’t know, so I turn to the experts. And they, full of passionate intensity and no few recommendations, don’t agree.

The Big Plan

Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty) is convinced he has a plan to end poverty. If I had read only his book, I would have known what we (or at least our government) should do. His “Big Plan” is comprehensive: plant nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees to replenish exhausted soil, make antiretroviral therapy readily available to AIDS victims, provide real-time data (through cell phones) to health planners, harvest rainwater, and deposit all such programs into the hands of the secretary-general of the United Nations to administer (that person will coordinate the efforts of six UN agencies, various country teams, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and maybe others). If we’d just do as Sachs recommends, we could end world poverty by 2025. Of course, the world’s richest nations would pay most of the bill, but that’s only fair.

I was persuaded, until I reviewed a bit of the history of such planned approaches. Together they have spent $2.3 trillion (in today’s dollars) since the end of World War II—and poverty remains as robust as ever. Not that there has been no success. Sachs can bolster his recommendations with reports of results in reducing infant mortality, increasing access to primary and secondary education, and our government’s effective anti-AIDS initiative in Africa.

Sachs writes that “success in ending the poverty trap will be much easier than it appears.” Hmmm. After six decades of trying, shouldn’t we have made more progress than we have? Is it true that “ending poverty is the great opportunity of our time”? A great challenge, absolutely. A huge problem to be tackled, of course.

But is his optimism justified, especially when you factor in the complexities of politics (including greed and corruption and bungling bureaucracies), the after-effects of colonialism, recurring regional and ethnic wars, lack of respect for law and order, lack of accountability anywhere?

Still, Sachs must be taken seriously. The director of Columbia Univer-sity’s Earth Institute has in fact effectively helped Bolivia break its hyper-inflation and Poland overcome its debts and deficits. He was less successful in privatizing the post-communistic Russian economy (he was defeated by what we now call the Russian mafia). Still, he speaks with some authority, and governments listen.

Bottoms Up

One who doesn’t listen is William Easterly (The White Man’s Burden), also highly credentialed. He is an economics professor at New York University and codirector of NYU’s Development Research Institute. More to the point of this issue, he spent 16 years as an economist with the World Bank. There he studied the effect of aid on the countries it was designed to help. He was, shall we say, underwhelmed.

Even more, he became convinced the kind of central planning Sachs promotes so vigorously is not only not the solution, but is part of the problem. Where Sachs proposes top-down plans for shocking the world’s poorest out of their poverty, Easterly prefers a bottoms-up approach. No utopian plan for him.

Sachs—and other government and donor planners—puts the cart before the horse, Easterly believes. Such experts don’t listen to people in need, but instead focus on the “Big Picture” and deal only with the bureaucrats who administer big plans. Worse, they are not accountable to the supposed beneficiaries, so they do what they do without adequately measuring the results.

Easterly is more impressed with the “Searchers”—the researchers, the entrepreneurs, and the poor themselves—who really care about finding the right answers. Easterly is not much interested in fixing the current aid establishment. It’s too far gone. He wants to go around it, helping the little people who take the initiative to help themselves and their countries. He believes the goal of aid should be to assist individuals rather than to transform societies or governments.

Easterly’s basic beef with the Planner approach is this: “A Planner thinks he already knows the answers.” Better to go with the Searchers: “A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors.” And rather than rely on outside experts, a Searcher trusts homegrown solutions.

Here is Easterly’s argument in a nutshell: “The hope for the poor depends on the same dual forces this book emphasizes throughout: (1) homegrown, market-based development that will lift up both rich and poor . . . (2) Western assistance for meeting the most desperate needs of the poor until homegrown market-based development reaches them.”

Mix It Up

Well, whom do we go with, Sachs or Easterly? Enter Paul Collier (The Bottom Billion), who arms himself with a fistful of statistics and marches into the middle ground. He is convinced Sachs is utopian in his promises to eradicate poverty and Easterly is too pessimistic in regarding aid relief as mostly a disaster. While we can’t reach the promised land with Sachs, some planning is needed nonetheless, and it should be directed not toward the 5 billion people in the “developing world” but toward the 1 billion at the bottom.

Reform in the aid community is a must. Collier recommends a mix: better and more targeted delivery of aid, occasional military intervention on behalf of the poor and of more stable government, adoption of international laws and charters calling for higher standards of integrity and fairness in government, and trade policies that benefit the poorer as well as the richer nations.

Collier sees four traps that can keep the poorest nations from escaping their plight: conflict (civil war), natural resource (either too few natural resources or too heavy a reliance on one like oil or natural gas), being landlocked and surrounded by bad neighbors, and bad governance. These often reinforce each other. It’s a rare and fortunate country that can break their stranglehold.

His book is chock-full of statistics. Unfortunately, I have a pretty deep-seated suspicion of statistics. It is hard to think, for example, of a “typical low-income country” when you’ve been to Nepal on the one hand and the civil-war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. What is typical?

Home, Poor Home

So much for the world. What about here in America? This is where Bridges Out of Poverty comes in. This helpful volume for professionals who work with the poor (educators, hospital workers, correctional workers, and social service personnel) focuses on enlightening them on the obstacles facing and nearly overwhelming the poor in our country. The authors are building on Ruby Payne’s earlier book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, adding insights on mentoring and improving the job performance of those who work with the poor.

After the macro-issues of the books on world poverty, this practical volume is welcome. I recommend it for local church benevolence leaders. It teaches that handing out benevolent dollars is no substitute for thoughtful, disciplined programs that address the causes and results of poverty.

It’s a book I would have found helpful earlier in my ministry. Instead of investing time to come alongside the needy, I just gave money. I was wrong.

Whether thinking globally or locally, the fact is that today’s church—like today’s government—cannot treat poverty casually. The experts debate the best way to help; what they don’t debate is that help is needed.



LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor. His column appears at least monthly.

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