Poverty is a daily reality for billions of people. The numbers are so staggering that we can simply become numb. Approximately three billion people live on less than $2USD a day. The World Bank estimates that 1.4 billion people are living in extreme poverty. (Extreme or absolute poverty is defined as living on less than $1USD per day.) The result of this is real.
Consider the following facts:
- Over 140 million children in developing countries are underweight, and over two billion are undernourished.
- Every year, more than ten million children die of hunger and preventable diseases—that’s over thirty thousand per day and one every three seconds.
- 800 million people go to bed hungry every day.
- Every year, nearly eleven million children die before their fifth birthday.
- 600 million children live in extreme poverty.
- The three richest people in the world control more wealth than all 600 million people living in the world's poorest countries.
- Income per person in the poorest countries in Africa has fallen by a quarter in the last twenty years.1
And the situation is only going to get worse. Recent increases in the price of food have had a direct and adverse effect on the poor and are expected to push many more millions of people into absolute poverty. What are we, as the people of God, supposed to do about this?
Responses to Overwhelming Poverty
One unfortunate response many people have could be defined as fatalistic. The problem is so immense and overwhelming that some Christians simply throw up their hands and say it’s up to God. They believe that not much can be done and they refrain from trying to make a difference.
Another subpar response is despair and depression. Some Christians are so focused on the horrors of poverty and the immense suffering it produces in the lives of others that they become increasingly negative, hostile, and judgmental. They are depressed and think it is wrong to be otherwise. Often they cast spiritual stones at others who are not so engaged in eliminating poverty.
However, there is a third way that I believe is God’s way when it comes to responding to global poverty. This third way has two major components:
- recognizing that how we treat the poor is a reflection of how we treat Jesus and
- focusing on approaches that work.
Many people become confused when they read these words of Jesus: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7). On the surface, this statement appears to absolve us of responsibility of caring for the poor. However, two things must be pointed out.
First, Jesus said this after Mary had poured valuable perfume on him. Within the context, Jesus’ statement is not absolving anyone of any responsibility, but showing that the orientation of a heart toward him is what is most important.
Second, what is little known to most readers of the scriptures today is that many statements in the New Testament had the purpose of directing people toward Old Testament scriptures. This comment from Jesus starts off with a near quote of the OT verse, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Jesus is not saying we should not care for the poor; rather, he is saying we should first have a heart committed to him. Then we should be “openhanded” toward “the poor and needy” in our world.
This truth is brought home when Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Perhaps sensing that many people might just choose to opt out of doing something good, Jesus makes it clear that not doing good is the equivalent of doing bad when he flips the phrase, saying, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45).
How we treat the poor is indeed a reflection of how we treat Jesus.
God created a beautiful world, prepared for those created in his image to be enjoyed with abundance and blessing (Genesis 1:28). But this world has been corrupted and broken, and we are in a world of scarcity and cursing. The ones who suffer the most are the poor.
God created us to build community together and to work his creation (Genesis 1:28). Poverty tends to disrupt genuine community and prevents people from engaging in the dignified work that God intended. Even in prosperous, developed countries, finances are a primary cause of stress and problems within marriages. The same is true the world over. Where there are financial pressures, relationships tend to dissolve. Where that pressure is immense, rioting and war can result.
Microfinance and Restoring Those in Poverty
Part of the mission of the Church is not only to treat “the least of these” with respect and dignity, but to find real and practical ways to restore them to the life God intends for them. We need to focus on interventions that work.
A recent United Nations Millennium Development goal report said that the number one intervention that has worked to eradicate poverty in the last eight years is microfinance. Microfinance is an umbrella term that refers to the provision of small loans and other financial services such as savings and micro-insurance to people who are cut out of traditional banking structures. Microfinance has helped many of the world’s poor to increase their incomes. In 2006, microfinance institutions provided loans to approximately 113 million clients worldwide.
Although there are 113 million microfinance clients in the world, there are approximately another 550 million people who would benefit from microfinance but who do not have access to it. We are reaching less than twenty percent of the people who most desperately need it. Of the people who are being reached, only about one percent are being served through Christian microfinance institutions (CMFI). That means that CMFIs are serving less than one fifth of one percent of the need.
At churches and academic conferences I frequently talk about the lack of access to basic microfinance and ask if this reflects the fact that CMFIs and the Church as a whole are not making a bigger impact. Often, the general response is that the biggest problem is that people do not have access to these basic financial services and it does not really matter who the provider is. These responses demonstrate that many people of faith still do not understand poverty and the spiritual mission of microfinance.
As a citizen and resident of the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, I have observed that access to financial capital is not the solution to the world’s problems. Increased wealth can lead to decreased spirituality. Greed can flourish where the economy prospers. However, in saying that, the extremity and scale of poverty in the world today needs a financial response. Those in poverty need financial capital; however, that is not all that they need.
Recently, I visited with a microfinance client in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was a microfinance success story. He had built his salon business and was generating significant profits. He had been able to construct a new building for his business. However, he was a functional alcoholic (someone who consumes alcohol as an addiction and extensively, but who is still able to function as a well-performing person).
The vast majority of his profits had been consumed with his business and his alcohol. When his loan officer at a CMFI confronted him and offered him new life in Christ, the man was changed. He became a follower of Christ and gave up his expensive alcohol habit. When I asked him what tangible result this had on the lives of others around him, he confessed that he was now able to buy milk for his six children. Although this man was a microfinance success story, the benefits of that improved lifestyle did not even trickle down to his own children until God changed his heart.
The spiritual mission of microfinance is not to simply help the poor be less poor; it is to radically transform their lives and give them the practical and spiritual tools to live life as God intends. We want to help the poor, but it is not like solving a math problem. Microfinance is a solution that works, but it only helps insofar as we understand what the real problem is. We are working to change the world in which we live, not just make people wealthier. We need to eradicate spiritual and physical poverty. That is the spiritual mission of microfinance.