From "Spare Change" to Lasting Change
The other day, there was a homeless woman standing on the corner just a few miles from my house. She held a sign saying, “Single Mom. Please Help.”
We have all been in a situation like that, wanting to respond to a person in real need, yet knowing that whatever we have to give at the moment isn’t enough. We all recognize that offering some spare change doesn’t fundamentally change the life of a homeless person.
A complex problem
We want to help, but we realize that homelessness is complex. Someone living on the street needs more than our spare change. They may have addictions, psychological troubles, work and family difficulties. To really meet that person’s need requires experience, expertise, multiple interventions, and lots of time.
You see, homelessness is a symptom of an array of deeper problems. Addressing it can require job training, affordable housing, mental health care, substance abuse recovery programs, and maybe even changing laws and government policies.
Other forms of poverty, in the United States or around the world, are similar. If we want to solve the root causes of poverty, we have to address them all at once. We can’t just offer our “spare change.” It isn’t enough to pack a meal, build a house, dig a well, or staff a health clinic.
Beyond the surface problem
A community suffering from hunger doesn’t need food to be handed out. They need new agricultural methods, irrigation, access to markets, farmers’ coops, or new seeds.
But even if we can help them solve the food problem, they still may face a host of other daunting challenges: bad water, diseases like malaria or tuberculosis, lack of education, and no economic opportunities.
And even providing a community in poverty with all of these things still isn’t enough. Solving poverty is about more than just providing things a community might lack. It’s also about how people think and behave. There may be oppressive or harmful cultural practices that need to change, such as early marriage or gender inequalities.
Solving these less visible problems involves addressing the community’s culture and values through things like youth leadership development, women’s support groups, and programs that address stigma and confront community leaders regarding harmful behaviors.
It involves creating new community-based institutions such as farmer’s co-ops, education committees, water and sanitation monitors, tutoring programs, and community savings and loan groups, so that people are working together productively.
It also means equipping the community to find their voice to speak up to their local government to advocate for better services like roads, electricity, and more teachers and health workers.
Solving the puzzle of poverty
That’s why World Vision works across a number of “sectors.” If we are to solve poverty -- and not simply put a bandage on its symptoms -- we have to do it all alongside a community.
Thinking back to the homeless mom I recently saw, it can be a good thing to offer some spare change to someone like her. We should probably all do that a little more often.
But sometimes, as business guru Jim Collins says, the good is the enemy of the great. And the great thing is not to simply lessen the effects of poverty, but to solve it.
With World Vision, your “spare change” doesn’t just alleviate the suffering of those in poverty. For about a dollar a day, we are able to fundamentally change the situation of a child and her community. We address all of the root causes so that a child, her family, and her community are freed to live the full and abundant life that Jesus offers to us all.
Photo ©2008 World Vision, Jon Warren