What Do You Think?


Doing things to the poor is not as effective as doing things with the poor.

Imagine that your church wants to minister to an individual poor person or to a poor community. Stop and think: Who would you ask for advice? Really, stop and write down a list of the people you might consult to design your ministry.

Now look at your list. Did it occur to you to ask the poor individual or community for their ideas? If not, why not? It turns out that failing to ask poor people the simple question “what do you think?” in the design, execution, and evaluation of your ministry can be a fatal mistake. Let me explain.

God has established four, foundational relationships for each and every individual, relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. Sin has broken each of these relationships, wreaking havoc in the lives of every human being. For some people, this brokenness manifests itself in “material poverty,” the inability to be able to support oneself and one’s family through their own work. In this light, material poverty alleviation can be defined as working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people are able to work and to support themselves and their families through that work.

Although all four relationships are broken, one that is particularly problematic in interactions between the materially poor and non-poor is the broken relationship each person has with self. Indeed, research has found that shame is a major feature of the lives of the poor. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God and as having inherent value and worth, materially-poor people often feel they are inferior to others. This can sometimes make poor people passive, believing they can do little to improve their situation. Hence, poverty-alleviation ministries should seek to find ways to help materially poor people to overcome their low self-esteem.

The materially non-poor have a broken relationship with self as well, often having a sense of superiority in which they believe they have achieved their good fortune through their own efforts and have been anointed to save the materially poor. If the non-poor approach the poor in a way that communicates this sense of superiority, it will only exacerbate the feelings of inferiority on the part of the poor, likely making them more passive than ever before. And this increased passivity can make the non-poor frustrated and leave them feeling even more superior than before! And then the pattern continues. Hence, it is crucial for the non-poor to embrace their own brokenness and to engage with poor people in a humble and affirming way.

A huge step in this direction is to use a “participatory approach,” which asks the poor at each step in the process: What do you think? The very fact that the question is being asked is a powerful statement, a statement which says, “I believe you have value, knowledge, and insights. You know things about your situation that I do not know. Please share some of this with me.” This is NOT to say that the poor have it all figured out and that their opinions should be followed blindly. However, this approach does recognize that the poor are created in the image of God and starts the process of overcoming low self-esteem. Furthermore, it places the poor in the position of “teaching” the non-poor, which can help to overcome the superior-inferior dynamic that typically characterizes interactions between the non-poor and the poor.

Note that a fully participatory approach is more than a perfunctory consulting with poor people in order to make them feel good. Rather, full participation means engaging poor people in the identification of the problem, in the design and execution of the solution, in the evaluation of the ministry’s success, and in any modifications that need to be made.

In contrast to a “participatory approach,” many organizations use a “blueprint approach” in which the design, implementation, and evaluation of the ministry are conducted by the non-poor and then done to the poor. This can go so far as the “McDonald’s franchise” approach in which solutions are rolled out in a cookie-cutter fashion on as large a scale as possible. While the blueprint approach appears to be very efficient, it can amount to imposing solutions on poor communities that are inconsistent with local culture, that are not embraced by the community members, and that treat the poor as objects rather than as subjects. There are literally hundreds of stories of latrines, wells, and schools being built that go unused because they are not in tune with local customs and practices. In addition to wasting a lot of money, the blueprint approach can actually do more harm than good, as it can result in poor people being demeaned rather than affirmed as a result of our doing things to poor people rather than with them.

DONOR ALERT!!!! While many donors correctly desire to see their money leveraged by getting as “big a bang for the buck” as possible, donors must realize that reconciling people’s relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation is simply not the same as producing and selling widgets. Effective and long-lasting poverty alleviation is about people and processes not projects and products. Engaging the poor in all aspects of building the house is far more important than getting the house built. The goal is to walk with poor people in order to reconcile relationships, restoring people to being stewards of their lives and communities, not to do something to them.

May God bless your efforts to walk with the poor for the glory of His name.

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