Charity vs. Development

On virtually every page of the Bible or Catechism is the injunction to care for the poor. There isn’t much, however, on the best way to do that. Theologians likely would chalk up such policy discussions to the realm of prudential judgment. Given that, then, it seems natural to ask what policies or programs have done the best job of lifting the poor out of poverty.

Many well-meaning Christians appear to confuse the concepts of charity and economic development, presuming that enough of the former will lead to the latter. It’s a classic fallacy of composition which omits the importance of institutions such as private property rights, sound money, reasonably low taxation, rule of law, and relatively free markets. We have plenty of examples of poor countries both with and without such institutions who have charted widely different paths, the former to prosperity and the latter to stagnation. Ironically, the countries with good institutions have tended to rely very little on foreign or charitable aid and have still grown impressively, while the countries with bad institutions have been black holes of tons of foreign aid and charitable dollars without much to show for it.

Nina Munk was interviewed on the always-interesting EconTalk podcast about her recent book on Jeffrey Sachs and his Millenium Villages Project. The Project appears to be a classic example of charity-minded aid, where dollars are collected and initially distributed with much fanfare, without much thought as to future sustainability (the discussion of the high-yield corn is very instructive). The podcast is well-worth the hour’s listening for anyone concerned about the best ways to serve the poor (and not just the poor in other parts of the world; the policy implications could just as easily be applied to most cities’ programs in the U.S.). Here’s a snippet from the closing:

I think you raise the question of the real arrogance and potential dangers of intervention by well-intentioned but often ignorant or at least naive outsiders. And one of the things that sometimes made my heart stop was realizing that Jeffrey Sachs, for all of his enthusiasm and sometimes rah-rah-ism, would come powering, motoring into a village in his convoy of UN [United Nations] vehicles with bulletproof windows and air conditioning and give these enormously uplifting speeches and make all kinds of promises and set in motion an enormous machinery, so to speak, that then, when the Project began to fail or parts of it began to fail or the staff was no longer there or they stopped showing up–the devastation left behind was incredibly cruel.

My mantra on these pages (and certainly Pope Francis’) is that Catholics need to care for the poor, and should discover those methods that best do that. The answers aren’t hard; economists have known about them for centuries. But it will take breaking out of the charity-equals-development and the capitalism-is-inherently-evil mindsets, two paradigm shifts that Christians don’t seem to be especially inclined to undertake.

  • Matt Salisbury

    I’d suggest we start with efforts to lift the poorest in our own nation first. Addressing wealth disparity at the national (and far more local) level seems to be in step with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. I look at American economic disparity in a bit more detail here:

    • indirani.n

      even i would like to join this on my birthday of this year i did something good and so on i will do

  • Diego F. Ramos F.

    I’m gonna propose, if you like, to be more precise on our definitions. In some comments, there seems to be a lot of confussion on terms like free-market, capitalism, socialism, communism and so on. It tends to equate free-market with capitalism, and that’s not true; socialism comes to be whatever doesn’t fit on free-market dogmas, that’s not true, and that would turn out to call the Church socialist (total non-sense). May I recall Quadragesimo Anno (“natural result of limitless free competition that permits survival of those who are strongest, which often means those who fight more relentlessly, who pay least heed to the dictates of conscience”), Rerum Novarum (which gives a definition of capitalistic social order) or Centesimus Annus?.
    I want to add that, come of the problems with external aid come from the money used: it’s foreign money used that comes to boost the foreign goods demand (and sometimes, goods from specific companies)…that’s one reason why foreign aid tends to help more the helper than the helped.



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