Ministry Ideas: Haiti and the Culture of Poverty

jesus-washing-footAs we ponder the horrific results of the earthquake in Haiti, we can’t help but realize the greatest problem suffered by Haiti is poverty, not natural disaster. But for their severe, intransigent poverty, the damage done by the earthquake would have been orders of magnitude less.

But the world — particularly the United States — has been pouring money into Haiti for a very long time. And according to David Brooks, with the New York Times, Haiti has more NGOs — non-governmental organizations — per capita working to improve things than any other country. And yet it remains desperately poor.

Meanwhile, many churches are looking to Haiti and considering whether to launch their own efforts there. Perhaps they can make a difference? But so many have tried and so few have succeeded. What do we do?

Obviously, in the short run, we give money and do what we can to help them deal with the immediate tragedy. But if all we do is return things to normal, well, Haitian normal is a very sad thing.

And so, once the immediate catastrophe is over, what can we do to make things truly better for the Haitians?

Obviously enough, merely sending money doesn’t work. We may feel better for having written a check, but contrary to what you might expect, money doesn’t fix poverty. It hasn’t worked in this country to end the cycle of poverty and dependence. Why do we think it would work somewhere else?

Some have tried micro-loans, encouraging entrepeneurs, particularly women, to improve their lives by starting small businesses. Again, there have been lots of micro-loans made in Haiti, and the country remains in abject poverty.

Well, David Brooks has a fascinating column wrestling with this very question (pointed out to me by Scot McKnight in his Jesus Creed blog). Brooks notes that economists have carefully researched how successful various approaches to relieving poverty have been. One book summarizing their conclusions is What Works in Development?: Thinking Big and Thinking Small. (You should also buy and read The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.) The economists find that countries that prosper are rarely the ones that have received large amounts of aid or intervention by nonprofit groups. In fact, no one form of outside intervention has been found effective.

Brooks, therefore, suggests building on models proven to work in this country.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Fourth, it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

If a church wants to go to Haiti to make things better beyond the immediate earthquake recovery, they need to do more than send money and paint houses. For that matter, converting Haitians to Christianity isn’t enough either. After all, they are 80% Catholic and 16% Protestant already. The problem is that their religion hasn’t changed their culture.

Brooks writes,

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

Imagine a nation that’s supposedly 96% Christian where people do not feel personal responsibility for their actions and children are neglected and the victims of parental retribution on a national scale! Christianity as we so often practice it is not the cure. I mean, teaching them threer services a week, five acts of worship, and a plurality of elders and deacons isn’t the cure.

Rather, they need to experience a comprehensive redemption —

  • a right relationship with God, which is necessarily exclusive. Christianity has to replace voodoo.
  • right relationships within their families.
  • right relationships among brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • right relationships with their neighbors.
  • right relationship with their environment, the Creation. Haiti was an environmental disaster area before the earthquake.
  • right government. No government is perfectly just, but corrupt governments make it particularly hard for people to dig themselves out of poverty. And sometimes fixing the government is as simple as teaching those working in government to follow John the Baptist’s teachings,

(Luke 3:14)  Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.”

We can’t go in there teaching an other-worldly religion — a relgion that tells them Christianity is only about going to church and where you go when you die. No, Haiti — like the rest of the world — needs the full dose of Christianity, a Christianity that changes everything.

NOTES

For those not familiar with the programs mentioned by Brooks, here’s some background. I’m not personally familiar with these and so can’t endorse them myself. But they are intriguing.

An article in the New York Times explains how the Harlem Children’s Zone works.

What makes [executive director] Canada’s project unique is that it addresses both problems at once. He keeps the liberals happy by pouring money into schools and day-care centers and after-school programs, and he satisfies the conservatives by directly taking on the problems of inadequate parenting and the cultural disadvantages of a ghetto home life. It’s not just that he’s trying to work both sides of the ideological street. It’s that Canada has concluded that neither approach has a chance of working alone. Fix the schools without fixing the families and the community, and children will fail; but they will also fail if you improve the surrounding community without fixing the schools. …

Canada’s new program combines educational, social and medical services. It starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an entire neighborhood. It operates on the principle that each child will do better if all the children around him are doing better. …

The leaders concluded that the public schools were inadequate for the needs of these children, and so they founded a charter school Promise Academy, carefully not selecting students based on aptitude. The results?

  • 100% of third graders at Promise Academies I and II tested at or above grade level on the math exam, outperforming their peers in New York State, New York City, District 5, and black and white students throughout the state
  • Over 98% of Promise Academy II’s students scored at or above grade level on the math exam, outperforming their counterparts in New York State, New York City and District 5, as well as black and white students in New York State
  • In English and Language Arts (ELA), over 93% of Promise Academy I third graders tested at or above grade level, outperforming New York State, New York City and District 5 peers, as well as black and white students in New York State
  • Over 84% of Promise Academy II’s students scored at or above grade level in ELA, outperforming on average their counterparts in New York State, New York City and District 5, as well as black students in New York City
  • In 2008, 93% of Promise Academy High School ninth graders passed the statewide Algebra Regents exams

The philosophy taught in such books as No Excuses : Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools rejects the notion that the poor, blacks, and Hispanics cannot succeed, insists that parents be involved in their children’s education, and demands that teachers get results. As explained in this article

Educators frequently cite a lack of parental involvement to explain student failure. That’s not a problem among the “No Excuses” principals, who insist on having a home environment conducive to education. To ensure that the home is a “center of learning,” these schools establish contracts with parents, who pledge to support the school’s efforts by checking homework and reading to their children. At Cascade Elementary in Atlanta, for example, parents are even required to have their children in bed by 9 p.m.

Hard work breeds success, these principals say. The students at the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles, for example, routinely score two or more years above grade level in core subjects. In 1999, three Garvey 7th graders began attending West Los Angeles Junior College after testing at the post-secondary level in all subjects. Advanced math is customary: Pre-schoolers add and subtract two-digit numbers, four-year-olds know the multiplication tables, and 4th graders study elementary algebra.

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5 Responses

  1. The Church of India has prospered in the word because of native missionaties. The converts will be better educated because of christianity. A comparison of what Christianity can do is seen by the Phillipines versus Indonesia. The Phillipines are more literate due to the Catholic Church while Indonesia , a muslim nation is not at all literate. Schools are for the priveledged. Haiti is Catholic but highly illiterate partly or wholley due to the very corrupt leaders.

    The only hope for Haiti is for the U.S. to force the pityfull government in existance to be reformed.
    While at the same time the country be evangelized .
    Pouring humanitarian aid is fleeting in such place as this. I notice that Aristead(sp?) the former dictator wants to come back an help stabilze Haiti. If so he will plunder the people and foriegn aid like he and all the others before. Baby Doc Duvaluea(sp?) got off with $800 million.

    Don’t get me wrong I feel so bad for these poor creatures, igborant, poor, sick and untrained, making $800 yearly. Humanitarian aid will be good but the real hope for them is Christ. It has been proven in India and Africa that when evangelists spend more time with humantarian aid than evangelism the number of souls saved dimiish. That seems contridictory but that is what I have read over and over.

    So the conclusion may be; with a better government, evangelism and humanitarian aid in that order Haiti will have a chance.

    We need to pray for better things for these poor folks. They deserve better

    Bob

  2. An opressive government for the last several decades is Haiti’s greatest reason for extreme poverty. The same is true in many other countries ruled by dictators or corrupt leaders who keep the will of the people in check.

    Their closest neighbor, the Dominican Republic, although also poor does not compare to Haiti. They have had much better government than Haiti. The country, natural resources, etc are about the same.

    Royce

  3. A few thoughts:

    – Nominal Christianity benefits a culture or society very little. I would argue it actually negatively affects a community.

    – What is needed as you’ve said, is a right relationship with God — which produces justice and caring in the community.

    – This requires a Spirit-led and obedience-based Christianity — which is in actuality the only kind.

    – Relief is needed on occasion (Haiti right now), but many groups are doing well to move towards development these days in most situations.

    – Sustainable development is a great idea. And many are teaching now, instead of dumping money on problems (especially useless in corrupt government situations). But what we’re calling reproducible development work isn’t really that (if you ask me).

    – True development, in my opinion, can’t teach a new system (drip irrigation or how to treat diarrhea and dehydration) only. That’s great, because people are able to improve their own lives with new knowledge and practices. But six years later when the weather pattern has changed, they will be in need of another NGO to come in and teach them yet another agricultural system that will work for a time. The locals are still dependent, though less so.

    * Good development will do at least two things: 1) give locals the knowledge behind new systems, helping them to “develop” said systems “on their own,” and 2) encourage and help people learn to work together and form groups in which they will continue working together to solve future problems.

    * I would argue the best Christian evangelism does the same two things: 1) Gives people knowledge of the Bible and how to study it, so they can come to “develop on their own” (with the HS’s guidance) understanding of God and his will for their lives — with less reliance on ME teaching, and 2) help locals form groups who will study the Bible together in order to find “solutions” to their problems (of sin, death, etc) on their own — so they will be prepared to continue to do so in the future.

  4. “Nominal Christianity benefits a culture or society very little. I would argue it actually negatively affects a community.”

    Financially? Do you believe in the prosperity gospel?

    1 Corinthians 4:11 “Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace;”

    The prosperity gospel didn’t seem to work for Paul.

  5. I guess it depends on what you mean by “prosperity gospel.” But if it’s defined as a promise that wealth and material possessions will always accompany conversion to Christianity, then no, I don’t believe that is the case.

    What I intended to say was simply that, if a group of people call themselves Christians but fail to be discipled by Christ and obedient to him, they will help their society very little — and probably cause more problems than they solve.

    Adversely, if a group of Christians love Christ, learn from him, and are obedient to his words, society will benefit. They will be serving other individuals and the community as a whole. There will be a sharing of resources and concern for one another. And that solves problems — dumping money on them doesn’t. Neither does “believing” in Christ and “going to church,” while trying to convince everyone else also to “believe” and “attend church.”

    Another major benefit comes from your 1 Corinthians 4 text. The Christian response to being hungry and brutally treated is different than that of the non-Christian. Vv. 12-13 demonstrates the Christian response to poverty and the like is to work hard, bless those that curse me, and answer kindly to slander and abuse. The non-Christian response is generally to wait for a handout, complain if it doesn’t come, reject “the man,” turn against one another, and often answer slander and abuse with violence.

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