What can we do in response to a global and local crisis?

In September 2015, a photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s limp body on a Turkish beach was a gut check to sophisticated societies, reminding them of the fragility of life for millions of people fleeing economic and political chaos and highlighting the stark causes behind such desperation.

Aylan’s family represented the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere on desperate journeys to Europe, seeking jobs, adequate housing in clean and violence-free neighborhoods, and schools for their children. Tragically, Aylan, his five-year old brother, and their mother never made it. All three family members drowned when their boat capsized trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.

While public conversations in the U.S. revolve around the treatment of immigrants (documented and undocumented) and whether or not we should ban refugees from certain countries, the deeper questions Christians should be pondering is what kind of circumstances exist in a person’s life that would cause a parent to risk (and indeed sacrifice) the lives of children for the hope of a better tomorrow in a strange and distant land? And what should we do to mitigate such circumstances?

What is a Christian’s responsibility when it comes to working towards alleviating poverty? How can we encourage our governments, nonprofits, businesses, and local churches to act in ways that help alleviate poverty for the poorest neighbors in our country and around the world?

Of course, poverty also exists in the largest and most sophisticated economies in the world as well. There, too, the poorest families are disproportionally hurt by circumstances beyond their control. For example, the United States recently learned that thousands of its children will suffer from long-term developmental challenges because of drinking lead-contaminated water for months in Flint, Michigan.

The state and city governments were attempting to save money; instead they put the entire community in a health crisis. Just like Aylan and his brother bore the brunt of the crisis their family faced, children from the poorest families in Flint, Michigan, will likely suffer the greatest damage.

A population of 7 billion

For most of human history, the health and environmental conditions faced by the vast majority of humans were difficult and challenging. Education was limited to a very small portion of the ruling elite and most health care was rudimentary and inconsistent. Roughly 200 years ago, child mortality rates were high and the average life expectancy at birth everywhere was around 35 years. People lived in simple housing, worked their own land to feed themselves, and took over the work that their parents taught them. Wealth was rare, and luxuries and comforts even rarer.

What happened to change the world, such that millions, even billions, of people now live longer, healthier, and varied lives? Scholars point to the discovery of cheap energy, technological innovations, and the spread of democratic ideals as significant factors in increasing global economic value at a much faster pace than the rapidly growing population of the world.

In 2011, the world’s population crossed the 7 billion mark. More people now live in urban areas than in rural communities. This urbanization is significant, on one hand, because it is more efficient to provide healthcare, education, transportation, and economic opportunities to people who live close together rather that farther apart.

On the other hand, because of land ownership customs and income inequities, the mass of people moving to urban areas have limited spaces to live and work. Slum areas have expanded in the world’s largest cities. Poor sanitation and environmental degradation proliferate, causing massive suffering.

“More than 2 billion people in the world live on less than the equivalent of $2.50 a day.”

Global improvements

That said, there is good news to consider — underreported by today’s media, which focuses on the negative. The percentage and even number of people living in extreme poverty has been declining for the past decades. The Gates Foundation is so optimistic with these trends that it predicted in its 2014 Gates Annual Letter that by 2035 there will be no “poor” countries left in the world as we currently define the term.

Medical, educational, and even energy advances have helped reduce the number of children around the world who die each day from preventable causes — according to UNICEF, from an average of 35,000 a day in 1990 to fewer than 16,200 a day in 2015.

With fewer children dying, average life span has increased. Literacy rates, particularly among women, are increasing, and this has coincided with a reduction in maternal mortality (women dying during childbirth). The improved chance that a child will live past the age of five, along with increased access to healthcare and education, has resulted in many countries’ birthrates declining sharply. In time, this will stop the rapid population growth of the world and likely will cap global population at fewer than 10 billion people.

Can the earth’s resources (its carrying capacity to renew natural resources) nurture and sustain such a large population? About 200 years ago, Rev. Thomas Malthus argued that population would outpace food production, leading to massive starvation and wars. Malthus was wrong, but echoes of his concerns are heard in the immigration debates in wealthy countries today.

One environmental group (Global Footprint Network) gathered statistics on worldwide consumption and projected that if every person in the world consumed as much as the average United States citizen does, we would need the natural resources of four earths to sustain such living standards. (The U.S. wasn’t the worst. If everyone consumed as does the United Arab Emirates, we would need five earths. See Charlotte McDonald, “How many Earths do we need?” BBC News, 16 June 2015)

Better access to the fishing pond

Inevitably, when people discuss global poverty, someone repeats a famous proverb: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” This motto, while true, is insufficient for today’s world. Most people assume that education and training are the primary vehicles to move people out of poverty. Current poverty realities, however, suggest this model falls short of describing the situation many poor people now face and what can be done to help them.

Poor people are often very entrepreneurial. They must be creative, innovative, and efficient with their resources because they lack a safety net (family, friends, or government) to fall back on should their decisions fail or calamity strike. Many poor people have high school diplomas. But, there are just not enough decent-paying jobs in their countries. That is why so many make the difficult decision to leave home in search of economic opportunities in other places.

In the college classes I teach, I often state this proverb with a twist. I acknowledge that most poor people already know how to fish, but many need better access to the fishing pond, since borders, governments, and policies prevent them from being able to trade fairly in the global marketplace. In places where they have access to the pond, often they need affordable financial services to acquire the fishing equipment needed to fish in deeper waters, where the bigger fish swim.

Fair access to the marketplace, and the ability to acquire the latest tools of their trade, is what can most help poor people in today’s globalized world. For example, providing a rural farmer in Uganda with a cell phone can enable her to collect current information on crop and fertilizer prices so she can better negotiate. Another example is refugee family launching a business in a new country and finding their labor earnings improving.

An important example of how trade (providing access to the pond) rather than aid (giving a person a fish) or education (teaching a person to fish) has made a difference in the lives of poor people is China. Since market reforms launched in 1978, China’s economy has grown by ten percent per year. This unprecedented growth has resulted in more than 500 million people moving out of extreme poverty in just one country alone. Yet, China has not received much Western aid. It was internal decisions combined with massive trade on the global market that made the biggest difference.

While China appears on one level to be a success story, its situation is not the end of the tale. China’s unprecedented economic growth has led to tremendous pollution and resource depletion. This environmental strain begs the question. Humanity’s entire 200-year global economic bonanza — which has ushered in tremendous efficiencies, food production, healthcare and transportation advances, and incredible wealth and security for billions of people — has been built primarily on the unsustainable use of the world’s limited supply of cheap energy (oil), which took the earth millions of years to create. How can we sustain our growth?

Having the freedom to choose

Equally important to acknowledge is that China achieved this tremendous poverty reduction while denying their citizens many political freedoms. This brings us to one of the most respected definitions for poverty alleviation. Indian economist and Nobel laureate Armartya Sen argues, in his book, Development as Freedom (Anchor, 2000), that true development comes when people have the freedom to choose the kind of lives they want to live by fully using the capabilities they possess.

An example Sen gives is two very hungry men. One is hungry because he is fasting as a spiritual practice whereas the other is hungry because he lives in economic poverty. Both men are equally hungry, but one is choosing hunger for his own benefit (a spiritual discipline) and the other is hungry because he lacks access to food. Sen helped change the focus of poverty analysis from one exclusively focused on economic productivity to a multi-dimensional one that incorporates health, wellbeing, education, and income. For Sen, freedom is both a means and an end to poverty alleviation.

Sen’s influence has led many poverty-alleviation experts to focus on a person’s “freedom to choose” for the basis of any economic development initiative. This is a good definition, but Christians should expand on this definition. Many people, if given the opportunity, may not choose what is best for him or herself or for his or her family. Both wealthy individuals and people living in poverty may use additional resources and choices to make selfish and harmful choices that are not God-honoring or community-building. This is where the church can play a part in the fight against economic poverty.

Related: To what extent do we in the church embody (or not) the spirit of John Wesley in our work with the poor?

Overwhelmed by choices

People living in high-income societies are often overwhelmed by the many and varied choices they face. Psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that an over-abundance of choices in our daily lives paralyzes rather than frees us, and depresses us more than makes us happy. (For more on this, watch Schwartz’s TED Talk, “The Paradox of Choice”.)

The church can play a role in speaking into the cultures of developed countries through encouraging spiritual disciplines, fasting, and sacrifice. Indeed, people can limit their exposure to choices so as to live more simply and create opportunities to increase choices for those lacking choices. The body of believers can discern together what choices we can make to benefit communities, or what choices we can forgo in order for others to have increased choices.

Perhaps we can use tap water rather than purchasing bottled water and use the saved money to provide clean water in rural parts of Africa or Asia. Maybe we forgo hours of window shopping at malls to spend time working at a homeless shelter or welcoming a newly arrived refugee family. Could we give up an hour or two of entertainment to contact our elected officials to advocate for policies beneficial to the poorest people in our communities and around the world?

Joy in small victories

Author and teacher Steve Garber, in his book, Visions of Vocation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), asks, “Is it possible to know the world and still love the world?” The more we know, the harder it is to love.

Garber explains how most people, when confronted with the challenges of global poverty, become either cynics or stoics, seeking to guard their hearts from being implicated for how they have responded to what they know about the injustices of the world. Garber suggests Christians engage and seek proximate justice, to achieve what we can with what we know and what we have. To continue to strive, by creating habits of the heart, nurtured in the body of Christ, that find joy and contentment in the small victories, knowing full well that ultimate justice will not triumph this side of Christ’s return.

This article was originally published in Holiness Today.

Rob Gailey, Ph.D., is director of the Center for International Development and a professor at PLNU.

PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.