Unconventional Ways to Fight Poverty

You don't have to start a charity or donate hundreds of dollars in order to help those in poverty.

Should you sponsor a child? Donate your old clothes? Get involved with activism? Go on a church service trip?

With all of the options to get involved in the fight against poverty, sometimes it’s hard to know what’s best to do, let alone know whether or not what you’re doing is actually helping.

But fighting poverty can come in ordinary ways, in counter-intuitive ways, and in counter-cultural ways. Here are four ways you can fulfill your calling to care for the least of these that you may not have thought about before.

Change the Way You Talk About Poverty.

One way to fight poverty is to prayerfully discern your calling and then do it well.

In the materialistic society we live in today, it’s easy to talk about poverty purely in terms of a lack of material things. But those who live on less than two dollars a day describe it differently. President of HOPE International Peter Greer says that, to them, poverty is an empty heart, a lack of hope, isolation, severed relationships and not knowing God. Poverty is a brokenness that penetrates every layer of life. Material deficiency is only one piece of the problem.

If we train ourselves to talk about poverty in terms of broken relationships—personal, societal and spiritual—instead of making it just about what things people don’t have, it changes the way we interact with the poor because it means we have all experienced poverty.

Once we find ourselves in the same place as the panhandler on the street, we abandon the “us-and-them” mentality. Maybe then we will make eye contact instead of looking away. Maybe then we will ask their name. Maybe then we will come to see that person for who they really are, and seek to better understand what they really need.

Respect the Dignity of the Poor.

When I was in college, I went on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic to volunteer at a women’s social work site in an impoverished village. I asked the site leader, Daisy, who was a local herself, if I could give the young girls some of my old clothes and jewelry that I brought from home. She said, “Yes, but make them pay five pesos. They all have five pesos to spare.”

Even though five Dominican pesos is only equivalent to 12 cents in the U.S., asking the girls for money sounded cruel to me. I asked her why.

She explained that volunteers come and go from the village year-round, and the girls are used to getting free stuff, but “they appreciate more what they pay for.”

When the girls came by later that day, I announced that I was selling clothes and jewelry for five pesos apiece. After much excited screaming and jumping, they sprinted down the dirt road back to their homes and returned with a few pesos to go shopping.

I watched as each girl proudly handed me her pesos and pointed to the bracelet or shirt she wanted to buy. No longer did the girls see my donations as my old stuff that I didn’t want anymore, but as a prize they were privileged to own. It was as if—if even for a moment—they had forgotten the extremity of their own material poverty.

No human being wants to feel like a charity case. Charging a small amount for a donation respects the dignity of the receiver.

Of course there is a time and a place to give things away for free, especially in crisis situations, but use good discernment to know when donations need to be given freely and when they are robbing the receivers of their dignity.

The question should not be “How can I meet their material needs?” but “How can I meet their needs as a full person while also protecting their dignity?”

Do Your Job Well.

You don’t have to work for an NGO to fight poverty in your work.

Our vocation is one of the primary ways we respond to Christ’s call to serve others and love our neighbors. This means many of us might already fight poverty in our daily work, however ordinary, without even realizing it.

If you’re a barista, you’re brewing coffee bought from farmers in third-world countries. If you work in telecommunications, you contribute to an industry that provides cell-phone access in impoverished nations. If you work on an oil field, you’re providing fuel that keeps someone warm at night. If you work in recruiting, you can connect someone to a job they desperately need.

If we train ourselves to talk about poverty in terms of broken relationships, it changes the way we interact with the poor because it means we have all experienced poverty.

One way to fight poverty is to prayerfully discern your calling and then do it well. Though it’s not always obvious how you’re helping the poor in your work, we should all think about our vocation as a means to serve others and love our neighbors, locally and globally.

Rethink Ethical Buying Habits.

Ethical shopping is one simple way to love your global neighbor in your day-to-day life. Most consumers who want to do good with their purchases opt for buying fairly traded products, but the fair trade certification doesn’t help third-world farmers and manufacturers as much as you might think. Research suggests it might even hurt them.

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Take coffee for example. Surprisingly, most of the extra money you pay for fair trade doesn’t even get to the growers. One recent study in the Journal of Business Ethics found that less than 12 percent of the premium we pay for fair trade coffee actually reaches them.

And sometimes fair trade can hurt the people it intends to help. Research from Ecological Economics shows that Nicaraguan fair trade farmers were in a worse economic position after 10 years than non-fair trade farmers, largely due to the hefty entrance fees and compliance costs required to join the cooperative.

So instead of buying fair trade, what should you buy? Dr. Victor Claar, professor of economics at Henderson State University in Arkansas says you should just buy the coffee you like best. Why? Claar says, “Producers of the highest-quality coffees can charge a premium price because their coffee is that good.”

Instead of fair trade, he says free trade does more to lift nations out of poverty: “The fairest trade of all is trade that is genuinely free—free from the harm to the global poor that well-intentioned rich Northerners like us can sometimes bring.”

The next time you buy coffee or tea, you can skip the fair trade and still have confidence you are helping a farmer in need.

Top Comments

Michelle Clark

1

Michelle Clark commented…

As a person living and working in issues of development and justice in Bolivia, I am delighted by the first two items on this list. And I agree with the suggestion in the third item that not all good work comes from the nonprofit sector, and that businesses can play a role in fighting poverty. I do find however, the suggestion that: we should work wherever we like, without researching the impact of the company on the poor - absurd. We cannot assume that are actions are helping and not harming, even it makes us feel good.
Finally, the criticism of fair trade is quite dangerous and shows likewise interest in relieving the consciences of North American consumers, rather than in the well being of the economically poor. Although fair trade registration is laborious and perhaps overly stringent, 12% of profits reaching the producers is far more than occurs with large corporations, which also engage in union-busting and other abusive tactics. Fair Trade certified entreprises also not only benefit their direct producers (like the coffee farmer) but also reflect better practices in the entire supply chain (better treatment for the person who transports the coffee.) I'd like Relevant to consider reviewing their information - perhaps a contrary article would receive few likes and shares, but would reflect a desire for greater integrity.

Fair Trade Federation

1

Fair Trade Federation commented…

Criticisms of specific parts of fair trade certification should never be used to generalize about fair trade as a whole. To do so gives shoppers the false impression that they are doing good by doing nothing.

There are lots of businesses and brands out there that make a real commitment to fair trade, and these organizations often take a more holistic approach to addressing poverty. They create long term relationships with coffee growers and give power to those that have been traditionally marginalized. This is how change happens!

You can read more here: http://www.fairtradefederation.org/what-do-you-know-about-the-business-b...

18 Comments

Brett

194

Brett commented…

Elise, i like that you are writing about this and thinking about this stuff and the idea that we can all start somewhere and start small is a great starting point, but i did feel to some extent while reading this [and not challenging you or your motivations altho it might seem like i am] that this felt like a bit of a hipster fad article - trying to help people feel good about these little things they can easily and comfortable do as opposed to bringing a challenge to people to change their mindset and consider that things that really make a difference to the poor are very likely to be a little uncomfortable and maybe not necessarily fun for us.

So i think your ideas are a start but the key has to be relationship and getting your hands dirty or at least involved - the Matthew 25 Sheep and Goats story is about really connecting with those who are considered the least of these by society - you hint at it when you speak of making eye contact but i would love to see you go further - find out a name, ask a story, build a relationship with one person who is in your immediate space [you don't have to save all poor people but get to know one]

i guess i am seeing many of your readers reading your article and going 'phew i'm okay' as opposed to really being drawn towards the kind of heart Jesus had for the poor and marginalised.

My friend Yaholo wrote an article on the Two Cents blog [that looks at issues where FAITH meets FINANCES] which takes helping the poor a huge leap forward in terms of taking on or challenging the systems and structures in play: http://twocents.co/features/how-apathy-creates-systems-of-persecution

So be encouraged that you have got some good foundation points her - but keep going - build on that - invite us into relationship so that we become part of the stories of the poor and marginalised and they move from being 'poor person on street i walk past on way to store' to 'my friend Kobus' or whatever.

Strength in Him
love brett fish

Fair Trade Federation

1

Fair Trade Federation commented…

Criticisms of specific parts of fair trade certification should never be used to generalize about fair trade as a whole. To do so gives shoppers the false impression that they are doing good by doing nothing.

There are lots of businesses and brands out there that make a real commitment to fair trade, and these organizations often take a more holistic approach to addressing poverty. They create long term relationships with coffee growers and give power to those that have been traditionally marginalized. This is how change happens!

You can read more here: http://www.fairtradefederation.org/what-do-you-know-about-the-business-b...

Dominique

1

Dominique commented…

It is so sad to read an article like this on Relevant and even more sad to see that this misleading information has been shared 2,500 times on facebook. We shared our response as well as the response of a few fair trade supporters here: www.letsbefairblog.com.

Journalism is a powerful tool. What a shame when it's used to break instead of build.

Tegan

1

Tegan commented…

I find this article disheartening to say the least. My main issue, beyond the comments on fair trade, is that this article encourages inaction. Yes, you need to change your view of the poor and not be apathetic, but that’s just the first step. You can’t be passive about making change in the world or blind to how your actions affect others. It’s great to do your job well and to try to respect those around you, but God calls us to actively live out our faith and love God by loving our neighbors especially the poor and marginalized.

There are very complex and challenging causes of poverty in this country and around the world. If you want to really fight poverty, here are some real ways to do so within your daily life:

1. Tithe 10% of your income. The bible indicates that, at a minimum, a believer is to tithe 10% of their income. This should be done before taxes. Use that money to support organizations that don’t just put a bandaid on poverty; if give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

Support organizations that really help the poor and that work to fight against the root causes of poverty like a lack of access to education, a lack of access to healthy food, a lack of access to good medical care, etc. Also support those that provide basic needs like clean drinking water, bicycles for children in Togo to go to schools in distant villages, indoor toilets for women in India, etc.

2. Try to lower your carbon footprint and fight Climate Change. Climate Change is already impacting our world and some of the poorest nations are already feeling the affects. Climate Change has been linked to droughts in Kenya, an increase of Malaria in Columbia and Ethiopia, and floods in Bangladesh. Drive less, buy locally made products (which also helps create jobs in your area), eat seasonally and locally, offset your carbon footprint by supporting green energy or even just get into the habit of turning off lights. Also demand change and help educate other Christians about the human impact of Climate Change.

3. Vote. Vote for local and national politicians who promote better public education starting in pre-k, who promote basic medical care for everyone, and who push for higher standards for labor (both here and abroad).

4. Speak with your buying habits. I am a believer in fair trade, not because I think its perfect, but because it aims to humanize workers and give them a voice. Free market systems, if left totally free, hurt the poor because they don't valuate people. The free market only places a value on goods, services and resources, and frankly it benefits those at the top more than those at the bottom. We take it for granted in the US that we have good labor standards, a minimum wage, and safe working conditions. These only came about when workers and others demanded higher standards after horrible conditions were brought to light (look up the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire). We had to curtail the free market and enact laws here in the US because it was hurting workers. Shouldn’t we promote good standards for our neighbors near and far who make the things we consume? Treat others as we’d like to be treated?

Fair trade (which was started by a woman of faith) when practiced properly is transparent and promotes a livable wage. Fair trade also helps employ women and marginalized minorities in countries where there aren’t many employment opportunities. It also promotes safe working conditions and environmental standards.

Fair trade is a start and an alternative model for thinking more holistically about value and cost.

Michelle Clark

1

Michelle Clark commented…

As a person living and working in issues of development and justice in Bolivia, I am delighted by the first two items on this list. And I agree with the suggestion in the third item that not all good work comes from the nonprofit sector, and that businesses can play a role in fighting poverty. I do find however, the suggestion that: we should work wherever we like, without researching the impact of the company on the poor - absurd. We cannot assume that are actions are helping and not harming, even it makes us feel good.
Finally, the criticism of fair trade is quite dangerous and shows likewise interest in relieving the consciences of North American consumers, rather than in the well being of the economically poor. Although fair trade registration is laborious and perhaps overly stringent, 12% of profits reaching the producers is far more than occurs with large corporations, which also engage in union-busting and other abusive tactics. Fair Trade certified entreprises also not only benefit their direct producers (like the coffee farmer) but also reflect better practices in the entire supply chain (better treatment for the person who transports the coffee.) I'd like Relevant to consider reviewing their information - perhaps a contrary article would receive few likes and shares, but would reflect a desire for greater integrity.

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