Poverty is About More Than Material Well-being

A responder to my blog post about the relationship between religious extremism and poverty asks if my argument holds when a young, educated, affluent, elite such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab , the Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Delta airliner over Detroit, turns to violence. Why do young people who have achieved advanced degrees and attained levels of material comfort want to blow up other people?

While individual motivations remain distinct, a composite is emerging that offers some clues.

It reveals that assimilation into majority cultures isn’t accomplished in short time periods but over generations and, in fact, assimilation doesn’t accurately reflect the give-and-take that is more likely necessary in this age.

Racial sensitivities are not eliminated by affluence and can be aggravated by subtle social distinctions and overt acts of racism.

Cleavages occur within ethnic communities as well as between these communities and the broader culture and can cause some individuals to feel isolated, a condition that among some festers into simmering rage.

There are extremists trolling for those experiencing this social anomie and they are skilled at recruiting and exploiting them for terribly destructive political purposes.

The Internet makes recruitment easier as extreme views and social disaffection can coalesce globally.

There is an unsettling fear afoot not only in the U.S. but across Europe and other regions about loss of community, social influence, economic security and identity that contributes to social discrimination against ethnic communities and conflict between ethnic and majority communities.

Global interconnections and mobility brings people into contact with others who bring new social values and cultural practices that sometimes feel threatening to majorities.

In short, poverty isn’t just about material well-being. We can experience a poverty of affirming relationships that can be as devastating as lack of material necessities. Affluence doesn’t treat poverty of relationships.

This isn’t an excuse for violence but recent events in Switzerland, France and the UK all point to a sense of unease with immigration and assimilation, particularly affecting Muslims, that reveals a more complicated social mix than religion alone. Religion becomes an organizing principle and proxy for this milieu of anomie.

Recently the Swiss banned minarets from building design, the French banned headscarves worn by Muslim girls in public schools and the UK sacked a Muslim female teacher who wore a veil when working with boys banned female students wearing veils . In each case controversy stoked resentment and fear on all sides. It also heightened resentment among young Muslims.

Conversely, fears of economic insecurity, cultural differences and loss of national identity surfaced among those in the majority culture.  Religion is the focal point but wider social dynamics are at work.

In addition, the disputes also lay bare the disconnect between generations within the ethnic communities. Abdulmutallab’s father reported his son’s extreme views to the U.S. embassy and the grandparents of one of the 2005 London bombers told an interviewer she couldn’t believe her grandson’s extreme views and disavowed them sorrowfully.

If there is learning in this, I think it is that we need to work intentionally to create greater understanding, not only between faith groups but between communities through opportunities for conversation, interaction and acting together on things that bring mutual benefit such as public education, jobs creation and community development. We need interfaith dialogue. We need political leaders who speak with diplomacy and concern for the good of the whole, not for narrow political gain among their partisan bases. We need reporting that provides context and does not separate individual isolated events as if they occur apart from this greater social dynamic. We need churches, mosques, schools and journalists who see the world through a global perspective and who interpret our interconnections more holistically and less provincially.

Whether we understand it or not, we are more interrelated today and our relationships and understanding of each other are more important than ever. Poverty is about more than material well-being. Poverty is also about the quality of our relationships and we are seeing how poverty of relationship leads to damaged individuals and damage to the community.

Real Religion Would Never Tell Anyone to Burn or Kill Others

"Real religion would never tell anyone to burn anything or kill others. We condemn them (Islamic extremists). And we’re afraid of them," a Malian imam told Washington Post writer Karin Brulliard.

As news breaks of the attempt to destroy a Delta airliner by a Nigerian Muslim the imam’s words seem more pertinent. The New York Times reports the young man’s father was increasingly concerned about his extreme religious views. The characterization of Islam as a religion of violence and intolerance is inaccurate and unrepresentative, but the story will reinforce it anyway.

Brulliard writes that West Africa may be more buffer than gateway for radical religion. Writing from Mali, she points out the nation has long enjoyed a vibrant, open culture and its religious leaders have been moderate.The U.S. has courted Mali with aid and military training in an effort to support this moderation.

My experience working with Muslims in the region affirms this perspective. And I agree that Islam is not a monolith. Just as Christianity and Judaism are expressed in widely different ways, so, too is Islam. It’s inaccurate and a disservice to stereotype these religions by their extremes.

But the imam’s remarks plus Brulliard’s reports of changes occurring among some Malian youth could portend trouble in the future. Across sub-Saharan Africa borders are porous. It’s relatively easy to carry goods from one country to another. In fact, trading caravans are part of an ancient desert mercantile culture. Today, however, Brulliard writes camels have replaced by ATVs and the goods can as easily be weapons or cocaine as salt or bolts of cloth.

Mali, as most of its West African neighbors, is a poor country with a youthful population in touch with the world and aware of its material discrepancies. This mix has been exploited by radical religious clerics to recruit the young. This social context should be of primary attention. Among many youth in West Africa, material deprivation is accompanied by frustration, low self-esteem, lack of opportunity, powerlessness and a sense that forces beyond their control are determining their life’s direction and preventing them from improving their situation.

In this troubled soil the seeds of extremism can be sown by religious radicals. But Islam isn’t the cause. Poverty and its psychological effects are the pre-existing conditions.

Brulliard writes that Mali’s moderate history makes it unlikely radicalism can take root here. I hope that is so. Mali’s neighborhood in West Africa is experiencing instability and governance problems. Mauritania to the west has seen a military coup and Niger to the east retained its government in a disputed election. Cote d’Ivoire to the south is recovering from civil war and Morocco to the northwest is contending with charges of human rights abuses and calls for autonomy in Western Sahara.

It will take good governance, economic development and responsible religious leadership among other things to keep Mali on track. And it is as sure as the desert wind that some in the region would derail it. The imam’s fears are a useful precaution.

Are Fewer Children Dying of Malaria?

Are fewer children dying of malaria today? I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about this recently. On one hand, some say it’s helpful to show progress so that the effort to end deaths by malaria is not seen as insurmountable. On the other hand, some contend it’s urgent to remind people of the on-going toll and we must guard against complacency or slowing down, else we’ll lose momentum.

I entertain both of these positions with some lack of uncertainty. I see the need to create awareness of the terrible toll. And I see value in illustrating that the effort can actually be successful. So, there you have it. Both positions tug at my thoughts.

I found the report by the World Health Organization helpful, but not finally resolute enough to put these thoughts to rest. What do you think?

Entrepreneurs vs. Scale

Does entrepreneurial energy trump traditional development models reaching for scale? In their recent book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide , Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn draw a distinction between the older traditional model of development that attempts to reach the greatest number of people and the entrepreneurial model that concentrates on changing one life at a time, or empowering change in a small group of participants.

They acknowledge the polarities aren’t fixed, but in general they raise up the work of individual entrepreneurs as models. They also repeat the case made by others that large scale development hasn’t been effective nor long-lasting.

This is a common analysis and it needs scrutiny. There is no question that large scale development schemes conceived top down haven’t reached into rural villages and changed life for the better. On the other hand, without a commitment to scale polio would still be leaving a toll of human suffering in its wake that would be an ongoing tragedy. There are interventions where scale is not only desirable, it’s necessary if the problem is to be adequately addressed.

This isn’t to miss the point that Kristof and WuDunn make that empowerment of oppressed women is an effective avenue to change. The model has been around for years, but it hasn’t gotten the traction it deserved for several reasons. It has been the preferred model of many mainstream development agencies such as Church World Service, Lutheran World Relief and UMCOR. However, their efforts were pioneering, occurred under the radar of the media and didn’t have the charismatic asset of an individual entrepreneur. They were institutional models operated without effective marketing by bland institutions and they were often competing for media attention with the large scale efforts of the World Bank and UN agencies.

I read Kristof’s and WuDunn’s narrative with great appreciation for their revelations of the awful oppressiveness of sex slavery. They tell the story with such effect that surely readers will sign up to provide micro loans or support other efforts they provide. And their explanations of culturally appropriate interventions at the grassroots are especially important for us to consider.

They also make a strong case for engaging in long term, sustainable development in contrast to short term one off charity. No disagreement here. The impulse to charity is positive but it, too, needs scrutiny and careful reflection. Charity can do more harm than good without this reflection.

I’m grateful for Kristof and WuDunn’s voices, commitment and willingness to enter into danger and hardship to tell us about the plight of oppressed, poor women. It’s powerfully motivating and illuminating. They lay out the practices of a new expression of humanitarian engagement, one that will surely grow and create necessary change.

But I’m not ready to give up on working to achieve scale, just yet. And I’m interested in seeing where the entrepreneurial models lead. I’ve seen entrepreneurial models that are as fragmented, duplicatory and wasteful as any other effort. The best effective example is the Grameen model and it has grown at scale and institutionally as well.

Never the less, the needs, as Kristof and WuDunn point out, are urgent and their call to action is welcome.

Nothing But Nets Third Anniversary

Just returned from a partners meeting of Nothing But Nets, the movement to provide bed nets to prevent malaria. It was an inspiring meeting, almost like a religious experience. Progress is being made in the battle against this disease that kills a child every 30 seconds. We’re at a hinge point in history. It is possible that these deaths could be significantly reduced, if not eradicated in the next five years.

Distribution in Ethiopia, Zambia and Rwanda shows that bed nets can significantly reduce cases of malaria. We must not lose the momentum. We have to keep at this task. The world got to this point once in the 1950s and relaxed, only to see the malaria parasite become more virulent and resistant. So we must celebrate the gains and keep working.

This progress itself is inspiring, however, and I came away feeling something equally compelling.

As I listened to various “champions” speak about their involvement in Nothing But Nets, I was deeply moved. The United Nations Foundation, with backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has sparked a movement toward life that is inspiring.

What this movement demonstrates is vitally important in this day of skepticism about global change.

When organizations agree to partner, they bring tremendous assets and creativity to the task far greater than any one can do alone.

When these resources are aligned and focused, they can achieve scale that is truly significant. In this instance, millions of lives can be saved, the heavy economic burdens of this disease on national economies can be reduced, and the significant drain on national health care systems can be slowed.

When organizations partner with mutual support and seek the good of the whole, everybody wins. The partners get the individual goodwill they need, the cause gets the benefit of broad support and messaging it needs, the constituents associated with the partners get the involvement they desire, and the people who are benefited by the cause get the services they need to improve their lives.

After hearing the personal stories of the various partners, I’m sure everyone left the meeting feeling a bit better about themselves and optimistic about the effort to bring life to children in malaria afflicted regions of the world. When we do good, we feel good about ourselves. This is a nice benefit but it’s not sufficient, however. We do good not simply to feel good, but to bring about meaningful, lasting, sustainable change.

Bed nets are one simple input that opens the door for this kind of change. They are not the whole solution. But they are a start. A simple technology that if used properly can lead to much greater and quite significant change. Ten dollars to save a life. What a bargain. What a movement.

Will Talk of Eradicating Malaria Lead to Failure to Control It?

Will talk of eradicating malaria lead to failure to control it? Will we repeat the experience of the 1950s when malaria was significantly reduced worldwide only to return stronger and more resistant than ever when the world slackened its commitment and failed to finish the task of eradication?

The disease, which is preventable and treatable if caught early enough, takes a million lives a year, ridiculously unnecessary.

These questions are bubbling through conversations among scientists who have long worked on this disease. Priya Shetty presents an overview in an article on SciDev network blog.

The concern is significant. The risk of losing momentum and falling back is too great to contemplate. And it appears this risk is even greater as the Obama administration scales back funding for global health.

The challenge facing global health advocates is to communicate more effectively to a growing audience of constituents that the effects of the diseases of poverty can be reduced and this is beneficial in multiple ways and that we need a sustained global commitment to comprehensive approaches, not just a single approach to individual diseases.

Malaria is related to poverty so directly and intimately that the disease ought not to be separated from economic development and empowerment. If it’s true that a quarter of the adult workforce is disabled by malaria in some African countries at any given moment, then malaria is a tremendous drain on productivity and a significant impediment to a strong economy. To treat the disease in isolation from this context is myopic.

Similarly, if significant numbers of children miss school due to the disease it’s an educational barrier, and if mothers must care for their sick children and are unable to carry out other tasks, it’s detrimental to healthy families. How can one speak of these social costs apart from treatment, prevention and control?

There is also considerable discussion about social entrepreneurship as an approach to economic development that will replace traditional humanitarian bureaucratic responses. The storyline here is that traditional approaches are slow, unable to adapt when new circumstances present themselves, focus on scale to the loss of unique solutions to local needs, and wasteful. In contrast it is said that social entrepreneurs can move quickly, receive instant feedback, change and adapt.

This either/or thinking frames strategies and tactics by reducing possible solutions to a single methodology. This may work in some instances and be too limiting in others. Just as large bureaucracies lose flexibility, so too, may single solution approaches.

I would argue that we need to view poverty and the diseases of poverty with flexibility, recognizing that a multitude of approaches is needed. But what is not needed is destructive competition that sets one disease against another for funding, research and treatment. Nor competition for funds for control, research or treatment. They are all part of a whole as malaria is part of a social and economic context.

The debate should not be about whether the world supports bednets or eradication research. The challenge we must take up is to communicate to people of goodwill that these diseases and their reduction is part of a holistic approach to how we live in this interrelated global environment and we all need to be helping each other in concrete, specific ways because it’s in our best interest. And, a side benefit is that we’ll feel better ourselves if we do it well and even better when we succeed.

Nothing But Nets Third Anniversary

Just returned from a partners meeting of Nothing But Nets , the movement to provide bednets to prevent malaria. It was an inspiring meeting, almost like a religious experience. Progress is being made in the battle against this disease that kills a child every thirty seconds. We’re at a hinge point in history. It is possible that these deaths could be significantly reduced, if not eradicated in the next five years.

Distribution in Ethiopia, Zambia and Rwanda shows that bednets can significantly reduce cases of malaria. We must not lose the momentum. We have to keep at this task. The world got to this point once in the 1950s and relaxed only to see the malaria parasite become more virulent and resistant. So we must celebrate the gains and keep working.

This progress itself is inspiring, however, and I came away feeling something equally compelling.

As I listened to various "champions" speak about their involvement in Nothing But Nets I was deeply moved. The United Nations Foundation with backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has sparked a movement toward life that is inspiring.

What this movement demonstrates is vitally important in this day of skepticism about global change.

When organizations agree to partner, they bring tremendous assets and creativity to the task far greater than any one can do alone.

When these resources are aligned and focused they can achieve scale that is truly significant. In this instance millions of lives can be saved, the heavy economic burdens of this disease on national economies can be reduced, and the significant drain on national health care systems can be slowed.

When organizations partner with mutual support and seek the good of the whole, everybody wins. The partners get the individual goodwill they need, the cause gets the benefit of broad support and messaging it needs, the constituents associated with the partners get the involvement they desire, the people who are benefitted by the cause get the services they need to improve their lives.

After hearing the personal stories of the various partners last night, I’m sure everyone left the meeting feeling a bit better about themselves and optimistic about the effort to bring life to children in malaria afflicted regions of the world. When we do good, we feel good about ourselves. This is a nice benefit but it’s not sufficient, however. We do good not simply to feel good, but to bring about meaningful, lasting, sustainable change.

Bednets are one simple input that opens the door for this kind of change. They are not the whole solution. But they are a start. A simple technology that if used properly can lead to much greater and quite significant change. Ten dollars to save a life. What a bargain. What a movement.

Novice Journalists Take Life-threatening Risks

A story about the two journalists held hostage in Somalia sent chills down my spine and spurred memories I’d almost put to rest about my own experiences in Somalia almost 15 years ago. Ian Austen writes in the NY Times about Amanda Lindhout who was recently freed with a companion, Nigel Brennan, after six months captivity that included beatings, extortion calls to the U.S. to her family and confinement in a windowless room.

Austen’s story says novice journalists hoping to break into the business find war zones a pathway to instant fame or instant recognition. Ms. Lindhout was an aspiring journalist with no experience. She saved money from her job as a waitress to fund her trip to Somalia. Not taking into account the full extent of risk, or underestimating it, Ms. Lindhout put herself in danger that other more experienced journalists in the country avoided.

Austen reports the International News Safety Institute says 1,500 people have been killed in the past decade working for news organizations. The story out of the Philippines last week about the massacre in the south included the deaths of 26 journalists, one of the highest death tolls in a single incident in recent history. And this isn’t a story of inexperience, it was a massacre that even experienced people didn’t anticipate.

Journalists are not considered neutral observers by some, much as they’d like to be, or much as they define their roles in this way. They are targets in some circumstances, functions to be exploited in others. Experienced professional journalists know this and deal with it daily. But it takes considerable experience to function in these murky and dangerous waters in a culture that’s not your own. And it’s even nettlesome in your own culture.

Add the physical danger and lack of limits that conflict brings and the circumstances can become life-threatening quickly. That’s what I read into Austen’s story.

As for my own experience, I’ll return to my notes and write a narrative someday. This story spurred my thinking. I was experienced. I was run out of the country by a disgruntled warlord, escaped a bomb threat and lived to tell about it. And I returned through a backdoor and completed my work albeit with great attention to personal security.

And I had an infrastructure of sorts to assist me, something Ms. Lindhout and Mr. Brennan seemed to lack.

This doesn’t mean that I think journalists should avoid such circumstances, and knowing some, I know they won’t. In some places conditions are much more deadly than they appear on the surface. Experience is an important guide in these places. On the other hand, where danger is obvious, security measures are critical and there’s no wiggle room for shortcuts. Neither circumstance is a place for on-the-job training of isolated novices.

There are important stories to be told. There are people whose stories won’t be told without the aid of journalists. There are stories that help us understand the world in which we live and why it’s important for us to see it holistically. There are global stories that connect us and reveal how our quality of life is interconnected with those who live half a world away.

I want journalists to tell these stories. But with calculated caution for the risks, taking care for their own safety and those with whom they work.

Are the Jewish People an Invention?

Is the narrative that defines the Jewish people an invention, or does it have a factual basis? It’s an invention according to a book by a professor at Tel Aviv University. In a review in the NY Times Patricia Cohen discusses the method author Shlomo Sand utilizes to build his case. Central to his thesis is that Jews were not expelled from Palestine in AD 70. This undercuts the claim to a Jewish homeland and the right to return.

Sands also challenges the lineage of Jews by making a case for European ancestry. This would further buttress the proposition that Jews have no ancestral claim to Palestine.These contentions are obviously controversial and spark debate and I don’t advocate for them. In fact, the conflicted situation in Palestine is so multi-layered that I wouldn’t hazard to claim enough knowledge to speak about the right to return in this historical framework.

What interests me is an underlying, equally compelling thought. We are shaped by our story and our story shapes us. This process includes facts, but it is beyond fact.

Cohen quotes historians who acknowledge that historical narrative is written from within a context and some historians shape the narrative to meet the needs of the situation in which they write. The narrative is a "mingling of myth, memory, truth and aspiration," she says.

Out of this mix, self-definition develops and truth emerges. As Cohen writes, even if the AD 70 Diaspora didn’t occur the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple shaped the self-understanding of Jews as an exiled and persecuted people.

The mingling of diverse pieces of fact, fiction, aspiration and experience coupled with religious tenets become the story of a people. We are the products of our environment as well as our genes, of our hopes as well as our memories. Reality itself is multilayered and contextual.

In this sense, and it’s probably not the sense about which Professor Sand is writing, the history of all groups is an invention. It can be nothing less. We shape our story and we are shaped by our story.

Colonizing Ethiopia?

Agro-imperialism. Andrew Rice asks if there is such a thing. And the answer is, of course there is. It goes by another name–colonialism. As when the French appropriated lands and extracted peanut oil from Senegal. Or the Belgians rubber, cocoa, and all manner of other natural products from Congo. Or the U.S. latex from Liberia. The history is clear.

Local people are exploited for low wages, face periodic food shortages, pay taxes for unprovided services and are politically marginalized. Nothing new here.

Rice reports the latest version being planned by Saudis, Indians and Chinese. Rich but resource-deprived countries are looking to Africa for its land and cheap labor to develop food for their own populations, he says.

If I sound skeptical, I am. I also admit to impatience. I even risk ranting here. But this is an old story and it’s aggravating that we’re looking at a new chapter. Besides, the older I get the more passionate I become.

A key to ending poverty, as Muhammad Yunus has illustrated is economic self-development. It’s not merely charity, nor compassionate relief. These are useful under certain circumstances. But in the long-term, the most effective means to close the gap between the rich and the poor is to resource and train the poor to do for themselves.

Granted, many non-profit groups are doing economic development and doing it well. And they attempt to influence agricultural and food policy albeit somewhat less successfully because they don’t have the clout of government policymakers or well-heeled multinational corporations.

I suppose what aggravates me is this lack of voice around the tables that matter. One corrective might be for mainline seminaries to partner with other grad schools to devise degree paths that incorporate economic and social policy with theological studies. I’m talking about more than classes in social ethics.  Currently, if it exists at all this approach to practical theology is informal. As a result, critical ethical connections between policy and faith values are not made. Faith is compartmentalized and individualized.

This is important because global faith communities such as mine have contacts, infrastructure and resources that are critical to development. And development is a moral issue as important, in my opinion, as other forms of religious expression. Missional theology is too often defined in terms of evangelistic outreach or by  individual or small-scale acts of charity. The faith communities should be around the tables where global food policy is discussed because they have a direct interest in the outcomes. It’s our own brothers and sisters who will benefit or be deprived when these policies are implemented.

Further, the abysmal lack of global awareness in the U.S. is tantamount to unfaithfulness. It leaves the content of faith hostage to national cultural contexts which are limiting and dangerously chauvinistic. Look only so far as the evangelical right to see what can happen when religion is wedded to narrow political interests.

Nearly every purchase we make today has a consequence for someone in another part of the world. We are inextricably interconnected. When we buy clothing made offshore, a tank of gasoline that transfers wealth to the oil-producing states that are using that wealth to buy up African land, or a cellphone that uses precious metals mined in Congo under dangerous conditions and corrupt business practices, we’re implicated. As people of faith seeking to live ethical, moral lives we should be aware and concerned. But our global education has been neglected.

I don’t think most people want to be implicated. But I don’t think they’re going to hear these connections drawn by global corporations, governments and, unfortunately, educational systems. Faith communities have a direct interest in addition to a value system that motivates them to speak out. But their speaking cannot amount to the appearance of moralizing. It should demonstrate clear theological and policy analysis. It should draw connections between our values and the way we live our lives.

If the religious communities absent themselves from policy conversations and continue to  view mission as small-scale projects apart from large-scale policies, then it’s quite likely that agro imperialism will advance. And with it will come disenfranchisement, corruption and hunger. We’ve seen this before.