Development and the Church Part I

“The very hardest part of economic development is getting the first foothold on the ladder.”

Jeffrey Sachs

PART I of II: Development

I’ve been interested in development and foreign aid issues since my penultimate year in high school. When I first travelled to Cambodia in 2006, my interest was shaped very tightly around justice (it still is); however, I had very little knowledge of the ins-and-outs of development. I knew that the disparity in wealth and social capital between rich West and poor Global South was terribly injust, and I was convinced that good global citizens (or just human beings; and especially Christians!) needed to act politically for change. However, I didn’t really know how the change I was involved in agitating for was being made.

By 2009, I have significantly deepened my knowledge of development issues. It is with these new eyes that I was able to observe the work of NGOs and churches in Cambodia over the last two weeks.

In The End of Poverty, economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that extreme poverty (usually defined as living on US$1.25/day) results from the ‘poverty trap’. It’s not that people in this situation are incapable of improving their lives; rather, outside factors prevent them from doing so. These may include health, geography, and climate, as well as structural and social injustices, such as trade barriers, political oppression, and access to energy resources and markets. These factors mean that those facing them cannot get their feet on the ‘bottom rung’ of the ‘development ladder’; they can’t take the first steps necessary to improve their economic situation.

When these factors are mitigated, however, economic development can take place, and often does so rapidly.

“The very hardest part of economic development is getting the first foothold on the ladder.”

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty (London: Penguin Books, 2005), p. 24.

As such even the depths of poverty are not without hope.

The houses in the village we built in.

The houses in the village we built in.

The houses we built to replace them.

The houses we built to replace them.

Standard practice for Tabitha, the NGO we were working with, is to leave the villages they work in to their own devices for a full year after building. This avoids the impression that the NGO is telling the villagers what to do, when the whole idea is that the resources given are owned by the families, to do with as they please. It is also simple good developmental practice. The houses we spent two days building are the ‘first rung’ which enable poor, rural Cambodian families to get a start up the ladder of economic development.

I got to see this up-close in Cambodia. Last time I was over there, we went into a village, built houses, and left. This time, we travelled directly from the village we built in to see another which building had taken place in the previous year. The contrast was incredible. Because the families were able to stay healthier in a house that was larger and elevated out of the water during the wet season, they had been able to work more consistently and put more of their earnings into diversifying and expanding their crops. They had installed large ponds which collect water to be used during the dry season, begun harvesting enough rice to sell (rather than simply feed themselves), and had even built extensions on their new houses!

Houses built a year ago

Houses built a year ago

Pools for holding water

Pools for holding water

Rice is left standing for about three weeks.

Rice is left standing for about three weeks.

Thus the great excitement for me on my second visit to Cambodia was to see that development works. It is possible (indeed, it is relatively easy) to vastly improve the lives of those living in extreme poverty simply by working with them to give them a ‘leg-up’.

For Christians trying to live Christianly in the world, though, these questions remain: Was it worthwhile for a group of Christians to assist in this work as an expression of mission? Development works to alleviate the present suffering of the poor, and to improve their standard of living; is this a valid concern for Christians? Almost everyone would agree that such work is ‘good’; but should it simply be a concern for individual Christians with a particular interest, or a part of the mission of the Church as a body?

These are the questions I will consider in Part II.


9 thoughts on “Development and the Church Part I

  1. Hey Richard,

    Extremely interesting read! I often fantasize about being an economist. To answer your questions, assisting with early stage development sounds exactly like the kind of thing the church should be doing as a body and that ought to be implemented from the top down. As the church works to heal and remake communities, to give hope and life where there was none, they are setting up sign of the great healing and remaking which is to come, and bringing the message and power of Jesus’ resurrection to the world – sounds like mission to me! Look forward to future posts.

  2. Heck yes it was worth it! Showing Christ love through meeting peoples needs in every sense of the word. Looking fwd to what else you come up with in regards to the churches role. In regards to effective development that targets breaking the systemic problems associated with the poverty cycle, have you looked much at micro financing? You should check out the ‘Banking with The Poor Network’ and organisations like the grameen bank

  3. Richard,

    I have an immense respect for your thoughts and beliefs, in particular you do not simply talk the talk, but walk the walk. I am going to talk the talk for a moment and ask you this: is the type of ‘leg up’ you speak of essentially linked to Christianity? I’ll explain what I mean. You once pointed out to me that all Catholics are Christians, but not all Christians are Catholics (back in my more spiritually naive days). Help and helping (of any kind) is necessarily a value of all Christians, but is help a necessarily Christian value? Do you know of people who do the type of work you have done, but who aren’t Christians (even atheists)? How do you think religious belief changes the perspective to the act of help?

    Pax frater.

  4. Millenium People (great avatar!),

    The development I’ve been speaking about here certainly isn’t essentially linked to Christianity. Jeffrey Sachs, who I quoted, isn’t a Christian, and isn’t writing from a Christian perspective. My aim in writing about it is actually coming from the perception among some Christians that in fact such work has nothing to do with Christian practice; we should concentrate on peaching about Jesus, because that is more important.

    Where I’ll be going in Part II is arguing that development work is an essential part of Christian mission. Development isn’t of itself a Christian thing, but it should, I’m convinced, be a concern for Christians. What makes it distinctively Christian, of course, is that Christian mission couples a genuine concern for physical and emotional wellbeing with a concern for spiritual wellbeing, which we believe is only found in Jesus of Nazareth.

    I just said ‘Christian’ far too many times.

    Certainly atheists and people of other faiths do fantastic development work; I hope they continue to do so, and do it more, and better. For Christians though (as I’ll argue in Part II, when I get around to it!), such work is always a signpost pointing towards the complete healing and restoration of the world that will come when Jesus returns. We act out of love for our neighbour (Matthew 5 & Luke 10!) and in order to show them the hope we have for a renewed world.

    Does that make any sense? Does it make my position clearer?

    This article might be of interest to you:

  5. great clarification – have you considered trying to get yourself published in one of the papers? your eloquent, and (more importanly) lucid, which is increasingly rare amongst journalists.



  6. Richard,
    How much input did the local Cambodians have in designing their new houses? Obviously, they mustn’t have disliked the houses, because they were still using them a year later (and made additions), but the reason I’m asking is because of the possible connections between material culture and identity (which I’ve been thinking of from an archaeological point of view).

    There is no advantage in glorifying living in sub-standard accommodation, but I’d be wary of building houses that fulfilled their material needs, but perhaps in a way that was not culturally appropriate. I can think of aspects like social structures and cultural expectations that can make house design dependent on social factors.
    The reason why we need to be careful when offering to rebuild people’s houses, is that our motivation is to help the people, not impose a different way of living upon them. This is especially important when doing this as Christians, because we do have a life changing Gospel which we are proclaiming, and so we do not want additional changes that are not necessarily products of the Gospel getting in the way. Or, to spin it a different way (inspired by your next post in this series), if we’re giving visible signs of the hope that we have in Christ for the renewal and recreation of the world, then we have to be clear that that renewal will not (I’m guessing) mean that the world will be all formed in the image of western society. It’s an obvious principle, but often people think of culture as only something made up of words and ideas, while in fact (it seems to me) the things around us can be very influential in how we live and who we perceive ourselves to be.

    That said, looking at your photo of the houses one year on, they look as if they’ve really been taken on by the local people in Cambodia. And they seem to have been a really useful development project.

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