Is charity the wrong approach?

Muhammad Yunus, the recently announced 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, did an interview that was recently published in Ode Magazine. Here are a few of his quotes:

“What all these pop stars and politicians want, is the usual recipe: charity. But charity is not the way to help people in need; it is not a healthy basis for a relationship between people. If you want to solve poverty, you have to put people in a position to build their own life. Unfortunately, this is not how the aid industry works. Western governments and development organizations think they need to offer permanent charity. As a result, they keep entire economies in poverty and families in an inhuman situation.”

“The approach [many take] to poverty is thwarted by our fixed convictions. Poor people are helpless, unhealthy, illiterate and thus stupid, they have nothing, they know nothing, we must take care of them, we must give them food… It is completely wrong to think like this. I am convinced that poor people are just as human as anyone else. They have just as much potential as anyone. They are simply shoved into a box marked POOR! And it’s written in giant letters so that everyone simply treats them the way poor people are treated, because we think this is the way we should treat them. This means it isn’t easy to get out of the box.”

This is definitely a very different way of thinking than the current establishment players/experts who claim to serve the poor — e.g. Jeffrey Sachs, the U.N., Bono, Clinton, Blair and many others. Yet Yunus’ success in building one of the world’s most successful banks for the poor gives him the authority to challenge the status quo thinking. Yunus is by no means some neo-conservative touting some theory that sounds great but has no on-the-ground substance. Rather he is a practitioner who is much more interested in ways to actually bring opportunity to those who have been denied it by the current powers and systems.

I find this thinking very personally challenging as some much of the lens that I look through towards solving poverty (however incrementally enlightened I may have become in the past few years 😉 still includes a large dose of charity thinking. I keeping thing, “yes, but…” Hmmm… good food for thought and implications for the road forward.

Read the interview and share your comments.

7 thoughts on “Is charity the wrong approach?

  1. I lived and worked in Morocco for years as an under-cover Christian missionary. I had a good friend who lost his job working for an ex-pat. He was already poor, but losing the steady income drove him down to the ranks of the desperately poor. Bad teeth, some formal education (he could read Arabic, think), little or no French–he wasn’t about to cut into the long line of qualified, educated Morocccans looking for good jobs (the unemployment rate is aboved 30% there). He hinted one day somewhat strongly that he needed some cash to buy a push-cart that he could stock with candy, popcorn, small trinkets, and so forth. He wanted money, in other words, to buy himself into a small-time operation that would net him enough each day to keep food on his family’s table. I knew that that was what he wanted and needed, but the idea that we missionaries were never supposed to give handouts had been drummed into my head. So I drank his mint tea, smiled, chatted, and left him and his family in squalor.How much money did he need to start his little operation? $65It’s hard for me to forgive myself for not giving him the money he needed to set himself up with that push-cart.


  2. Mr. Richards,The likes of Jeffrey Sachs and Bono are not promoting indefinate charity as the solution to extreme poverty. In fact, microfinance and loan systems, similar to those having such great impact in Bangladesh are featured very positively in Jeffrey Sachs’ book, The End of Poverty. In fact, Jeffrey Sachs’ foundation http://www.millenniumpromise.org focuses on allowing people the opportunity to escape the poverty trap. However, he does argue and quite convincingly I might add, that these communities do need an initial influx of ‘aid’ to develop the infrastructure needed to begin to become self-reliant/sufficient. It is worth the read of you haven’t had the chance.Paulwww.pointsevencampaign.org


  3. I am very familiar with Sachs and Bono and have read Sachs book, The End of Poverty. You’ll notice if you read back through my blog that I call out some very positive ideas from Sachs and I’m a big fan of Bono.You’ll also notice that I’ve highlighted some other perspectives including one person who argues (with lots of data) about whether the concept of the poverty trap is valid and whether these top down approaches have any clear demonstration (outside of the often cited Marshall Plan and Japanese reconstruction efforts … which have many different attributes than most low-income countries) of working to sustainably reduce poverty long-term.I think all reasonable concerns expressed by practitioners on the ground who have experienced the failure of top-down (and often) government-directed aid programs need very close examination for history to not repeat itself and the poor to continue their suffering despite our heart-felt and generous contributions.


  4. Mr Richards,Good points. It does seem however that the Millennium Villages projects in Sauri, Kenya for example, are showing some very promising results with this approach, albeit in its infancy.Another interesting perspective on aid, is from Michael Maren’s Road to Hell; The ravaging effects of international aid and charity. He believes that traditional ‘aid’ is not working and needs a shift from its oft self-serving and self-propogating nature.He questions whether the aim of all ‘development’ work shouldn’t be to work itself out of a job. With 18 years plus in the field, including a long stint with Save the Children in Somalia during the 90s, he speaks of a self-serving and propogating ‘aid’ machine which can be both ineffective and inefficient but worse; can often do more harm then good.Thanks for blogging about this topic. It is nice to see engagement and intelligent debate.


  5. Christian charity too often can be like Christian pity.All people want is something positive to support them. The microbanks do that. Its support on so many more levels than charity.Charity is too often humiliating. The word should be replaced with ‘support.’


  6. Thanks for posting the Yunus interview. I had not seen it elsewhere. I thought I would post my reflections. For the first part of the interview I thought Mohammad is exactly right. The poor are not incompetent they are just trapped in a bad system and if placed in a good one they would thrive. Additionally, he makes a good point that charity tends to distract individuals and countries from reaching their full potential.I kind of lost him when he indicated that large companies like Wal-Mart (I don’t think he actually mentioned Wal-Mart) should be regulated because they squeeze out the small operator. I have a couple random thoughts on this. First Wal-Mart started out as a small operator. They just did it better than every one else and grew. Second, curtailing the most cost efficient businesses punishes the consumer who by the way may be a poor person who might benefit from low prices.Finally, I’m hopeful some where in Laos or Uganda or El Salvador or somewhere else there is an entrepreneur who is receiving a micro loan today who will grow their business into the next Wal-Mart or Toyota or John Deere.Regarding his call for socially conscious business I had mixed feelings. First, for profit companies meet a societal need. Access to affordable cars has been a great benefit to our society (U. S.) and at a good profit to the companies. I think everything from Ice Cream bars to tooth brushes and the companies that make them add value to society or they would go out of business. At the same time it seems that we are on the brink of a revolution of innovative thinking around extending the benefits of the developed world in a useful and profitable manner to the under developed world. To me Thomas Edison was a social entrepreneur. He was jazzed by inventing things that could improve the life of the average Joe. The difference now is we need innovations on extending business models to the poorest of the poor. I like the social entrepreneurship model. I’m just not sure we have to give up profits to get there.


  7. Seems to me the idea would be to empower the local people to be their own leaders and providers. Rather than handouts, putting someone in a position to grow and allow future generations to continue to grow is a sustainable solution.Interesting site…I just came across it. Good stuff.


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