Hope and Ministries of Compassion

At JLP, our Sunday School kids saved their money all year and were able to buy two pair of pigs in Cameroon, through a local mission team that is in Cameroon as I write this. We’re looking forward to hearing more about “our” pigs when they return to Anchorage.

Efforts like our Sunday Schoolers’ are part of a general approach to ministries of compassion. “Give a man a fish,” they say, “and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The same is true for bacon sandwiches and raising pigs.

This approach is popular because we know you can’t keep feeding people every day, so you want to figure out how to put yourself out of business. But doing it turns out to be a lot harder than just saying it. Like secular social programs, many ministries of compassion are transactional rather than transformational.

That makes a recent study interesting, because it suggests that hope might be the difference between success and failure. (“Failure” in the sense that the man got a fish and ate that day but didn’t learn how to fish. Band-aids don’t cure you but they might buy you time so you can cure yourself.)

Anyway, Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, explains how the study concerns a type of aid package where a poor family might receive a cow, or a couple of goats. What the researchers found was that the key difference was if the program gave the recipients a reason to hope:

“Poverty is not just poverty of money or income,” noted Sir Fazle Abed, founder of a Bangladeshi aid group called BRAC that developed the graduation program. “We also see a poverty of self-esteem, hope, opportunity and freedom. People trapped in a cycle of destitution often don’t realize their lives can be changed for the better through their own activities. Once they understand that, it’s like a light gets turned on.”

Esther Duflo, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of the study, believes that’s right. “The mental health part is absolutely critical,” she said. “Poverty causes stress and depression and lack of hope, and stress and depression and lack of hope, in turn, cause poverty.”

I didn’t see the whole study, which is behind a paywall, but if you subscribe to Science, here you go. Otherwise, here’s a press release about the study at Innovations for Poverty Action.

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