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More a case of working together

26 July 2012

Global poverty is not just an economic problem, says Elaine Storkey

FOR decades, humanitarian efforts across the globe have been focused on the question how to lift people out of poverty. Thousands of initiatives, from large-scale development projects and Millennium Goals to provision of local latrines, have been funded by governments, churches, and compassionate individuals.

Many programmes have been effective. There have been huge improvements in access to fresh water and sanitation, for example. And, in Brazil, nearly 12 million people were taken out of poverty between 1999 and 2009 - mostly through government action in wealth redistribution, health care, and education. Yet, on a global scale, poverty remains, and the gap between rich and poor is ever widening.

Corruption, the arms trade, and the power of local élites compound the problem, and climate change places a further, almost intractable burden on the world's poor. Inevitably, critics have hit out at organisations set up to address poverty alleviation. Global financial institutions have been slated for punitive bureaucracy and insensitivity to local conditions. NGOs have come under attack for creating a dependency culture.

Alongside the frustrations of persistent global inequities, however, quiet initiatives have been sweeping through the poorest regions of the world, bringing new confidence and change. Many NGOs have moved away from funding large, complex projects towards providing more resources to help communities to lift themselves out of poverty. Savings and credit co-operatives have been established, often with remarkable results.

In a remote mountainous region of Ethiopia, I visited women's collectives that were saving one birr a week each (about five pence) to establish a mutual lending fund. It was a very cost-effective project for the Tearfund partners who facilitated it. Although uneducated, the women's confidence and skills had multiplied, and, through years of co-operative venture, poverty had been left behind.

In other programmes, whole communities work together, and it was to see one of these that Tearfund sent me recently to north-east Uganda. The "participatory evaluation process" is disarmingly simple, even though it requires considerable planning. It involves, first, the mobilisation of the local churches to understand the many-layered needs of their communities, and then working with neighbours for change. Together, community members elect leaders, gather information, and make plans for a better future. Then they work at it.

I was struck immediately by the huge difference between communities just starting the process, and those begun ten years ago. The evidence rose to greet us: clean water, sanitation, healthy animal stocks, citrus trees, strong buildings, and well-nourished children enjoying the benefits of education.

Turkeys, pigs, and goats fed contentedly, and their manure was collected to fertilise the land. Fish farms, bee-keeping, and crop-growing all provided revenue. There was evidence, too, of distribution, as those with more resources shared them with neighbours.

Global poverty needs global solutions. But some of those solutions are very basic - and very Christian. Echoes of St Paul's metaphor of "the body" were evident in the mutual accountability I witnessed, which enabled people to move from a dependency culture to one where they found strength together.

Love of neighbour was fundamental in the way the Church dared to engage co-operatively with those of other faiths and none. Arrogance and ignorance were being challenged, and the stigma of disability and AIDS was being overcome. It was sobering to find that Christian principles could contribute so practically to the alleviation of poverty, and even help to transform community life.

Dr Elaine Storkey is President of Tearfund.

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