Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Microlending -- helping the poorest of the poor

A faithful reader of the Eagle and Child recently invited me to sign on to the One Campaign. This campaign, endorsed by Bono, Bob Geldof, and other stars aims to relieve third world debt and allieve the conditions of immense poverty found in those regions of the world. The plan has its critics, however, who believe that however well intentioned, the proposals would mainly benefit the corrupt governments that enjoy great priviledge at the expense of the starving masses.

I have great empathy for the desire to help the poor – that, after all, is a running theme in scripture (which I've been preaching on for four weeks now). “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27). God even connects his own glory and might with a specific concern for the weak and the poor: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19). Notice also, God encourages the Israelites to identify with the weak, the stranger in the land because they once were strangers and aliens. God’s concern for the poor and weak and defenseless is rife throughout the scriptures (Ps 68:4-6, Ps 146 as examples)

One of the key measures of spiritual health and vitality for ancient Israel was the care for widows, orphans and the aliens in the land, and God executed judgment when they failed to show concern for the poor and weak “God presides in the great assembly, he gives judgment among the ‘gods’: ‘How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:1-4). God also makes promises regarding the poor “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done.” (Proverbs 19:17)

So the question is how do we faithfully live this calling out? If there are concerns with large top-down approaches like the One campaign, how can Christians speak to world poverty. One solution might be to invest in microlending (see example here). Microlending is a relatively new trend that focuses on giving small loans to small entrepreneurs in developing economies. For instance, on the streets of a third world country, there is a woman who makes her living selling produce – but her cart needs repairs, and if it were twice the size, she’d be able to sell more and actually begin to make a profit. Let’s say she can accomplish this for $40. This is a sum far too small for banks, so she turns to predatory lenders – loan sharks. And then all her profit goes not to the benefit of her family, but to the comfort of the lender. She is roughly shoved back down into poverty, even though she’s working hard to do things right. Now consider if there were an institution that made those small loans, charging reasonable interest – a bank that extends micro-loans. Now the woman would have the dignity of paying back the money – it’s not a handout. But she also lives without the fear of having her arms broken if she doesn’t make exorbitant payment. This is the concept of microlending.

And it’s at work all over the world. It seems to be changing lives and reshaping the way that poverty is addressed. Rather than throwing billions of dollars at the elite power brokers who oppress the citizens of third world nations, these microlending outfits go straight to the people who need the help. It’s a fascinating concept, though it has received its fair share of criticism.

Interestingly, Christians are not missing this opportunity to help. Presbyweb pointed me to a link from the Christian Science Monitor talking about microlending as ministry. I also discovered on Presbyweb that the Presbyterian Foundation has been investing in Oikocredit, a World Council of Churches founded microlending organization. It seems that God’s people are finally getting on board.

Soli Deo Gloria