Archives For poverty

Almost from infancy, our parents teach us to share. If we have two cookies and our friend has none, we’re instructed to give one away. This idea is reinforced in classrooms, on sports teams, and especially in church, where we learn that a faith that fails to actively care for those in need is no faith at all.

Since this lesson has been drilled into us since childhood, it’s understandable (and admirable) that when a video of a hungry-looking, barefoot child appears in our news feed, our immediate impulse is to send them the food and shoes that we perceive them to be lacking. After all, sharing’s a good thing, right?

TOMS shoesIn 2006, TOMS almost single-handedly created the easiest way for us to “share” with those in need around the world. Taking the concept of “buy one, get one,” and turning it on its head, they invented a totally new paradigm: “buy one, give one.”

Suddenly, we had a way to use our purchasing power not only to buy a pair of shoes for ourselves, but to create a ripple effect of good around the world by also providing a pair for someone else. We experienced firsthand how interconnected the global economy is and how our actions as consumers in the U.S. can impact people around the world.

TOMS taught us something important: Our purchases matter.

But as the new critically-acclaimed film Poverty, Inc., reveals, for all the good that buy one, give one  accomplished on the consumer end, it had consequences on the receivers.

The film highlights how some sometimes good intentions unintentionally deepen dependency, impact local markets, and paint an inaccurate picture of poverty. Intuitively, we know that aid has never offered the lasting or dignified pathway out of poverty.

In the film, Michael Fairbanks describes this disparity between doing good and unintended negative impact, stating, “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard, we all have that, but having a mind for the poor—that’s the challenge.”

Poverty, Inc., highlights the significant transformation that’s underway in the “industry of charity”, as it seeks to exchange aid for enterprise, paternalism for partnership.

Looking through the enterprise lens of TOMS, I wonder if the emphasis on the free shoes they give away has caused us to miss the seemingly hidden benefit of creating a thriving company. Perhaps it’s time to stop just focusing on the free boxes of shoes and broaden our understanding of impact, and celebrate other aspects of TOMS. Primarily, they are a thriving company providing jobs, delivering an excellent product, modeling corporate generosity, and constantly seeking to expand in their global impact.

1. Job Creation

TOMS seeks to create jobs, establishing over 700 manufacturing and sourcing jobs in 6 different countries and effectively empowering parents to purchase shoes for their own children. No parent wants to stand in line for charity for the rest of their lives—just like us, parents want the dignity of providing for themselves and their families. The jobs that TOMS creates are most likely far more effective at alleviating poverty than a box of free shoes could ever be.

2. Excellent Products

I love my TOMS. Even without the BOGO model, they’re a great shoe. TOMS doesn’t use their social mission as an excuse to peddle inferior products, but remains committed to offering excellent, high quality, and desirable merchandise.

3. Skills Training

TOMS has invested in the futures of thousands of men and women by offering job skills training. They’ve also initiated health training, including skilled birth attendant training. A company that cares about training and long-term empowerment of those it employs is to be celebrated.

4. Greater Generosity

While the buy one, give one model has been replicated across products and innovations, the greater impact might be on organizations that have looked to TOMS and discovered that they, too, can actively unlock both talent and funds to have a global impact. It’s both intrinsically good and good business to be known as a company that cares about responding to need, and there has been a recent resurgence of creative corporate generosity. They key is to continue to ask tough questions about what models accomplish the most positive outcomes—for all involved.

TOMS has captured the hearts of a generation well aware of the needs of the world and itching to share. Disproportionately, we’ve celebrated the free shoes and missed the positive impact of the core business.

As Poverty, Inc., shows through over 200 interviews in 20 countries, there is movement underway to shift from aid to enterprise.

At their core, both Poverty, Inc., and TOMS Shoes prove one thing: Our parents were right that sharing is good—but nobody wants to be a charity case for life.

Poverty, Inc.


Poverty, Inc., released this month.

Watch the trailer, preorder the film, or learn about hosting a screening event at

ChildrenExamine the marketing materials for most aid and development organizations, and you’ll notice that children are prominently featured in everything from clean water to refugee resettlement. Sometimes they’re depicted as desperate, wide-eyed, malnourished, and alone. Other times, images portray children flashing wide grins, full of energy and unbridled hope for the future. The innocence of youth is compelling.

Children are incredibly precious, significant, and special. It’s impossible to blame them for their current situation – and we are motivated to do something to help children achieve a brighter future. But for their good, I believe we need to stop making children the exclusive focus of our programs and shift away from an exclusively child-centered approach.

Why in the world would I be encouraging us to consider decreasing our emphasis on children?

Before you call me a Grinch and accuse me of possessing a “heart that’s two sizes too small,” here’s why I think it would actually be in the best interest of children if we stopped exclusively focusing on them:

Not all children in poverty are orphans.

Overly simplistic images of children by themselves and out of the context of their surroundings perpetuate a pervasive, damaging picture that all children in poverty are orphans. Orphans are particularly vulnerable and need special care, but to paint all children as orphans just isn’t true. The Better Care Network points to studies in Cambodia, for example, revealing that 75% of children living in orphanages are not actually orphans but have one or more biological parents still living. And even more have living extended family members. We need to recognize that most children have families and are best supported within the context of the family.

The picture above is a cropped version of this image. It’s time to stop cropping out parents, literally and figuratively.


For deep, lasting change to occur, transformation must be experienced not only by children, but by their whole families. I’ve witnessed the gut-wrenching reality that when children are returned to families who have not received the support and care that they need as caregivers, children can end up in the same cyclical, heartbreaking situation.

Might it be that by focusing on children, we are undermining the role of families? Why are parents invisible and often forgotten? Perhaps it’s because paying school fees is far easier than walking alongside a parent who wants to start and grow a small business or become free from addiction.

Whatever the reason, loving children demands an equal measure of love for the family around them, no matter how difficult it might be.

Please understand, I am all for helping children! I simply believe that focusing exclusively on children to the exclusion of their families often proves to be less helpful, and possibly even damaging, in the long run.

Let’s seek out organizations and strategic approaches that focus on empowering men and women to provide for themselves and their families. When the family flourishes, children grow up with strength and hope for the future.

For more, check out When Helping HurtsThe Poor Will Be Glad, or download the free e-book Stop Helping Us!.

This post originally appeared on the PovertyCure blog.

The Snake Oil of Charity

September 23, 2015 — 2 Comments

If anyone tells you there are easy answers to poverty, brokenness, and injustice, they’re probably selling you snake oil.










Snake oil gained wild popularity among 19th-century laborers working on the U.S.’s First Transcontinental Railroad and desperate for relief from their muscle and joint pain. While there is legitimate evidence indicating that oil from certain sea snakes in Asia are actually effective in relieving pain, it’s highly unlikely that the kinds sold to those unsuspecting railroad workers contained it. Despite this, convincing (but negligent) traveling salesmen jumped on the bandwagon, peddling knock-off elixirs and miraculous remedies—claiming to heal everything from hiccups to hearing loss—without disclosure of what they contained or why they worked. An entire industry, based on bottled, over-hyped solutions, was born.

It might feel easy to blame these slippery salesmen. How could they possibly think that something as complex as a person’s health could be trusted to a single solution?

But the truth is, we become peddlers of our own version of snake oil when we claim that a single approach or organization offers a universal remedy to the world’s brokenness.

I discovered this anew, not through my international work in poverty alleviation, but as my family has become involved in Safe Families, a ministry providing respite care for children. The program serves as a safety net, offering parents dealing with the challenges of drug addiction, domestic abuse, incarceration, or illness, an alternative to foster care for their children.

It’s a powerful program, and through it, we’ve gotten to know courageous parents and precious children. It’s also given us a glimpse into just how complex and difficult these situations are.

Addiction is strong.

Poverty is real.

Violence is crushing.

Sin is pervasive.

We love these kids, and when they return to their families, the current crisis might have abated yet very significant challenges remain. Our hearts have broken, and we find ourselves longing for lasting solutions.

But seeing these situations firsthand, we’ve also learned just how crazy it would be to assume there is one simple fix to all of them. When you’re up close and the problems become personal, you see the shades and the nuance. You see how sometimes there is real progress, and sometimes situations don’t seem to change. You get glimpses of hope and moments of despair. Life is complicated, and you realize there are no easy answers. That’s why we support the respite program we’re a part of, and we recognize how essential it is for there to also be detox programs, job placement training, housing assistance, local church support, and other aspects of help.

I’m passionate about Safe Families and equipping churches to serve as havens of rest for families in crisis. I’m also passionate about microenterprise development and helping families start or expand businesses to provide for their own needs. But seeing the brokenness and complexity, it’s clear that neither are perfect or complete solutions.

There are no “Three Easy Steps” to the significant problems of our world, and the complexity of the situations makes me realize how thankful I am for a hope that is secure. We trust that God is at work bringing healing and wholeness—and we celebrate the glimpses of grace breaking into even the most challenging situations. We leap even more fully into the brokenness, as imperfect people loving and serving others through imperfect solutions, but guided by our perfect Savior.

Let’s Make Pies

May 1, 2015 — 2 Comments

Recently, my friend Shane Claiborne and I took part in a debate on Christian responses to poverty. To call it a debate might be a bit of a stretch, especially when the prevailing image of a “debate” is rancorous TV personalities angrily shouting over each other.

Still, in the midst of our discussion, we hit on a particularly provoking concept: Is one person’s wealth the result of another person’s poverty? And is a system of redistribution the loving, biblical response to poverty?











The idea of a system of redistribution as the way to care for those in need seems supported by the example of the Early Church in Acts and verses like 1 John 3:17, which says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

There is no question that God calls us to radical generosity, particularly toward the most vulnerable. Even a cursory reading of the Bible can leave no doubt: We are called and compelled to care for those who are hungry and orphaned, trafficked and enslaved, widowed and sick, broken and marginalized and living in poverty.

As men and women designed to incarnate the God who came to serve a world hemorrhaging from sin’s piercing wounds, our hearts are to reflect that same relentless love and pursuit of others. Our words and actions are to point an aching world to Jesus.

So, it’s right that stories of human suffering grieve our spirits and move us to action. We are to “spend ourselves” on behalf of others.

But here’s the thing—I believe that, as followers of Christ, it is our responsibility not simply to act, but to act in wise, strategic ways that are actually effective in alleviating suffering.

It is because I follow Jesus—not in spite of it—that I cannot simply ignore the evidence showing that systems based solely on the redistribution of wealth never work. Historically, they promise utopia and deliver misery. As I once heard economist Jay Richards say, “Systems of forced redistribution don’t just fail to promote freedom—they fail at producing food.”

More importantly, systemic redistribution misses the beautiful truth that God created a world in which there is the possibility to create—and that as God’s image-bearers, we are to be co-creators.

Wealth is not a fixed pie from which we must shave off meager slices but something that can be multiplied. Instead of focusing on cutting up a single pie, what if we focused our efforts on working together to make more pies?

God demonstrated this most basic principle in a common seed. In God’s economy, you can take a seed and plant it in the ground. If you take care of it, the seed will grow and bear fruit, which will produce more seeds. You can then take those seeds and open a store to sell them, or perhaps turn them into flour, which can then be used to bake bread to share with others.

When we depend on systematic redistribution as the solution to poverty, our focus will be on cutting slices from a limited pie and divvying out increasingly smaller pieces to men and women who are capable of much more. Not only is that approach grossly ineffective, but it also robs the recipients of life-giving, dignifying opportunities to create and grow.

I don’t want to miss breathtaking stories of human flourishing, as people mirror our Creator by creating. The more I travel around the world, the more I’m convinced of the overwhelming capacity and creativity of all people in all nations.

If you want to care for those in need, then it’s time to help make more pies.