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What’s the Problem with Poverty? (Part 2)

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WRITTEN BY Robbie Peterson

This post is the second part of a mini-series discussing poverty with FH’s COO, Ed Hatch. Follow the series with the first post, What’s the Problem with Poverty?

Problems come in all shapes and sizes. Problems by their very nature suggest something should be done. There are problems where nothing is being done and should be. There are problems where something is being done, but the ‘something’ is hurting more than helping. And there are problems where something is being done, and it is a ‘right’ something, but it is not enough. More is needed. 

Poverty as a Technical Problem

A previous blog touched on some of the ‘somethings’ being done to solve the problem of poverty. Poverty seen as primarily an economic, cultural, or geographical problem profoundly shapes the response and solutions to end poverty. Three quite different approaches share the viewpoint that the fundamental problem of poverty is technical. They say that if you fix the economy, change the culture, or restore the environment, the poverty problem “goes away.” Or so these technical approaches would contend. When viewed as a technical problem, solutions are almost always top down, outside-in. Intervene, give aid, go in and solve the problem. The expectation is that if we could bring enough time, effort, resources, and technical know-how to the problem, we could fix it. We could end global poverty.

Laudable as this sounds, there is an underlying assumption in the technical view of poverty that will always limit its ability to offer a complete solution. Technology can improve conditions and alter circumstances for a time, but unless the minds and hearts of people change, poverty will not end.

A Cambodian woman in red headscarf in a green field

Technology sees the world as a closed system. Closed systems can be debated, defined, diagnosed and dissected. In closed systems, we can find root causes, propose remedies, and implement solutions. But technical world-as-a-closed-system understandings of the problem of poverty will always leave the baby hungry, the farmer fighting the elements, the community paralyzed by fear of the future. 

There’s a famous story about a London newspaper that sent an inquiry to early 1900’s famous authors, asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” In response, prolific writer and Christian thinker, G.K. Chesterton reportedly replied in a letter: 

Dear Sir, 

I am.


G.K. Chesterton


Poverty as an Open System

People, not technical systems, are at the root of most of the world’s problems. Broken relationships are the root cause of poverty. However, relationships do not just replace economy, culture or geography as another technical solution. Relationships as the purview of the social sciences–anthropology, sociology or psychology–are not the new lens to provide the new theories to examine and diagnose the poverty problem. Each of these theories still depends on the fundamental presupposition that the world is a closed system.

No. Poverty as a problem of broken relationships requires a completely different presupposition. The world is an open system–and more is at play than what can be empirically observed, hypothesized and evaluated. Only this view of poverty opens the possibility of complete and sustainable solutions. Only this view allows for the possibility that we/I/humankind are not enough.

We cannot solve our own problems…because we are the problem.

That we are not the center of things and that we cannot, in our own knowledge and technology, fix everything, is a blow to man-centric views of everything. Only the view of understanding poverty as broken relationships allows for the kind of humble learning necessary to see the poor and impoverished as people, part of the solution not part of the problem. Until we see ourselves and each other a fundamentally poor, we can not bring hope to the hard places of poverty. 

Poverty as Broken Relationships

Poverty as broken relationships within an open system is essentially a different problem. No longer technical, but relational. This then leads to fundamentally different solutions and approaches to solve systemic poverty. 

  • Bottom up – not imposed from without, but rising from within
  • Inside out – inside people; individual heart and mindset change 
  • ‘With’ not ‘to’ – walking together with as equals, not doing something to people
  • ‘Hand up’ not ‘hand out’ – disrupt aid, help equip and empower not enable

When Food for the Hungry applies a worldview approach and understanding that the fundamental problems of poverty are relational, we see the community of people themselves as the source of vision and clarity for what needs to change.

Rather than bringing “interventions” from the outside, we bring friendship with dignity and respect. We see ourselves as privileged partners, empowered by God to walk with people and work with them to understand the obstacles to their flourishing.

Only when the people we walk with learn to trust us, that we have their best interests at heart, and when they find the courage to dream and hope again…only then do the people see the problem of poverty for what it is, as in them and not their circumstances. They see that they themselves are part of the problem, as we all are, but at the same time, that they too are the solution, together.

From the Inside Out

Far from being limiting, this revelation of human nature is enlightening and liberating. The revelation that I am the problem means that I can change, also. Thus, the problem and solution come from the inside out. All corporate, collective change–whether in families, communities, organizations, or institutions–begins with individual change. As a result, this inside-out change of mind and heart at the individual level spawns a viral change among others and infects others. It’s contagious. People see that change is possible. Hopeless fatalism–that “nothing will ever change and I am the victim” mindset–gives way to eternal “I-can’t-wait-till-tomorrow” optimism, energizing hope and anticipation of the future. This is more of the right answer to the problem that needs to go viral in a world turned in on itself…for the good of many, to the glory of God. 

Continue Reading:

What’s the Problem with Poverty?

Ending Poverty, Together: The “Nature” of Child Sponsorship

Latin America Updates: What God Is Doing in 2019

What James 1 Tells Us About The Story We’re Called to Live Out


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