7 Ways to Partner with the Global Poor
Simple living and other ideas for putting those good intentions to work
by Mark Kramer
In working for justice among the poor and oppressed, I am on a lifelong journey to more thoroughly identify with people suffering the injustice of poverty and powerlessness. This involves seeking to understand with increasing clarity how my decisions, my government and local organizations, and my spending habits/personal consumption affect others—for good or for ill.
My convictions have led me to a variety of concrete, if inadequate, actions. For example, I make a habit of digesting media dedicated to issues of social justice and writing letters to my representatives in Congress. Also, my wife and I have chosen to live and attend church in an economically and racially diverse neighborhood so that we can befriend and cultivate compassion for people who are different from us, especially when they suffer or experience hardship. We regularly write to a family in a Manila slum, financially support children living in a slum community and a university student who's working for justice in Africa, and have regular contact with friends and agencies working among the urban poor. As professional communicators, we're committed to using our skills to fight oppression, and we travel to poor countries on occasion to meet people and gather information. We own one car and try to walk or use the bus as often as possible; we buy used clothing and purchase vegetables from a local, community-run farm; and if our income increases, we give a higher percentage of it away rather than simply increasing our consumption. We've also participated in peace marches.
I share all this not because we've somehow achieved a consistently fair and equitable lifestyle. In fact, many of our lifestyle choices still feed others' suffering and the unsustainable status quo. As well intended as they may be, our efforts to minimize the damage we do and to identify with the poor constitute imperfect and ongoing struggles. Rather, I share this list because convictions about injustice and poverty must translate into concrete action. Dealing with such global problems can be overwhelming, and it is helpful to begin with specific, tangible examples of how we might respond.
Here are some (by no means exhaustive) suggestions for further action:
1. Give. Find a trustworthy organization or church that is doing quality work to fight injustice, and donate money or other resources and volunteer in some capacity. Look for efforts that empower the economically poor rather than charity-based organizations that encourage dependency through handouts. And don't doubt that you have resources to give, regardless of how strapped you may feel compared to people around you. Be generous until it hurts. To attempt to justify hoarding our money, either as individuals or as nations, churches, or businesses, is to justify others' suffering.
I find it helpful—not to mention extremely eye-opening—to think in terms of scale when it comes to supporting work among the poor. Managed properly, money donated from rich nations goes further in poor nations than it does back home.
I once met a woman named Angela in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who made corn tortillas each morning by hand and sold them out of her home, 1 lempira for four tortillas, or, at that time, the equivalent of about 6 U.S. cents. I gladly purchased 24 tortillas and gave Angela some extra lempiras. The tortillas were tastier than anything you'd find in most grocery stores in developed nations.
It quickly struck me that if 6 cents netted me four tortillas, a mere $10 could purchase more than 650 tortillas, and I realized that my money certainly worked harder there in Tegucigalpa than it did in the States. Today, I still like to mentally convert the spending habits and income of people in rich countries into the currency of Angela tortillas. A $1.50 cup of coffee costs, say, 100 Angela tortillas (AT). A $75 pair of running shoes is the equivalent of 5,000 AT, a new iPhone approximately40,000 AT, and a Honda Civic about 1.5 million AT.
Though I believe her family had additional sources of income, "tortilla currency" illustrates how difficult it is for people like Angela—and the cities and countries they live in—to compete in international job and commodity markets. It helps me keep in perspective how much more my money can do in the hands of people in the Nairobi slum of Mathare Valley, Klong Toey in Bangkok, and other such settlements around the world.
Simple living can free up your money—as well as your time and energy—to make it available to people in need. Simple living allows us to "facilitate greater generosity."
A final note regarding money: Simple living shouldn't just lead to a larger savings account or more investments. Remember the parable of the rich fool with his increasingly bigger barns (Luke 12:16-21)? Rather, simple living can free up your money—as well as your time and energy—to make it available to people in need. As a friend recently described it, simple living allows us to "facilitate greater generosity." I know some individuals who live conscientiously and are therefore able to give one-quarter, one-half, or even more of their income toward fighting poverty and other injustice. Giving money away is still a wise and thoughtful investment; it's just that the dividends are not monetary.
2. Pray. The more I've learned about the suffering of others, the more I've begun to simply roll up my sleeves and begin the hard work of helping them. My faith has become fiercely practical, and I'm fervent in my anger over the evil that people have to endure. To be honest, however, I've noticed that the more I do the less I pray. I suspect this is a pattern that many believers find themselves falling into, but it is essential to cultivate, through prayer, the faith I need to maintain hope and trust that a good and loving God ultimately overcomes suffering. It is only by drawing closer to God, and by praying for poor, oppressed, or persecuted people, that I can truly partner with both God and the suffering, and participate in the very real redemption of this groaning creation (see Romans 8:17-25).
3. Go. I know many people who've foregone comfortable living and chosen instead to live in poverty alongside people who are suffering amidst violence, drugs, and pollution. We need many more people to leave the comfort of their middle- and upper-class homes to work in such contexts.
Others go to these contexts on short-term introductory or volunteer trips, which enable them to serve, learn firsthand from, and develop personal relationships with community members. Meeting people in the flesh will quickly thrust us into a deeper experience of compassion. Such trips are serious investments of time and money, not to be taken lightly or viewed as exotic adventures in foreign lands. Traveling with a group or agency to serve among the poor can be a wonderful, life-altering experience, but don't go unless you're ready to invest yourself in the local people you visit and upon your return to inform others about the people and problems you've witnessed. Go with a willingness to at least consider some kind of long-term commitment to support a program monetarily or by helping them in some other way. Travel simply, as a pupil eager to learn, not as a tourist.
4. Equip. Dedicate yourself to equipping and resourcing local people already working in places of injustice. Partner with indigenous agencies and individuals. We have the resources and knowledge to provide them with training, money, appropriate technology, and other materials so that they can serve, often more effectively than we or other foreigners might.
5. Build relationships. Whether it's by sponsoring a child in an urban slum and getting to know her family, traveling to serve in a foreign community, or coming alongside people working in a difficult place close to home, personally investing in relationships is key to sustaining our interest and passion. Reach across class, race, and other lines to relate to suffering people, to receive their input, and to learn from them and their experiences. Beware, however, that these relationships may be costly to you personally, for as you invest yourself in others and get to know them, your compassion for them grows, and their losses and disappointments may ultimately and intimately become your own.
6. Work locally. While some needs, particularly those in the global South, demand that we assist people beyond our own borders, we should simultaneously work alongside people facing injustice in our own contexts. Find ways to serve the poor locally. Spend time with people who share a common concern for justice. Together, organize projects or campaigns. Seek to impact your own, immediate spheres of influence.
7. Advocate. Write letters to or call local and regional leaders to encourage them to address issues of injustice in your area and at national/international levels.
Mark Kramer adapted this article from his book, Dispossessed: Life in Our World's Urban Slums (Orbis Books, 2006), a collection of stories from informal, urban settlements in such places as Manila, Nairobi, and Mexico City.