"Helping the Poor Requires Learning from Past Efforts"

“Helping the poor today requires learning from past efforts.”

In his work, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Help the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, economist William Easterly explains why it is critical that the West learn from its mistakes in helping the poor. Near the beginning of his book, to illustrate the problem with the West’s efforts to alleviate poverty to date, Easterly lays out a basic timeline of past failures. When it comes to beginning work among the poor, it is critical that we keep this timeline in mind and learn from it.

January 2005

“At Davos [at the World Economic Forum] in January 2005, British prime minister Tony Blair called for ‘a big, big push forward’ in Africa to reach the Millennium Development Goals, financed by an increase in foreign aid. Blair commissioned a ‘Report for Africa,’ which released its findings in March 2005, likewise calling for a ‘big push.’ ”

July 2005

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair put the cause of ending poverty in Africa at the top of the agenda of the G8 Summit in Scotland in July 2005.

Bob Geldof assembled well-known bands for ‘Live 8’ concerts on July 2, 2005, to lobby the G8 leaders to ‘Make Poverty History’ in Africa. Veterans of the 1985 Live Aid concert, such as Elton John and Madonna, performed, as did a younger generation’s bands, such as Coldplay. Hundreds of thousands marched on the G8 Summit for the cause.”

But as great as these events were, in many ways, they ignored past failures. The G8, aligning themselves with the rest of the UN, essentially made the decision to put more money towards the problem of poverty without demanding any large scale reform of its current systems for alleviating poverty. To understand why it is critical that we reevaluate current methods for helping the poor, not just put more funds towards the problems, let’s revisit the past with Easterly.


“A ... [UN] summit, in 1977, set 1990 as the deadline for realizing the goal of universal access to water and sanitation. (Under the Millennium Development Goals, that target is now 2015.) Nobody was held accountable for these missed goals.”


“A UN summit in 1990 … set as a goal for the year 2000 universal primary-school enrollment. (That is now planned for 2015.)”

The UN Development Goals set for 2015 will likely not be met. But this is not a reason to despair, or to abandon the goals or the efforts. Instead, the problems thus far are an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and to do better in the future.

Major progress to alleviate poverty has been made, but it’s not enough. The current systems for alleviating poverty are also not as effective as what it is needed. In addition, even if the methods were as effective as they could be, not enough money is being designated by UN countries to meet the needs of those around the world.

There is no easy answer to the problem of extreme poverty. But there are things we can do. The Millennium Development Goals are noble and good, as are the efforts to meet them, but aid alone will never be enough.

There are underlying issues affiliated with poverty that government aid cannot address—these issues are ethical and spiritual. Aid is also not sustainable. Without jobs, people will continue to live in despair. In addition, aid often takes away the choice of people; aid efforts can force a solution upon people that they would not choose on their own. It can also create dependencies rather than economic (and life) independence. There is certainly a place for aid efforts, but they cannot be the final solution.

I am not sure what Easterly would think of the model of Jesus’ Economy, but his data, in many ways, points to its necessity. The model of Jesus’ Economy, I believe, is part of the solution that must be offered. It addresses many of the issues holding people back from a new and better life.

(This post is part of the blog series, “What I Learned from William Easterly.”)


John Barry
John Barry


CEO, President, and Founder of Jesus' Economy. John is the author/coauthor of 12 books and General Editor of Faithlife Study Bible and Lexham Bible Dictionary.