Author: Jeffrey Sachs
Pub Date: December 2005
I was excited to hear that Jeffrey Sachs, the famed economist, had published The End of Poverty
. I first heard about it in a Time
magazine article of the some title, which I read on a flight home from India in 2005. The article stated that Sachs believes extreme poverty  could be eliminated by the year 2025. That’s in our lifetime.
This issue is dear to my heart, and I firmly believe that evangelicals often avoid responsibility for caring for the poor and marginalized. Christians are called to be God’s presence in this world, both with the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the living out of that gospel in suffering with those who are marginalized. Since this article won’t explore this theological reality, this sentiment will have to suffice. But I do believe that if the Church put its energy into helping the world’s poor and marginalized—as much energy as it does to thwart gay marriages and teach intelligent design in the schools—we would see the world respond to the Church, and ultimately to the gospel, in vastly different ways.
Ironically, I was reading the Time
article while sitting next to a young, liberally-minded female from Seattle who was returning from Guatemala where she had done relief work. She noticed that I was part of a large group, and asked about our trip. I told her that I taught at a pastor’s conference while the group worked in an Indian children’s home for mostly Untouchable children. She was excited that we had helped some of India’s poorest, but it became clear that she viewed our efforts as an imperialistic imposition of Christian poison in an otherwise beautiful land. While she remained gracious and cordial, it came to a head as we began to discuss the Time
article, and how an end to such a horrific problem could be found. I indicated that groups like World Vision, which has done an incredible job of aiding the marginalized and poor all over the globe, need to be supported. Her response was striking. She said, “I don’t know what I think about that,” and continued, “Well, it’s a Christian organization and the idea of anyone forcing their religious views on to unassuming cultures under the guise of relief is questionable.”
While the woman on the plane was in step with Jeffrey Sachs’ theory of exterminating extreme poverty, her attitude is one that epic novels like The Da Vinci Code
capitalize on—one that sees Christianity, and religion for that matter, as part of the problem and hardly part of the solution. The Church has lost its compass and become something utterly different than that for which it was intended. To this idea, Rodney Stark, former professor of sociology and comparative religions at the University of Washington, writes this:
Unfortunately in today’s intellectual environment, [the idea that Christianity has played a significant role in the advance of scientific knowledge and social justice] is widely regarded as both unfortunate and false. Proponents of the revisionist claim overcome its inherent contradiction by assigning many of the most unfortunate aspects of history to religious causes, while flatly denying even the most obvious and overwhelming evidence that religion was the basis for the “good” things that have come to pass. For example, it is argued that Christianity played no significant role in sustaining the abolitionist cause but was a major factor in justifying slavery.
No doubt Christianity has earned its reputation. But, at the heart of the biblical message is the call to glorify God in everything we do. There are many factors to solving world hunger, a fact Sachs quite aptly points out. But to downplay the need for faith and suggest that scientific technology and human reason will eradicate poverty is naïve and a residual effect of tired enlightenment promises and cheesy boomer optimism. Sachs emphasizes, “Four overarching ideas of the enlightenment inspire us today.” The first is that “political institutions are human constructs that should be fashioned consciously to meet the needs of society.” Note the stress on “should.” These constructs have been used for both good and evil, which is the nature of their creators. Secondly, “The economic system could similarly be shaped to meet human needs.” Note the use of “could.” Thirdly, Sachs quotes Immanuel Kant from a text written in 1795, “calling for an appropriate global system of governance to end the age-old scourge of war.” Sachs’ fourth point is the idea that science and technology, fueled by human reason, can be a sustained “force for social improvements and human betterment.”
These governing truths are positive contributions to a solution, but only if they are placed in the context of the origin of the enlightenment, which has been richly influenced by a Christian morality and assume a free democracy. The fact is, human reason has led us to Marxism, socialism, communism, capitalism, and so forth. Whose reason is correct? Which technology is good or evil, and who makes that call?
Science and technology have given humanity a phenomenal advance in education and the health sciences, but technology is also responsible for nuclear weaponry, environmental hazards, and the fragmenting of culture. Science, technology, and reason aren’t used in a vacuum; Sachs’ attempt to deify them only exacerbates the issue at hand. The chapter entitled “Myths and Magic Bullets” most emphasizes Sachs’ lack of education in the cross disciplines of sociology, social biology, anthropology, and comparative religion. He acknowledges some problems with his own world view, like social Darwinism, but does a poor job of dealing with the human nature behind the problem. This is due to his “enlightened” view of human nature, which can never account for the real “evil” in this world. Thinking good thoughts and crunching numbers to pay for the United Nations’ “Millennial Development Goals” signed by every nation in the Great Eight, including the United States, doesn’t appear to be enough; none of the nations have made good on their promises. Sachs seems to disregard greed and the will to power as a problem of human nature.
He is right to conclude that ending poverty is our duty, but he fails miserably, in his chapter entitled “Why We Should Do It,” to actually tell us why we should do it. He merely offers the old American western boomer bootstrap mentality that “We’re all winners” (to borrow a line from a Seinfeld episode). I do not think that “Christianizing” the world is going to eradicate hunger and poverty, but I do believe that if we continue to try to do ethical and moral things apart from an ethical and moral God, we will continue to run in to the empty, soulless, and shallow promises that modernism has delivered. Technology and reason have done wonderful things for mankind. And as Rodney Stark reminds us, Christianity played a huge role in advancing the scientific theory that advances that technology. However, technology and reason have also shaped the bloodiest and vilest century humanity has ever seen. Human reason is flawed and limited, and decisions will continue to be made out of expedience and self interest, spelling disaster for the victims in its wake.
Although aspects of the book were upsetting, I do believe that it is a worthwhile read. I resonate with Sachs’ heart for the poor. I concur with his plea that this project is the moral thing to do; it is also very dear to the heart of the God many of us claim to worship.
Scores of verses from Genesis to Revelation remind us that “he who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker, But he who is gracious to the needy honors Him” (Proverbs 14:31). Believers in a creator should be championing attempts to end injustice and promoting organizations like Jubilee 2000 and the One Campaign—groups that lobby the Great Eight, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank to eradicate debt for the poorest countries in the world. Most of these countries cannot put any of their gross natural product toward the education and health of their people, as they are too busy paying off trillions of dollars of debt to the world’s richest nations.
Sachs eradicates the myth that if governments eliminate debt and give these nations money, corrupt leaders will take the money and use it for their own pleasures. This is a myth that is most often used as a justification of why these countries shouldn’t be given aid. Sachs argues rightly that “Africa’s governance is typical for countries at the same level of income.” He goes on to state that issues of good governance, freedom, and democracy will come more as a result of a stable economy, not the other way around.
I also appreciate his research regarding the needed amount of money to end this travesty. Many people wrongly perceive that billions have been given to these countries and the money has been squandered in poor planning or corruption. In reality, as Sachs indicates in this book, the money given is simply not enough and is usually spent on immediate needs and debt relief instead of programs that would begin to end poverty and hunger. Subsequently, he calls for the wealthy nations to honor their commitment to the United Nations “Millennium Development Goals” written and agreed on in 2001 by the Great Eight. The goals are to:
- Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
- Achieve Universal Primary Education
- Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
- Reduce Child Mortality Rates
- Improve Maternal Health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Other Infectious Diseases
- Ensure Environmental Sustainability
- Develop a Global Partnership for Development
These goals are achievable and morally sound according to Sachs. However, skepticism abounds; Sachs observes that despite the “1978 Pledge of ‘Health for All by the Year 2000’ the world arrived in 2000 with the AIDS pandemic, resurgent TB and malaria, and billions of the world’s poor without reliable, or sometimes any, access to essential health services.” He goes on to say that wealthy nations—who pledged 0.7 percent of their GNP to help this cause—actually decreased their giving from 0.3 to 0.2 percent in the 1990s, which was considered a time of economic boom for many of these countries. I believe that Sachs is in denial when he claims that morality and values aren’t relevant, because this is a matter of greed and power, not resources. The United States, widely believed by many to be the largest benefactor, does indeed give more money annually than any other country—but is only the seventh highest donor in the developed, western countries by percentage of GNP. 
Can the United States afford to give more? No doubt. In 2000, the IRS released a report on the richest taxpayers. The top 400 richest taxpayers alone had a combined income of $69 billion, which is $12 billion more than the combined GNP of four indebted countries  on President Bush’s “Tropical Tour.” Once again we see that the problem is one of value, not resources. All the technology and human reason so cherished in the West is not going to eradicate poverty in our lifetime when the wealthiest countries continue to give less than 0.2 percent of their GNP.
I appreciate Sachs’ heart for this issue. He is concerned that decreasing U.S. giving will hurt its place in world politics. In truth, the United States has much to offer a world that will only sink deeper and deeper into modernist/Marxist utopias if we fail to obey God’s desire to help the poor. This issue should be on the forefront of any Christian-led political agenda, but it is not. This leads many to skepticism, and fear—especially of the religious right, who, although a minority in the United States, have the political voice of a majority.
Reading Sachs’ book, I was convicted in my own hypocrisy of being a pseudo-liberal decrying the evils of multi-national corporations and capitalism. While I agree with Sachs that the anti-globalization movement has challenged the Great Eight, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank for their “self-serving accolades,” they have been misinformed and sometimes a bit hypocritical. Sachs challenged me to rethink wealth-building and even to look at it from a biblical perspective.
Neither wealth itself nor the people given the ability to make wealth are evil. Such people are in a position to effect change in this world. The Gates Foundation alone is doing more than any single foundation or religious institution, period. They must be recognized for that, and hopefully their generosity will challenge the Church to similarly give to causes outside of its own four walls. While I am still reserved on my economic views, as I believe that people should regard money from a stewardship point of view, I have been clearly challenged to think beyond a simple gut-reaction.
But I was disappointed with two aspects of Sachs’ world view. First, he fears the religious right’s “powerful force,” due to his perception that belief in the “end of the world” from a Left Behind
perspective fuels the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Where does this idea come from? Second, and this is admittedly a nitpick, Sachs takes the righteous highroad when he discusses his involvement in Poland’s economic recovery only after they adopted a free democracy. He then goes on to praise China and works readily with them in their economic recovery, in spite of their communism and gross, documented human rights violations.
So what should the Church do? I want to suggest a few things, some inspired by Sachs.
1. Make a commitment to help with the world’s hunger, disease, and economic
2. Begin to listen to, and raise the voice of, the poor in our land—and especially abroad.
3. Make a personal commitment to living out the gospel in ways that reflect the heart of God.
4. Preach a gospel that includes a lived-out lifestyle and not just a personal/individualistic salvation.
5. Encourage setting aside money and human resources to help social causes that are not only outside our church’s walls, but that do not necessarily benefit our own congregation.
6. Include in matters of our holiness/sanctification our responsibility to our communities and the world.
7. Communicate the world’s heartaches to our people, so that they can make well-informed decisions and prayers.
8. Ask God to break our hearts, so that we love the things He loves and hate the things He hates.
I don’t know if we are going to end poverty, but I do believe Christians are called to care about the plight of the suffering, poor, and marginalized. The Gospel is best served through a congregation living it, serving and loving the people to whom God has called them. We would be amiss to serve only our immediate neighbor, when Christ Himself has defined a neighbor as the one in need.Notes
 Extreme poverty, unlike moderate or relative poverty, means that the households cannot meet basic needs for survival such as food, clean water, health care, education, and basic shelter and clothing; subsequently many of these people die daily from very preventable diseases, over-exposure to the elements or hunger. Approximately 1.1 billion people (nearly 20% of the world’s population) live in extreme poverty.
 The current figure for the U.S. is 0.15% or 0.18% if you include private citizens and the non-profit giving sector.
 Botswana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda.