Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Will the Poor Always Be With Us? Jesus vs. Muhammad Yunus

Nobel Prize-winning economics professor and "banker to the poor" Muhammad Yunus visited Atlanta last month and spoke about the prospect of eradicating poverty to the point that one day we would take our children to see "poverty museums."

In Mr. Yunus' ideal future world, our kids would have to learn from a retrospective distance what they could not experience in the now: the sickness, starvation and abject lack that come with the inability to afford basic needs like food, clothing and shelter.

I applaud his vision and his efforts to make it a reality, but I wonder if it's a bit naive. Assuming that everyone (or even a slight majority) could learn to practice, like Mr. Yunus, the ideal of helping the poor help themselves, a world without poverty is at least imaginable. But it's hard to make that assumption, given our proclivity to act in our own self-interests at almost any cost. Even our charitable donations are mostly given out of our wealth, not any meaningful sacrifice (I'm preaching to myself here, by the way). How can we lift others out of poverty without giving up comfort and convenience? And how will people learn to sacrifice when the world's ideology tells them to get what they can in this moment?

Our methods of spreading wealth and providing for others may get better, but it's hard to see human nature changing. It's also hard to see our world economy developing without our definition of poverty shifting. Even if we totally eliminate poverty as we now define it, isn't it conceivable that in a wealthy world where a sense of personal entitlement is only getting stronger, a socioeconomic status now seen as middle class will be considered impoverished?

Jesus said we will always have the poor with us, but that we should take care of them. Mr. Yunus says their plight is reversible. The question is how we can use ideas and methods of the latter to obey the commands of the former in a sustainable way.

Image: Soweto township, Johannesburg, South Africa; by Trevor Williams

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