Economics 101 & Public Square

Why Local Knowledge Is Essential for Global Poverty Relief

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Tearfund is a U.K.-based nonprofit that works with poor communities across the globe. They understand that there is more to poverty than just material needs. They approach poverty in a way that encourages the community to pull itself out of poverty. Here is how they describe why their organization exists:

When a community lifts itself out of poverty, everything changes. Poverty does more than exhaust, starve, trap and kill people. It destroys their sense of worth, limits their horizons, robs people of the chance to reach their full potential…We do whatever it takes to end poverty and rebuild poor communities. We work through local churches, because they’re Jesus’ body on earth, ready to care for the whole person—and the whole community—inside and out.

Tearfund provides aid for those in crisis. For those who are in cyclical poverty, Tearfund focuses on development so that the global poor can experience sustainable changes in their communities.

Let’s look at a primary way that Tearfund works in poor communities—“self-help groups.”

Meseret’s Story

Meet Meseret—she’s a wife and mom of three children in Ethiopia. Before joining a self-help group, Meseret and her family were barely surviving on her husband’s wages as a laborer. She and her husband were not able to provide enough food for their children.

Meseret heard of the self-help group at the local church in her community. She approached the group looking for some handout help, but instead got connected with her own self-help group. A self-help group saves money together, and gives microloans to the members of its group. Meseret’s group started saving 50 cents a week. This approach encourages a community to utilize their own resources, knowledge, and talents to create a way for themselves to fight poverty.

Employing innovation and utilizing market systems, the women in the self-help group come up with new ways to support their community and make a profit, so they can provide for their families. The group promotes flourishing for both the women participating and the community through new microbusinesses.

Meseret received a small loan from her self-help group and started selling charcoal. Using the profits, she started making and selling handicrafts. Now she is saving up to start a hairdressing shop using the profits from her handicrafts. She and her husband have enough money to provide three meals a day for their family, and they just recently were even able to replace the roof on their house. Here is how Meseret describes her experience with her self-help group:

I can’t express in words what my group means to me. They are my sisters—we support each other in everything. And we help to look after the rest of the community. By saving and investing in small businesses, I was able to completely transform my life and give my daughters a better future.

Meseret describes her relationship with her self-help group in a similar way that IFWE has described poverty—that it has not only material effects, but also the psychological, social, and spiritual. Her self-help group helped her gather capital to start a microbusiness to help her provide for herself and her family. But, it also helped her feel a sense of worth, provided her with a community, and opened her eyes to Christ. She is now a believer and is active in her local church.

In Meseret’s description of her self-help group, we see aspects of the early church as described in Acts 2:42-47. The early church was dedicated to learning more about God and spending time in community and in prayer. They voluntarily shared possessions, lived sacrificially for their community, and praised God for what they were learning from the apostles.

Often, people take this passage to support a top-down approach where the government redistributes money from the rich to the poor. However, Meseret’s story is a more fitting example of how to live out Acts 2-5—a voluntary community that serves one another sacrificially, spends time learning about and praying to God together, and works together in micro ways to promote flourishing in their whole community.

Local Knowledge

Meseret’s story gives us just a glimpse of how Tearfund works with poor communities. The self-help group was guided by Tearfund-trained staff, but otherwise relied on local knowledge, talent, and resources to accomplish sustainable changes in their community. Tearfund’s service in Ethiopia is sustainable because the poor have ownership over their development and can use their gifts and talents to make a difference in their community.

One of the most significant lessons we learn from Tearfund is the importance of using local knowledge. This type of knowledge is based on the local culture and is developed over time by seeing what works and what does not work for a community given their resources, constraints, strengths, and weaknesses.

Tearfund relies on local knowledge to cater their poverty-fighting tactics to the needs and culture of that community. They partner with local churches and local nonprofits that utilize this knowledge to transform communities. The people who are living in poverty day in and day out are the experts and have a better understanding of what is needed in their community to develop. This organization, and organizations like it, make it possible for us to serve the global poor in a way that is helpful, not hurtful.

At the same time, local knowledge teaches us that we are best equipped to serve the poor in our own backyard. We better understand the culture of our community. We are aware of networks, organizations, and churches that can assist the poor. We can build stronger relationships with the poor in our community to utilize their local knowledge to encourage sustained change. These advantages will make us stronger advocates for flourishing in our own community.

Local Gifts and Talents

This is the idea behind asset-based community development (ABCD), which starts a change in a community by assessing and employing the residents’ gifts and talents. Approaching poverty alleviation in this way meets three key principles—it gives the poor a sense of dignity, utilizes their gifts and talents, and approaches the multiple aspects of poverty.

ABCD harnesses local knowledge by starting with the poor’s assets rather than their needs. It is a humble approach that puts the emphasis on the poor’s gifts rather than the gifts of those fighting poverty, which respects the poor’s dignity.

We, the ones trying to help the poor, are limited, and we must rely on local knowledge and the poor’s gifts and talents to help them create sustainable change within their community.

Local knowledge and talent are essential in the fight against poverty, whether employed in our own community or across the globe. Tearfund combines local knowledge with compassionate gifts and service of people in other countries to serve the global poor effectively and sustainably.

While such work is a difficult, long process, it is the most effective way to truly love our neighbors and encourage sustainable change for the poor.

Editor’s note: Read more examples of organizations that are using biblical and economic principles to restore dignity and alleviate poverty in Love Your Neighbor.

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