For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ […] “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ – Matthew 25:35-40
What does it really mean for Christians to care for “the least of these?” This is one of the most imperative questions when thinking about the integration of faith, work, and economics.
Growing up, my church generously responded to natural disasters and underprivileged communities by raising money, holding canned food drives, and donating used clothes. The congregation was always quick to pull together with generous and self-sacrificing hearts, eager to live out Matthew 25.
But when a church in Virginia sends shoes to Haiti, what actually happens when the package arrives? Do the shoes get to the right people? Do the shoes fit? We have faith that our donations help as we intended, but we can’t always know.
There is an undeniable information gap between the churches in the United States and the communities that receive their donations overseas. Unfortunately, long-distance charity can sometimes unintentionally hurt a community because the giver doesn’t have enough information.
Peter Greer, President of Hope International and contributing author in IFWE’s upcoming book From Poverty to Shalom, reveals the unintended consequences of “donation dumping” through his experience in Rwanda in this PovertyCure video:
Jano’s egg business did not shut down because the church did anything intentionally wrong, they just simply didn’t have all the relevant information to most effectively help the entire community.
It’s humbling to take a step back and admit we don’t know everything. In his lecture titled The Pretence of Knowledge, Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich A. von Hayek explains why this information gap is so problematic:
To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.
But how can anyone expect a church in Atlanta to know about Jano’s egg business thousands of miles away? Can we bridge the information gap?
The answer to the information gap is subsidiarity, which is the idea that a decision should be made by the smallest, lowest practical authority level capable of making an effective decision.
In a previous blog post, Dr. Glenn Sunshine explains why subsidiarity should be considered a pillar of poverty relief:
…subsidiarity is based on the premise that those closest to the problem have both the best understanding of the situation and the individuals involved, and the most direct responsibility to solve those problems. This allows for solutions tailored to the individual situation rather than the one-size-fits-all approach…
An example of subsidiarity as related to giving would be a church actively working to build a relationship with a charitable organization that is permanently located in the community receiving donations, or to invest in long-term poverty initiatives like microfinance.
This would not only solve the knowledge problem, it would also promote virtue by encouraging a community to build stronger relationships and take greater responsibility for the welfare of the people. And without a charitable model of subsidiarity, we risk creating a long-term negative effect in the communities we want to help.
It’s easy to throw a few cans of beans in a cardboard donation box on Sunday morning, but much more is required of us as followers of Christ to build up and dignify the poor.
What do you think? How can we overcome the information gap we face when fighting poverty? Leave your comments here.