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Response to “Does God Believe in Jeff Sachs”?

I invited Jay Lawlor, the head of Millennium Congregations, and Jonathan Denn, the head of CountingPrayers.Org to respond to the blog post. I have not heard yet from Mr. Lawlor, but Mr. Denn responded. His letter follows:

Dear Professor Easterly,

Thank you for notifying me of your blog, and the invitation to respond. I was most sorry to hear of your severe crisis of faith, hopefully this will be of solace.

A couple corrections, I am the author of the The Counting Prayer {EDITOR INSERT: “The world now has the means to end extreme poverty, we pray we will have the will.”} As of this morning almost 1.5 million Counting Prayers have been offered in The Prayer Vigil to End Extreme Poverty and on the Billion Prayer March (endorsed by the United Religions Initiative, I am not a clergy person but I have a deep and abiding spirituality about eliminating the suffering caused by abject poverty. I am, also, the author of the “sin against the Creator” quote. I believe we are unambiguously obligated to help our neighbors as evidenced by over 2000 mentions about alleviating poverty in the Bible. I also find common ground about poverty alleviation (if for slightly different reasons) with my secular humanist brothers and sisters.

I believe God believes in all of us, rich and poor, even economists with disagreements, and that God believes we will act to eliminate suffering. We may fail but we must not stop trying.

I live in a simple world. People trapped in poverty need a clinic so family members can stop dying prematurely of easily preventable causes. The next morning when they rise and illness is not crippling their family these folks can get on with making life better for themselves. To do that they need dependable access to fertilizer, seed, water, and then when they finally have something to trade, someone to do it with. Oh, and a road to get to market.

The world has long had the wealth and knowledge to lift up our disadvantaged brothers and sisters to clear this very low bar. We merely lack the will, and in the past the expertise.

In 2002, the United States entered into the Monterey Consensus to provide zero point seven percent of na tional household income to the poorest nations to help with developing these necessary infrastructures. Only Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands have kept their promise, the U.S. is tied for a distant last place with Japan. Relief work is essential but without development it is unfortunately eternal. Without development there can be no self-sufficiency.

I believe that if every person of faith (or conviction) made up their pro-rata share of their countries’ shortfall, what I call the Millennium Tithe, that we would indeed soon see an end to extreme poverty, at least in the countries with relatively stable governments. And, that would be an incentive for other countries to enact stabilizing policies. I believe this to be a communion of humanity, secular and religious working together to end easily preventable, extreme poverty (misery).

Our Millennium Tithe would amount to about $15 per household per month (equal to two movie tickets), and I would suggest tithers find the highest yield development projects to fund, those with proven effectiveness and efficiencies and verifiable results. These are increasingly coming from secular NGOs, and there are most impressive results coming from the Millennium Village Project, of which I am a volunteer Ambassador. If I were to find an organization with a better poverty solution metric I would then volunteer my time to help them. If you have a better model, I would be happy to volunteer my time to you. For volunteer I must to the best action takers.

What is the theology of not vigilantly supporting and/or advocating the most effective poverty solutions available?


Jonathan Denn

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  1. April wrote:

    I very much appreciate Mr. Denn’s thoughtful response.

    I sometimes feel that the aid world is divided into the pro-aid folks and the aid-hawks.

    The pro-aid folks often want to focus only on advocacy, and getting more attention and resources flowing. They have their hearts in the right places for sure, but…often don’t want to use their heads. Nor do they want others to do so. I’ve been in many discussions with these people (many of my friends) and when evidence of ineffectiveness of a strategy or program come up, they often don’t want that information to come out, because it will likely diminish resources flowing to the program. This is a big problem obviously, since it precludes improving program effectiveness.

    On the other hand, the aid-hawks are often very focused on critiquing strategies and programs. Usually very thoughtfully. But they often don’t devote their considerable knowledge and talent to finding better ways, or at least more promising ways to solve problems. And, they provide much fodder for those seeking excuses for their lack of compassion and generosity. They use their heads, so to speak, but often help the heartless.

    This letter reminded me why it is so important to be both hard-headed, and soft-hearted.

    (I’ll forego comments on the Millenium Villages approach to development, which is grounded rather more in compassion than evidence)

    Posted April 18, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  2. M wrote:

    I agree almost 100% with April (above), but I’m with Peter Singer on the Millennium Villages — that it’s too early to tell if they are “working”.

    Dr. Easterly, you have been a very thoughtful contributor to the aid debate. However, instead of spending your time criticizing Jeff Sachs, Amartya Sen, Bono and others who obviously don’t have bad intentions, I wish you would advise us how to channel our desire to participate in the development of those who are less fortunate in a way that is both non-neocolonialist and non-injurious. Also, in my view, it would useful if you kept this in mind: most of us can’t quit our jobs and become “searchers” and start our own microfinance initiative, for example.

    Posted April 18, 2009 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Justin H wrote:

    Dear Jonathan Denn,

    God’s creation is not simple. Denying the complexity is another way of avoiding costs. In particular, the time and energy necessary to discover what actions will be most effective without causing harm. We end up maximizing our sense of righteousness while minimizing effort. These are not simple problems, acting otherwise is a sin against the Creator.


    Justin Helms

    Posted April 18, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  4. Clement Wan wrote:

    Jonathan Denn’s response seems bizarre at best – or perhaps he just didn’t bother to read your original post. Putting aside the reality that the problem that plagues most poor countries isn’t the lack of resources but miserable governments, from a point of faith perspective, I have to imagine your original question was somewhat facetious (are not all men are fallible? even Episcopal priests? I am assuming you do not have faith in Episcopal priests – or any priests for that matter but in God).

    While Mr. Denn would rather guilt Americans into forcing their government into contributing more, I wonder why he doesn’t count private contributions and remittances in his math on American generosity. This in itself is an insidious assumption that only governments can be generous with little to no regard on where and how that money has been spent.

    Having seen the “fruits” of government aid contributions, I find it remarkable that there’s little awareness at how often money is spent inefficiently, destroying sustainable markets/propping up unsustainable competitors (in field of microfinance for instance), and sucking up most of the skilled labour raising overall costs for private industry that would make real contributions to poverty eradication.

    Instead, Denn focuses solely on the idea that money can cure all. As if funding corrupt despotic governments and even aid organizations would solve the problem. Sad – particularly for a well intentioned presumed man of God.

    Side Note – M – The question of what to do is not an easy one. I think we should first think local, seeking local accountable organizations, donating to relief agencies (after looking at their published tax returns to see how they spend their money) and failing that, doing nothing is the next best but probably the most difficult alternative. Greg Mankiw also posted a few charities that were recommended to him by another development economist:

    Posted April 18, 2009 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  5. Tim Worstall wrote:

    This is slightly bizarre:

    “I believe that if every person of faith (or conviction) made up their pro-rata share of their countries’ shortfall, what I call the Millennium Tithe, that we would indeed soon see an end to extreme poverty, at least in the countries with relatively stable governments.”

    The 0.7% promise is that government will provide that sum out of tax revenue to spend on official aid.

    Individuals tithing or making charitable contributions do not, under the rules governing how aid is calculated, count towards that 0.7% target. We could be, privately, sending 0.7% of GNI in aid and people would still shout at us because we weren’t doing it through the taxation system.

    In fact, the US does already provide 0.7% of GNI as aid but overwhelmingly from private sources not tax so people do indeed shout at us.

    The numbers are here.

    Posted April 19, 2009 at 7:24 am | Permalink
  6. zulusafari wrote:

    Tim – All I can say is A-freakin’-MEN! As in AMEN! That was my exact thought to his whole line of thought there. The US has got to make up a MASSIVE amount of private giving overseas.

    Of course Sweden is at the top of the list for keeping up with gov’t giving. They tax the heck out of their citizens to the point they don’t have any money to ‘tithe.’

    PS. Why can’t letting Africa go of Aid (as in ceasing all aid) and trying it out on their own for two decades be a ‘effective poverty solution’ (as Denn puts it)? We can at least ‘try’ this method, right?

    Posted April 19, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  7. happyjuggler0 wrote:

    The first of all moral responsibilities is to think clearly. Government aid has a horrible track record, I’ll stick with something more successful thank you very much.

    Anyone who wants to give something like $15 a month, the price of 1.5 movie tickets where I live, might want to consider a loan via kiva to poor entrepreneurs in poor countries, where you don’t get interest paid back to you. You can “give”/”loan” as much or as little as you want, they have requests of all sizes lined up. Kiva is a nonprofit that is in effect a clearinghouse for microcredit loans that are contributor directed.

    You in effect create at least one economically sustainable job (with multiple beneficiaries [i.e. family]) if you are successfully repaid, and the vast bulk are indeed repaid (the wiki link says 97.79% at the moment).

    Then you can turn around and lend that $15 to someone else, and keep repeating the process until the loan recipient defaults. Or you can choose to not relend if somehow you aren’t satisfied, or perhaps find something better for your charitable dollars.

    Imagine all the poor country jobs you can create from afar in this manner. I’ll take that over governmental “millenium goals” any day of the week.

    Posted April 19, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  8. Moussa wrote:

    The question is not whether seculars or religious care about pooling their neighbors out of poverty or not.

    The questions are who can do it? Has been done before, and how?

    Even if we don’t have perfect solutions right now, it is unjustifiable to keep doing something that has failed the neighbor for decades. Aid (if delivered properly) can help get someone or some country through the day but it cant be a long lasting solution because it is not the lack of resources that is causing the problem at hand.

    I believe that corruption alone has costed Africa much more than the amount received as foreign aid since the independence waves of the 60s. So you can see that aid is not sine qua non element for development.

    Maybe a good way to help is for the West to side with the poor in their quest for accountability of their leaders. The day most western citizens would care, we will see that seriously in the agenda of the western leaders. Meanwhile, the burden is on the poor themselves and maybe the middle class of the poor countries.

    Posted April 20, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  9. Diane wrote:

    Having met and discussed the Millenium Tithe with Mr. Denn, I also appreciate his approach to raise awareness of our mutual responsibility to change the world, but I struggle with both his theory and practice.

    If we all contribute money to end poverty, and those funds go to help the poorest on the economic distribution bell curve (“extreme poverty”) in constructive and accountable ways, how will economic distribution be different going forward? Won’t there always be a tail to the distribution of wealth containing the poorest people (still defined as “extreme poverty”? Poverty won’t be eliminated, just modified. What will the new definition be?

    Since Mr. Denn is speaking from a Christian point of view to Christians, to quote Jesus, “the poor will always be with us.” (Matt. 26:11) It seems a Christian’s responsibility is much more about the giver than the receiver – believers are challenged to be willing to give (for example, examples of rich men having difficulty humbling themselves, such as in Matt 19). This doesn’t eliminate a responsibility to give, but turns attention inward, not outward.

    I also struggle with the “Millenium Tithe” since tithing is similar to a tax. It seems that Jesus was more about challenging people beyond tithing to real giving – of themselves and their goods. In this paradigm, time is to be given the same as the money in our wallet. For example, recently reported year-over-year voluteer activity is unchanged, with Americans not giving more of their time to charities in 2008 over 2007 (reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Jan 23). For many people, their time is more precious than gold. Where does this fit in Mr. Dunn’s equation?

    In contrast, Jesus praised the poor for giving when they have so little (e.g., the widow in Mark 12). Jesus gave the poor self-esteem and empowerment, but didn’t make (all) their problems go away (see Luke 7, where people are healed but the poor are not made rich).

    Having worked with some of the poorest, most marginalized people in Africa today (in South Sudan), I have seen how a focus on funding doesn’t eliminate poverty, but perpetuates attention on resources and not about how they are used. If Mr. Denn focused as much attention on the distribution of the Millenium Tithe as he does on our giving to it, the picture would be more balanced. And be more consistent with the faith he follows.

    Posted April 23, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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