Recipe for Ending Poverty: Think, Then Act

Scholar Laments Lack of Reflection in Tackling Issue

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ROME, NOV. 30, 2009 ( The recipe for alleviating poverty is not a secret, and yet much of the work being done to help the world’s poor is misdirected, according to one expert on the matter.

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, said this to ZENIT when he was discussing a conference on “Free Enterprise, Poverty, and the Financial Crisis.” The conference will be hosted Thursday by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

Gregg observed there is plenty of talk about global poverty and yet, he said, it is “striking how much of the conversation is very unreflective.”

“For decades, for example, we’ve been told that foreign aid and other forms of redistribution is the answer to poverty,” he explained. “Yet the evidence is rather conclusive that this is not true and these methods don’t produce systemic change. […] Another problem is that a great deal of development economics is underpinned by deeply materialistic ideologies and deformed anthropologies of man. But we know that diminishing poverty is only partly an economic and material question. It has moral, spiritual, legal, cultural, and institutional dimensions.
“The irony, of course, is that we already know the secrets to poverty alleviation. One of the most important of these is that you can’t alleviate poverty without creating wealth in the first place and we know that wealth-creation will happen in some cultural and institutional settings but not in others.”

Stepping up

In this regard, the scholar contended that business, commerce, and entrepreneurs have indispensable roles to play: “Not only through being generous, but also by focusing upon what they know how to do — which is to create wealth — and by alerting others to the conditions that enable business to create wealth, employment and better living standards for all.”

But Catholics, too, he said, are key to the discussion.

Gregg noted that the Church’s universality gives it a particular richness in addressing the theme: “It can bring together people from very different backgrounds, experiences, and nationalities, and yet discuss a complex issue like poverty from the standpoint of a shared and rich vision of the human person.”

Furthermore, he proposed, “Catholics can often bring an understanding of certain key elements to poverty-alleviation that is often richer than, for example, ideas articulated by convinced secularists. If you’re a true materialist, then it’s very hard to speak about commerce and entrepreneurship in more than utilitarian terms. Ultimately, utilitarianism — whatever its form — is an incoherent philosophical position. The Church, however, can point to the same realities and underline the fact that vital engines of wealth-creation such as entrepreneurship and trade won’t work unless they are permeated by certain virtues.”

And in this vein, Gregg contended the main obstacles to poverty alleviation are not foremost economic.

“At the root of flawed economic systems are flawed visions of the human person, which in turn translate into cultures and institutions that help perpetuate poverty,” he said. “If you think that the primary key to change is to change economic structures, then you’re not that different from Karl Marx when it comes to how you believe societal development occurs — and Marx was terribly wrong about almost everything.”

There are economic factors, he acknowledged, such as “protectionist policies, collectivist economic structures, punitive taxation levels, as well as an absence of incentives for people to be entrepreneurial and competitive.”

But he suggested that “perhaps the most important contribution that Catholics can make to the poverty-alleviation debate is to focus attention upon the extra-economic causes of poverty.”

One step in this direction is examining proposals “from the standpoint of what faith and reason tell us to be the truth about human beings,” the scholar proposed.

“I can think of few better methods for identifying policies that are likely to fail,” he said. “A policy that downplays the reality of human sin, for example, is likely to embody utopian tendencies. A policy that ignores the fact that the greatest human resources is man himself and his gift of reason is likely to focus excessively on redistribution issues, or, even worse, embrace the anti-human population-control ideology that the Catholic Church has fought so valiantly against.”

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