The Poor are Poor because…

Tim Hoiland, a fellow theology/development/general stuff blogger, posted a piece last week entitled, “The Church Among the Poor“. In it he quotes Jayakumar Christian (Christian development scholar) who says, “The poor are poor because someone else is trying to play God in their life”.

Now, there are a lot of so-called axioms that start with “the poor are poor…” To list a few (in no particular order):

“The poor are poor because they lack capital (money).”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of human rights.”
“The poor are poor because they are dependent on the rich.”
“The poor are poor because of the rich.”
“The poor are poor because poverty traps.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of foreign assistance.”
“The poor are poor because of foreign assistance.”
“The poor are poor because of political corruption.”
“The poor are poor because of extractive political and economic institutions.”
“The poor are poor because they are unlucky.”
“The poor are poor because they make bad decisions.”
“The poor are poor because they are lazy.”
“The poor are poor because they have poor soil productivity.”
“The poor are poor because there are no markets.”
“The poor are poor because of geography.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of freedom.”
“The poor are poor because they are discouraged.”
“The poor are poor because of misguided policies.”
“The poor are poor because of mal-investment.”
“The poor are poor because they hyperbolically discount the future.”
“The poor are poor because of culture.”
“The poor are poor because of colonialism.”
“The poor are poor because of capitalism.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of labor specialization.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of technology adoption.”

…and so on… some of these are more right than others, some overlap with others, and of course, there are many that have been left out.

It strikes me that Jayakumar’s axiom is probably one of the most-right among this list. (Excluding, of course, Acemoglu and Robinson’s theory, which almost no one argues against.) Jayakumar’s axiom is both nuanced and simple. Razor sharp and remarkably general. The idea that we may be “playing God in someone else’s life” is immediately horrifying for those of us who strive to help others in any sort of capacity, and it’s easy (perhaps natural) to say, “I’m not ‘playing God’ I care about the people I serve”, dismissing the potential tort entirely.

I think, however, we all need to think about what we do and (more importantly) how we do it and ask, “Am I playing God?” Consider the following video of Financial Times journalist and former World Bank economist, Tim Harford:

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