‘Learning Toward Transformation’: A working paper from my time in Kenya

In the year following my graduation from college, and before starting up graduate studies at Michigan State, I lived and worked in Western Kenya. I was working with the Africa Theological Seminary, which was developing a new economic development program and wanted some evaluation work done on this new program.

When I arrived in Kitale, Kenya and realized that my first task was to convince a bunch of theologians and missionaries of some fundamental needs for a rigorous and credible program evaluation. We needed (1) a control group, (2) two survey rounds, and (3) random assignment – in order to achieve the so-called gold standard of program impact evaluation… the randomized control trial.

Ultimately, I was unsuccessful in arguing for random assignment, which (in hindsight) was probably for the best. But I was able to sufficiently argue for a control group and two survey rounds, in the form of a baseline and endline survey. With these features in place, we were able to implement a difference-in-differences evaluation methodology.

Now, the program I was evaluating was being implemented by the Africa Theological Seminary. This being the case, their goals were a little more involved than the typical secular development program. Not only did they want to inspire social and economic change, they also wanted to generate positive spiritual change. Many faith-based development programs (at least in theory) hold these desires. In fact, the desire is so popular it even has it’s own name: “transformational development”. Many well-known faith-based organizations – such as World Vision, Compassion International, World Renew, Hope International, and Partners Worldwide – make explicit their goals of so-called transformational development.

Unfortunately, the ‘credibility revolution‘ has not fully caught on within the faith-based development community. So there is a severe lack of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in achieving the goals of “transformational development”. In my view, this is quite a shame, because there are a lot of things that the secular development community could learn from the faith-based development community (and vice versa) if only some faith-based organizations engaged in some rigorous program evaluations.

This is where my working paper comes into the fold. I report some of the findings from the Africa Theological Seminary program evaluation as well as develop a simple evaluation framework for transformational development programs. Here is the abstract of the paper:

Transformational development—integrating the three goals of positive material, social, and spiritual change—is a popular concept among organizations and individuals who work in faith-based development. Despite broad agreement about the theory of transformational development, very little research has been produced that empirically investigates how to best achieve these goals. By using a difference-in-differences empirical strategy this study provides an example of a simple, yet rigorous, evaluation approach for measuring real progress toward meeting the goals of material, social, spiritual change. While providing detailed explanations of the evaluation methodology, this study presents early impacts of a church-based business skills training program in Western Kenya. In this study I find little evidence of impacts of material and social change, which is not surprising given the evaluation took place over only 18 months. I do, however, find statistically significant and positive evidence of spiritual changes, specifically in attitudes towards faith integration in work and business.

The paper is currently out for review, but I’d love to hear feedback or critiques or comments.

Faith Meets the Evidence-based Spirit

This week I was forwarded an article in which Jessica Jackley (the co-founder of Kiva and crowdfunding aficionado) was interviewed in Christianity Today. The article, entitled Faith Meets the Entrepreneurial Spirit, deserves a read.

That being said, I’d like to comment on several points made in the interview:

In your book, you share how the Bible verse “the poor you will always have with you” (Matt. 26:11) haunted you when you were a child. How do you think about Jesus’ words today?

This idea doesn’t haunt me in the same way today. Instead I see it as a sobering reminder that there are always people I can look for to serve and to help. At any moment in time when I have something to offer, there will be someone who has a need to receive. And roles can easily switch—we all have times in our lives when we need to reach out for help as well.

YES! This verse inspires action not passivity. Also, this video clears up some misnomers about the verse in question.

How has the microfinance industry evolved during the time that you’ve been involved in it?

People have become much more aware that microfinance can be a great tool for poverty alleviation. I’ve loved seeing an appreciation for the real power of not just one intervention: not just a microloan, but a microloan plus a microsavings account or microinsurance [insurance for health and property risks for those living on $1 to $4 a day] or other microfinance products. I think that’s where things get really powerful.

However, there’s been a backlash in recent years. But microcredit is not a silver bullet for poverty alleviation. Nicolas Kristof talks about how there are no silver bullets, but only a buckshot approach: you need a lot of smaller things to get things accomplished.

There are some studies that say microcredit hasn’t been as effective with actual poverty alleviation as many hoped it would be. But I think there is often a positive impact regardless. In my experience, I’ve seen other kinds of changes in people’s lives. I’ve visited with women, pre-loan, who speak quietly and don’t make eye contact. After they ask for a loan, they are much more confident and can see what is possible in their lives in a different way. They’ve had the opportunity to work outside the home and to build new relationships as a result. That, to me, is real change. Even when microcredit operates as relief rather than development, there is still value there.

I’ll list my thoughts…

(1) There are more than just “some studies” that say there may be better ways to spend money to help the poor than through microfinance. A more realistic characterization of this finding may be ‘almost all’ randomly assigned studies with proper control groups support this finding. In fact, J-PAL has a nice policy brief summarizing the nuanced yet largely disappointing findings of the best studies on the impact of microfinance. I even blogged about it when it was released.

(2) Most of the studies support the idea that microfinance is mostly used for purposes of consumption smoothing by providing mechanisms for savings and insurance. Rather than tapping into the so-called innate entrepreneurial ability of the poor, the evidence shows that the poor are no more entrepreneurial than the rich. Certainly some are real entrepreneurs (maybe 10%) and they benefit tremendously. But most people who own businesses in developing countries do it because of a lack of other alternatives, rather than because they are born entrepreneurs. So, yes, providing savings and insurance mechanisms may be part of a beneficial financial package, but that is decidedly different than a poverty alleviation strategy that aims to thrust everybody in developing countries into entrepreneurship.

(3) Jessica’s observation is a classic response of well-intentioned people when presented with evidence contrary to their prior beliefs – especially when the evidence suggest they ought to tweak or change the focus of their work. Egos and feelings are sensitive and sometimes we’d rather come up with a story that soothes us rather than be humble and accept that perhaps we don’t know how to best help others, alleviate poverty, and promote the development of God’s Kingdom. But here’s the thing, observations like this are prone to illusions and misunderstandings. Jessica talks about observing a difference in psychological well-being of women who participate in microfinance. If that’s true (and we may not even be so sure), we still are unable to identify the impact of microfinance on psychological well-being. Why? Because by only observing women pre-loan and post-loan we have nothing to compare these women with. Perhaps improved psychological well-being is a general trend in the region. Perhaps it isn’t. The fact is, the observation Jessica shares here does not tell us anything about ‘impact’ and is hardly a rebuttal to the evidence of the studies mentioned above. For more on this see my piece in Why Dev or Marc Bellemare’s recent post on the need for statistical literacy.

(4) Finally, what Jessica suggests: that the most beneficial impact of microfinance may be the effect it has on psychological well-being rather than financial well-being is a valid point. But we don’t have to just rely on flimsy observations with no control group and guess about how to help others, we can (and some of us are) rigorously studying this mechanism. For more see the work on aspirations and the economics of hope.

What do you wish the church would do differently to help alleviate poverty?

In my experience, churches often have calls to action that are very much intertwined with evangelism. For me, it was tough to figure out how and when to pair those two pieces and when to have them be separate things. I was never comfortable evangelizing. I just wanted to try to love people and to serve people, which I think Jesus calls us to do. And if anyone wants to talk to me about my faith, I’m happy to share about my beliefs and my personal experience.

I sometimes find that the idea of having to actively evangelize while you’re doing whatever service you’re doing can really hamper people, as it did for me in the past. We think, “I’ve got to do all this together. If I’m serving in a soup kitchen, I feel all this pressure to tell people exactly why I’m here.” For me, it made things weird. I didn’t want to force conversations or make someone else my project.

I think the question was asking about the institutional church rather than personal faith integration. The question about what the institutional church can do differently to help alleviate poverty is quite interesting. I have two thoughts:

(1) This question (at least in part) was tackled by Bruce Wydick last week on his blog: Three Things Secular Development Academics and Practitioners Can Learn from the Faith-Based Development Community… and vice versa.

(2) Faith-based development typically keeps the church at the periphery of their work – perhaps for good reasons. But there are many other reasons why centering a development or poverty alleviation program in local churches may be beneficial. I am currently thinking a lot about this question as I write up and analyze the results from my work in Kenya. So stay tuned!

There are Still ‘Good Guys’ in the NFL

Ben Watson has always been one of my favorite all-time (non-superstar) professional sports players. Primarily due to this play…

(P.S. I STILL don’t understand how that play did not result in a touchback. Like, I don’t understand the physics. But ANYWAY.)

Ben sealed the deal for eternity with the following statement he posted on his facebook page after the events this week.

At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson Decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts:

I’M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.

I’M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from safety movie sets and music studios.

I’M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I’m a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a “threat” to those who don’t know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.

I’M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.

I’M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.

I’M SYMPATHETIC, because I wasn’t there so I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point.

I’M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.

I’M CONFUSED, because I don’t know why it’s so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don’t know why some policeman abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.

I’M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take “our” side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that’s not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That’s not right.

I’M HOPELESS, because I’ve lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I’m not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.

I’M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.

I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.

Kuyper’s Politics Today

Retrieving Calvin’s emphasis, Kuyper stands in the tradition of placing attention on creation and God’s sovereignty. A Reformed understanding of politics—as opposed to Anabaptist, Lutheran or secular perspectives—has traditionally recognized God’s sovereignty in the political realm and suggests that our political activities ought to mirror and glorify God as they rectify God’s creational purposes (in that arena). Kuyper’s brilliant political organizing and national public positions put teeth on these ideas. He often encouraged the average Dutch citizen to be engaged in politics year round, not just on election day. He even argued politics could be viewed as an “elevated pursuit.” We don’t hear that sentiment anymore.

A few years ago, I was teaching an upper-level international development course at Calvin. The vast majority of students in this particular class had a distaste for politics, particularly macro-level institutions such as the US government, the European Union, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. In their eyes, the latter were hegemonic, inherently unjust, and economically imperialist. Maybe, maybe political activity could be pursued at the local, grassroots level, but certainly anything beyond that was a waste of time.

On the one hand, the conundrum my class was facing was a good one. My students weren’t writing off all political engagement, just macro-level political activity. And they were pointing to a serious flaw within modern institutions, namely that the free market hegemony found within contemporary political institutions often benefits the economically privileged. It’s precisely here, in the thick of conversations like this, that Kuyper, and others in his tradition, can revitalize a Reformed understanding about the role that politics, in all its complexity, at all its levels, can play in our society. If it’s true that the power of unregulated markets often dictates the actions of powerful political actors, a blurring of two spheres if you will, what is a wise response on the part of Christians—to dismiss macro political institutions as unredeemable, or to look for opportunities of reform or at least opportunities to diminish the power of markets? Can’t the power of unbridled capitalism and/or hegemonic interests find its way into local, political arenas as well—and if so, what does a discerning Christian response look like in such situations? These are just a few of the questions that can be explored given Kuyper’s political theorizing.

This is part of an excellent article written by a former professor of mine, Tracy Kuperus. Abraham Kuyper is a tricky intellectual role-model for many Reformists. While a large swath of his ideas are indeed powerful and seem to pertain to a faith-centered public life today, some of his ideas and the political responses to them – the atrocities of many Kuyperians in apartheid South Africa – act as a deep stain on Kupyer’s intellectual legacy. Prof K continues:

Kuyper’s ideas about religious pluralism were, in many ways, ahead of their time. We continue to wrestle with the appropriate response regarding religion in public life today. Resistance to the idea of religious pluralism comes from the same two sides that existed during Kuyper’s time: secularists, for lack of a better word, who are very suspicious of religion (witness Quebec’s recent call to ban government workers from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols) and traditionalists who would privilege a certain kind of religious belief in public life (witness a US Congressional delegation’s recent visit to Egypt which praised the military’s takeover because it removed the threat of “the bloodthirsty Muslim brothers”). There’s still a lot of work to be done regarding the need to respect religious pluralism in the public sphere! Kuyper was there first.

Kuyper’s ideas about appropriate church-state relations and the need to respect different confessional communities apply most easily to Western style constitutional democracies among fairly homogenous societies. They can apply to non-Western contexts as well, but things get murky quickly. What if the country has a hybrid regime that places strict limits on religious association (think Egypt today or under Mubarak)? Does religious pluralism promote the recognition of all confessional communities, even Boko Haram in Nigeria? Should confessional community be broadened to refer to more than religious pluralism, for example, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender? What if the confessional commitments of different religions or confessional communities violate the state’s constitution or the beliefs of other religious/confessional communities?


“Faith and Business on the Razor’s Edge”: Some Post-Op Notes

During the past year I’ve had a distinct pleasure hanging out in Kenya working with Churches that work with businesspeople. Lately, the concept of integrating religious faith into business has been somewhat of a headline topic.

Yesterday, I had a piece run in the CRCNA’s Do Justice Blog, a publishing site (presumably) for members of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The site is maintained by sub organizations the Center for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice. Here are a few notes to supplement the reading:

The piece kind-of dances around the always-entertaining experience of driving in Kenya. I’ve written about this in more detail previously on this blog.

One of the important paragraphs talks about the complexity imbedded in simply warming a piece of bread to a crisp:

There are over 400 components that make up a toaster. These components are all made out of a number of different materials: copper, iron, nickel, plastic, and a few others. Of course none of these materials are used in the toaster as they are found in nature. Iron, copper, and nickel all need to be smelted and plastic (usually) is made from oil. Keep in mind that a toaster, which remarkably costs only the equivalent of roughly an hour of work, is just one product. Most estimates claim that at any given time there are upwards of 10 billion products available in our economy.

Here is the full video of the embedded link. Watch for the full story of the toaster along with much much more:

The whole point of sharing the story about the complexity inherent in a simple toaster is to show how incredibly complex we have made our modern world. The seemingly odd and sort-of funny thing about this is that my piece was tagged in the category “simple living”. I think simple living is something we should all strive for, but we must recognize how extraordinarily complex even the simplest life is in our modern reality.

Admittedly the piece comes off as a little vague, but that’s entirely the point. The world is so complex that if you’re certain what is best to do, then you’re probably not in a position to make any sort of decision with significant impact. I’m reminded again of one of my favorite movie quotes, “Certainty, as it turns out, is a luxury for those on the sidelines…” I’ve written about the call of a Christian being specifically vague before, this oxymoronic phrase somehow is the best descriptor I’ve come across.

Finally, I’m a little surprised none of my economist (or soon to be economist) friends have recognized the reference in the title to the Harrod-Domar growth model. The analogy is a bit nerdy, so I’m really not overly surprised. I really expected at least one shout out.

The Traveler’s Curse

Anyone who has spent significant time in more than one place knows that the moment you leave home; you never return. Sure you almost certainly may physically go back home but it will be different. With experience of life in a different place comes the fragmenting of your conceptualization of “home”. I’ve tried to define “home” before, but because I want to discuss something different here I won’t get caught up in semantics.

Continue reading

“Mission Trip” Syllabus

Over the past month or so I’ve received several requests (or invitations) to support various upcoming “Mission Trips” (or voluntourism trips).  Some are weeklong trips over spring break and some are a couple weeks scheduled sometime in the summer months.

Without going on for too long about my opinion of Mission Trips I would like to affirm the clear motivation of all involved to do something to help those in need around the world. This feeling (or calling) to do something good for others is special; do not let anyone diminish it (including me). 

There has been tremendous work done by those trying to understand the impacts of short-term mission trips. Unfortunately there is a problem, very few people who make up the multi-million dollar short-term missions industry have access to (or are even aware of) these resources.

While the overall effect of Mission Trips remains ambiguous, it is clear that those who do the “going” are often the ones who receive the most salient positive benefit. So in an effort to amplify the learning of the “goers”, I present my Mission Trip Syllabus, which focuses on the benefit (or lack there of) to the “receivers”.

[A short disclaimer (and full disclosure) regarding my credentials: I have a bachelor’s degree in economics with a focus on international development from Calvin College. While in college I participated in and (twice) led three Service-Learning trips to Southern Louisiana. I also made two (once as a leader) microfinance and business-consulting trips to Panama. I have traveled to Mexico, South Korea, and spent a semester studying in Ghana. I am currently both a student and a research assistant at the Africa Theological Seminary in Kenya, where I am taking a course on missions and am researching the impacts of a church-based business development program. I also have plans to pursue a graduate degree in economics and development starting the fall of 2014.]

– Lesson 1: Paternalism –

Read two of the following:

When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton

To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich


Listen to “Act One” of the following This American Life episode.

(End of high school level requirements)

– Lesson 2: Theological Foundations –

Read/watch two of the following:

Chapter 1 of “Walking with the Poor” by Bryant Myers

What is Justice” by Nicholas Wolterstorff 

Are Short Term Missions Good Stewardship?” A conversation between Kurt Ver Beek and Robert Priest in Christianity Today 

(End of college level requirements)

– Lesson 3: Poverty Alleviation and Development-

Read one of the following:

More Than Good Intentions” by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel

Poor Economics” by Abhijit Banergee and Ester Duflo


Watch this TED Talk video by Ester Duflo on “Social Experiments to Fight Poverty“.

– Lesson 4: Human Behavior –

Read two of the following: 

Nudge” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kanneman

Scarcity: Why having Too Little Means so Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

A Behavioral Economics View of Poverty” by Marianne Bertrand, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir 

(End of trip leader requirements)

– Lesson 5: Perspectives (Extra Credit) –

Read one of the following: 

The rest of “Walking with the Poor” by Bryant Myers

Development as Freedom” by Amartya Sen

The White Man’s Burden” by Bill Easterly

The End of Poverty” by Jeff Sachs

The Great Escape” by Angus Deaton

The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier

The Mystery of Capital” by Hernado De Soto

Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo

Portfolios of the Poor” by Collins, Morduch, Rutherford, Ruthven

Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemonglu and James Robinson

Collapse” by Jarrod Diamond

Read Kurt Ver Beek’s essay “The Impact of Short Term Missions”. Integrating themes from Ver Beek write an essay on a topical area of interest (microfinance, education, orphanages, violence and sexual abuse, health, aid, NGOs, access to water, democracy, evangelism, inequality, etc.) and explain the influence or role mission teams have in this area.

I write this totally understanding the reality of the situation. No many (if any) will actually take up the assignments listed here. I can already hear the excuses and I (sort of) understand. “I just don’t have time” or “Well, this isn’t my full time job” or “How much more do you expect from me, I’m already volunteering to go on this trip”.

I’m wondering though if some of you will prove me wrong and actually read through some of the books and articles listed above. I am willing to act as your instructor, so email me your thoughts, questions, and challenges (bloem.jeff@gmail.com). I hope this enhances your mission trip experience. Perhaps it will be the most fun thing you’ll never do again.

I’ll end with a hypothetical a former professor liked to tell.

You are sitting in your house, surrounded by people who care for you and even love you. Suddenly you are stricken with splintering pain in your side. It becomes clear that you are in desperate need of an emergency appendectomy. A family member (who is not a medical doctor by any means) offers to perform the surgery right here right now on the dinning room table; giving the reasoning, “because, as family, we care about you more than anyone else on the planet”. Why do you dial 911 and take an ambulance to the hospital instead?