Democracy, Protests, and Economic Growth

Sometimes I feel that personal giving is not enough.  No matter how much I myself give, it’s a drop in the ocean of poverty.  Even if the entire developed world gave 0.7% or 1%, no one has any idea how it can be distributed to reach the global poor.  In addition, there is the problem of corruption.  Government officials or militias (sometimes there’s no difference) can intercept food before it gets to civilians.  It makes me think of the Think of the Children problem, in which you can’t help needy kids without dealing with their primary caretakers who can subvert the intended aid.

That’s why I’m encouraged these past few weeks to see protests around the world, local people rising up against harsh dictators and corrupt governments.  I’m also encouraged that technology companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook have helped spread the ideas that better government is possible.  It makes me feel better about working in tech, which can sometimes feel very disconnected from helping the poor.  And I wonder if these tech companies have been more influential than traditional Christian missionaries in those countries.

There are two broad categories of social justice: relief (short-term) and development (long-term).  Most personal donations fall into the relief category.  Even if they go towards, say, microloans for businesses to develop sustainable income, they are still at the mercy of local governments.  In the end, strong and free governments are necessary to provide a business-friendly environment that will create a sustainable economic ecosystem.

I like the Good Paper model.  It provides dignified work and income for the poor and abused.  But by itself it is not a complete and sustainable system — it creates products for consumption by rich Westerners through appealing to their compassion and pity.  For poor countries to grow their economies overall, they must have local businesses and industries that serve themselves, not just luxury exports.  I don’t know how to help this process along, so I’m glad to see locals taking charge of fixing their own governments.  Are you or anyone you know actively involved?

5 thoughts on “Democracy, Protests, and Economic Growth

  1. Yep…The way I see the world, institutional structures can explain a lot of poverty and income inequality. I think one of the best things informed observers can do for social justice is to get involved in grassroots community/political organizing.

    Also, I just got an email saying that Organizing for America is accepting applications for summer internships…

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot and this article definitely gave me a different perspective:

    So much of the lack of prosperity in poor countries is simply that there isn’t anything equivalent to property rights. I was shocked to learn that in many countries, such a thing doesn’t exist. That is, you can’t “own” a piece of land.

    Entrepreneurship naturally flows from stability and rule of law. That, I think, is the only sustainable way to help the poor.

  3. I used to give regularly to the Carter Center because of their reputation for overseeing elections and fostering democracy, often in countries that weren’t making the news because they weren’t in the U.S.’s “strategic interest.”

    Your post reminds me to re-consider giving to organizations that work on structural issues. But for me, it’s even harder to be confident that my money is making a difference than in giving to education/public health, etc. Like you, I’m not really sure how outside money can “help the process along.”

  4. Working in health + development for the year in Kenya encourages a jaded perspective with regard to where donor money goes – and having the blinders removed makes it even more difficult for us to find organizations that we trust with any sort of donation. Recently, a lot of Global Fund money was found to be “missing” (in someone’s pockets) here…and this sort of thing isn’t an isolated incident. _It’s Our Turn To Eat_, a book by Michaela Wrong portraying Kenyan whistleblower John Githongo, is a great look into how governments undermine their own people – and how aid often contributes to the problem of corruption.

    Besides political movements and community organizing as instigators of change (both important), I wonder if straight-up commercially-motivated business ventures in developing countries actually do more good in the long run than work that’s more motivated by compassion (cf. _The Dragon’s Gift_, about China’s controversial engagements in Africa). These enterprises often are more industrial than socially-motivated enterprises, and historically countries usually have to undergo an industrial transition to develop. (You’re right in pointing out that governmental attitude towards business is key…so maybe it does come back to the government after all. But I think in many places, even with a not-perfect government, business can still proceed and be beneficial).

  5. This will surely seem outdated, and in some circles unpopular, but Christian mission and evangelism also play a significant, if not unique, sociological role. While I’m aware of mistakes made by Christians, too, I still have to say that on the fundamental level, Christian mission and evangelism are irreplaceable. What else asserts the value and dignity of each human being? What else places married couples higher in priority than their families of origin, therefore challenging traditional power hierarchies rooted in concepts of the family and allowing for more diverse forms of work and governance? What else dispels superstitions about nature, authority, and power? What else abolishes slavery and cares for the poor? What else insists on personal integrity and honest relationships?

    Secular urban sociologist Lewis Mumford notes, “What was involved in a realization of the Christian city? Nothing less, I submit, than a thoroughgoing rejection of the original basis on which the city had been founded: the renunciation of the long-maintained monopoly of power and knowledge; the reorganization of laws and property rights in the interests of justice, free from coercion, the abolition of slavery and of compulsory labor for the benefit of a ruling majority, and the elimination of gross economic inequalities between class and class. On those terms, the citizens might find on earth at least a measure of that charity and justice that were promised to them, on their repentance, in heaven. In the Christian city, one would suppose, citizens would have the opportunity to live together in brotherhood and mutual assistance, without quailing before arbitrary power, or constantly anticipating external violence and sudden death. The rejection of the old order imposed originally by the citadel was the minimal basis of Christian peace and order. (Lewis Mumford, The City in History, p.317)

    Similar thoughts were given by Matthew Paris in his article, “As An Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God” in Dec.27, 2008,

    Fundamentally, if human nature is originally good but corrupted, then Jesus is the only person who can give us a new human nature by his Spirit. I think this should be considered academically, not just “religiously”. Every other theory about human evil externalizes the problem into only structures, laws, families, and circumstances. Therefore we
    underestimate the magnitude of the problems and come up with prescriptions that only focus on institutions external to us. We must also influence those structures, but we cannot leave Christian mission and evangelism out of the overall equation.

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