Global Poverty: Who Is My Neighbor?

I’ve been traveling for about six months now, through rich countries and poor. At times, the poverty and suffering I witnessed stole the breath out of my lungs so suddenly that I had to stop in the middle of crowded streets. And it’s no secret that such poverty is more common — much more common — in some countries than others.

Varanasi, India

Credit Suisse estimates that there is almost 300 Billion US Dollars of wealth in the world, and individuals in the United States own about 30% of that. In terms of wealth per adult, the average adult in the United States owns about 50x what the average adult in India owns. Fifty. Times.

Anyone who has traveled in a developing country can bear witness to the incredible challenges faced by its people every day. Not all of them, sure. But the man who earns a few dollars every day shining shoes; the woman who sells her daily crop of vegetables for a dollar or two; every one of us would admit that is not fair when millions in the developed world have money to spare.

But what to do about it — aye, that’s the rub. First, every country has its own share of poor people. How can we justify giving money to other countries to fight poverty when we haven’t yet taken care of those suffering next door? Foster children, drug addicts, children growing up in trailer parks or run-down apartments without enough to eat — is their suffering any less dreadful than Syrian refugees or starving Congolese villages?

Second, when have we given enough? Jesus Christ commanded a rich young man to “sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor” (Luke 18:22). Christians for 2,000 years have been justifying why this only applied to the young man and not to all of us — what if it’s a universal command? After all, Jesus didn’t seem to have much in the way of possessions, and he commanded his apostles to travel and preach without possessions as well (Matt. 10:9–10). And outside of the Christian tradition, Buddhism recommends renunciation of worldly things and Islam promises hellfire for those who hoard wealth. Should we be holding back some wealth for ourselves?

Third, simple wealth transfer is not as easy as it seems. A surprising quantity of the corruption in developing countries, in my experience, results from attempts to distribute money from foreign aid or international non-profits. And wealth coming through those channels can actually discourage the development of infrastructure and industry which would allow the countries to become self-sufficient. Additionally, aid can also be culturally insensitive and ultimately harmful — for example, a Western-built school might make a village into a target for fundamentalist terror attacks.

But the alternative is unbearable — to live in beautiful houses in shady suburbs, to use our money only for the poor in our neighborhoods, to ignore the immense suffering in developing countries, this is impossible. I can never reconcile myself to this.

On the other hand, I am entirely unqualified to say what our efforts to address global poverty should be. Most likely, they will look different for every person. Some will donate money to important causes like anti-malaria campaigns. Others will volunteer for foreign trips as medical professionals. For me, I believe education is likely my calling. God willing, part of my life’s work will be helping developing countries develop their next generation of leaders. But time will tell.

Most importantly, I hope we’re all thinking about them — our poor neighbors both next door and halfway across the world. After all, who is my neighbor anyway?

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’