Expanding Opportunities for the Poor in Their Homeland

mother and chldren kids poor native baby outside familyThere is intense discussion currently about changing the U.S. immigration system so that thousands or even millions more people can easily become citizens. Oftentimes underlying this talk is the belief that the U.S. will always be prosperous and poor nations will always be poor, so the only way to help is by letting the poor move here or by sending them money.

Michael Matheson Miller, the director of PovertyCure, sees this mindset as simplistic and damaging to the poor. He maintains that a secular “humanitarian” view that only addresses material concerns will always fall short of solving the problem because it does not take human nature and dignity into account.

Miller has been concerned about the problem of poverty since his undergraduate days at the University of Notre Dame, where he studied philosophy in the early 1990s. After traveling to Japan for graduate studies in the philosophy of economic development, Miller concluded that sustainable growth can only take place in societies that have institutions of justice in place. With this groundwork set, people can unleash their creative abilities to produce wealth.

Miller, a father of five and the award-winning director of the film Poverty Inc., recently spoke to Register correspondent Trent Beattie about changing the developed world’s view of poor countries from a “neo-colonialist paternalism” to one of enterprising partnership.


How did you first become involved with PovertyCure?

My personal interest in the problem of poverty comes from my academic training and living in the developing world, such as the country of Nicaragua, but it also comes from the Christian duty to help the poor. The Church has always taught that concern for the poor is not simply an option for Christians; it is deeply connected with justice.

In our own time, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all challenged us to care for the poor and excluded. As the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man makes this clear: We are obliged to help the poor; not to do so has eternal consequences for our souls.

Where we can go wrong, though, is to think that feeling for the poor is enough and that no rational thought needs to take place. Yet having hearts for the poor is not sufficient. We also need to have minds for the poor. Our concern for the poor should be ordered by reason and oriented toward truth. This is what Pope Benedict taught in Caritas in Veritate, with statements likeTruth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity,” and “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.”

Whether we realize it or not, there is a lot of sentimentality in the way we think about poor people. At PovertyCure, which was launched in 2011, we want to challenge this mindset and integrate orthodox theology with a serious concern for economics and a practical concern for the poor.


What exactly is PovertyCure?

PovertyCure, an initiative of the Acton Institute, is an international coalition that encourages entrepreneurial solutions to poverty that are rooted in a Christian understanding of the person, who is created in the image of God. We address many of the core questions about development on our website and in the PovertyCure DVD series.

Although PovertyCure is deeply shaped by Catholic thinkers such as St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict and St. Thomas Aquinas, we are not an explicitly Catholic group. We have a diverse group of over 300 partners working in 144 countries from a wide range of Christian commitments.


What are some of the basic principles PovertyCure attempts to advance?

At the core of PovertyCure is a vision of the human person created in the image of God with creative capacity. We are not objects, but subjects (or persons) who are capable of making rational decisions and engaging in creative enterprise.

Unfortunately, this vision is missing from much of the activity done to reduce poverty. The poor often become the objects of charitable giving or “humanitarianism,” rather than subjects and protagonists of their own development. When we see poverty, our first reaction is often to ask, “What can I do to help?” This is good, but a better question is: “How can I help people in poverty create prosperity for their families and communities?” This sounds like a simple shift, but it can make a profound difference, because it takes the focus off us and puts it where it belongs: on the people we are trying to help.

The problem for the majority of the world’s poor is not that they lack material goods, but that they lack the institutions of justice that allow them to build economies and create wealth in their own societies. In poor nations, court cases, if heard at all, can literally take decades to be decided (which is especially unhelpful to the poor), private property rights are missing (especially clear land titles, so people are often unaware of who really owns what, which means land can be confiscated), and free association and exchange are hindered (there are oppressive government regulations that make it difficult to start and register businesses that would employ the poor).


Do you have an example of government regulations that make it difficult to start a business?

In the 1990s, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto did an experiment in which he set up a small sewing shop and had four law students see how long it would take to get it registered with the government. These four students worked eight hours a day trying to do this, and their project took 289 days to complete. That’s a very long amount of time, but can you imagine how long it would take for one person with little or no schooling to get a business registered?

This example of time-consuming regulations doesn’t even take into account the unreasonable monetary costs that would-be entrepreneurs face in poor countries. In Ghana, for example, the cost of obtaining necessary business permits is equivalent to twice the average income of that country, and in India, the cost of business permits is nearly 10  times their national average income.

This suffocating bureaucracy perpetuates poverty, so we seek to remove it so people can put their ideas into action and become producers of wealth. There is an enormous amount of untapped creative energy among poor nations; it can be tapped into when undue burdens are set aside.


There is discussion today about changing our immigration system so that thousands or even millions more people can easily immigrate to the U.S., but there doesn’t seem to be too much talk about trying to help Central America and other countries become better places to live so that their citizens will want to stay home in the first place.

As human beings, we have a right to migrate, while, of course, nations also have the right to control their borders. But what we often forget to ask is: “Why do so many people want to migrate in the first place?”

I think it is fair to say that, given the choice, most people would rather stay in their home country and culture, surrounded by family and friends. The reason they leave is because the economic or political situation becomes intolerable. Immigration is oftentimes a last, desperate act by people who are looking for an answer to the misery in their homeland. The immigration of the Irish in the 1800s to the U.S. was a result of the dismal conditions in Ireland, not a fun adventure thought up by a thriving Irish population.

It’s not natural for people, if things are going well in their homeland, to leave their families, friends, churches, schools, businesses, etc., and then travel thousands of miles to start over in a foreign country. If things are going well in your country, why leave? That’s the key: Each individual country needs to work to build justice and opportunity within their borders, so those are the issues that PovertyCure is addressing.


How do you distinguish between unnecessary laws and a basic rule of law?

Rule of law means the laws are not arbitrary, but clear, and [these laws] should create security, protect the innocent from abuse and bring about the conditions for human flourishing, rather than militate against them.

One of the most important factors for long-term economic development is rule of law, yet most countries in the developing world lack good rule of law. However, as one African entrepreneur, Magatte Wade, told me: “A lack of rule of law does not mean that we don’t have enough laws in Africa.” Excessive law and regulation are often a large impediment to human flourishing and can especially harm the poor because they stifle enterprise.

It is sometimes stated that the poor are dominated by markets, but the truth is: The poor are excluded from markets by overregulation and unfair trade policies. When an economy becomes highly regulated, it almost always gets dominated by big businesses, powerful interest groups and government bureaucracy. This brings about a “crony capitalism,” where certain businesses and government officials collude and a few get special privileges.

One of the problems with crony capitalism is that the poor lack the political, economic and social contacts to navigate it, so they get locked out of markets. The biggest problem for today’s poor is not that they are exploited by a mythical “unfettered capitalism,” but that they are excluded from networks of productivity and exchange.


Does PovertyCure believe in giving direct financial assistance to foreign countries?

First, it should be stated that direct almsgiving is an eminently good work and a non-negotiable for Christians. Even in advanced countries like ours, there will be some people who are in need of help. We can and should lend a hand to those in need. At the same time, we are not called to simply give material support, but to practice the virtue of charity. Charity, caritas, is Christian love, and it involves seeking the good of the other. So we need to be careful that our “help” doesn’t actually make the problem worse.

If this is true on the local level, it is even more so on the international level. When there are natural disasters or other emergency situations, direct financial assistance should be given to foreign countries. The problem is: We have used emergency relief as the model for assistance. Aid, regularly given, delays the development of local business, creates incentives for crony capitalism and shifts the locus of responsibility from poor countries to large international organizations.

As Ghanaian entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse told me: “I have never heard of a country that got so much aid that it became a first-world country; if you know of one, let me know. [Yet] I have heard of countries that got wealthy through trade and business.”

Poor countries that have become wealthier have not done so because of foreign aid, but because of institutional reform, which has unleashed the industriousness of their people. Economies in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Ireland are recent examples of growth due to rule of law and economic freedom.


Doesn’t foreign aid often have “social engineering” strings attached?

Yes, aid is often given on the condition that the receiving countries implement eugenic policies that are packaged as “population control” or “women’s health care.” In many countries, foreign aid has become a new type of colonialism.

Despite the lack of correlation between population and poverty, billions of dollars have been spent on population-control programs and encouraging families to have fewer children. This has not helped alleviate poverty, and it has actually made things worse. Usually, boys are seen as more valuable than girls, so the girls are aborted or abandoned. We now have what The New York Times has called “the daughter deficit” and The Economist magazine has called “gendercide”: Millions of baby girls have been rejected because of bad anthropology and bad economics.

Much of this thinking comes from what is called the “zero-sum fallacy” — the idea that the economy is a pie and that the more one person has, the less the others will have. Apply this to population, and we begin to think of people as burdens. Population-control programs are not only morally evil — they are economically false. People are not simply consumers; when given the opportunity, people can produce much more than they consume.


What do you think of the reception Poverty, Inc. has gotten?

We have been delighted at the reception the film has received so far. We have been accepted by 12 or so festivals and have already won five awards, including three for best documentary. One of the most encouraging things is how the film has been positively received by very diverse audiences from different political perspectives. We will be showing the film at the Austin, Savannah, Denver and Leeds festivals this fall, and it will be released to general audiences next year. We are hoping it will help reframe some of the conversation about poverty in a positive way.

Trent Beattie is the author of the new book Fit for Heaven, published by Dynamic Catholic. He also wrote Scruples and Sainthood and chose the mediations for St. Alphonsus Liguori for Every Day and Finding True Happiness. He is best-known for his sports interviews with the National Catholic Register, and has also written for Catholic Digest, Inside the Vatican, Columbia (of the Knights of Columbus), The Latin Mass magazine, and Catholic Men’s Quarterly. Trent lives in Seattle, Washington.