Three Approaches to Poverty, Part I: The Charity Approach

The Bible gives us many straightforward commands to care for the poor. But when we go out to put those words into action and actually tackle poverty, we run into all sorts of questions: how do we do this without doing more harm than good? What’s the best way to actually help the poor? How do we do this without getting overwhelmed?

At Coptic Orphans, we’ve seen three approaches to eradicating poverty among.In this three-part blog series, we’ll explore the virtues and shortcomings of each one. My hope is that this will be useful for discerning donors who want to make the greatest impact for the Kingdom of God with their contributions, and for other Christian organizations working to advance the Kingdom – especially Coptic organizations like Coptic Orphans.

The “Charity” or Needs-Based Approach

Most Christian efforts start out as needs-based. Right now, this is where the vast majority of Coptic approaches are right now. It’s also where Coptic Orphans began.

In 1988, Coptic Orphans executive director Nermien Riad was a US government employee working in Cairo. She decided to volunteer at an orphanage, and saw the real need that children had there. “Poor things!” She told the nun in charge. The nun told her: “Why do you say ‘poor things? you should see their families.'” Nermien was shocked: “they have families? Then why are they in an orphanage?”

Nermien soon saw why when she visited widowed households around Cairo. Poverty pushes many poor families in Egypt to send their kids to the orphanage. She met mothers who had to send their children to orphanages becase they didn’t have a few dollars for bread to give them. She met a girl who couldn’t go to school because the family didn’t have the equivalent of $5.

Faced with this need, she set out to meet it.

For the first several years, Coptic Orphans met needs. This was good as far as it goes, but once the group of people who supported the work started growing, we started asking whether we were making the biggest impact we could make with the resources God had given us.

We started realizing that there were some shortcomings to the charity approach. Tasoni Phoebe Farag from St. Antonious and St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in East Rutherford, New Jersey, wrote the following when she led the programs of Coptic Orphans years ago:

This charity model is well-intentioned: it focuses on providing immediate needs to children in poverty as quickly as possible to provide immediate relief. What this means in practice is that the children in the program are understood to be the passive recipients of aid. The process is “top-down”: the Rep is the keeper of all knowledge and determines what is best for the child. There is minimal participation from the child or the family in this model, other than to obey the guidance of the Rep. In addition to the good intentions of the charitable approach, its advantage is immediacy: the aid reaches the child quickly, and some basic goals are met if the child is cooperative: school attendance, good hygiene, etc. It is also easy to understand and explain to the average donor that is concerned about “how much money goes directly to the child?” …the downfalls of the charity approach that it uses are numerous. First, the charity model is unsustainable. It provides for immediate needs and makes short-term, but superficial, changes. It does not attend to long term needs or make lasting changes that survive the program assistance. More dangerously, the charity mindset promotes dependency. The recipient is always a beggar, always in need, always asking. The charity approach regards the program participant as a beneficiary, receiver of assistance, and thus the inferior of the giver, who always remains in the position of power and decision-making. Its most dangerous pitfall is its stigma. A charitable assistance program carries a stigma among the children who are a part of it. They have trouble proudly stating that they are part of a program that assumes they cannot help themselves. …It is ultimately not effective for the simple reason that it is not participatory. The donor decides the need and gives it to the poor person. At best, the donor might consult the child to get their opinion, but the child does not share in the decision-making or planning process that determines his or her future. Lack of participation refers back to the unsustainability of the charity approach. When the program beneficiary is not empowered to participate, he or she has no opportunity to internalize any of the ideas or values that the program intends to impart.

There’s the crux. How do we help children and their families take the values that will pull them out of poverty and make them their own? After all, a big part of poverty is hopelessness; a complex of beliefs that nothing will ever change, or that a person is not worth succeeding. Sometimes giving money can keep a person in that system of beliefs, because it confirms that they have nothing to contribute, that they’ll always be dependent.

A decade ago, Coptic Orphans found a new approach that changed the results we saw in Egypt like day and night: the development approach.

It also had a marvelous side effect; instead of wanting to hide their status as orphans and participation in our program, they started feeling proud.

Stay posted for part II.

About Nathan Hollenbeck

Nathan joined Coptic Orphans in 2006. It was his response to a call to help return Egypt’s hospitality to the Holy Family on behalf of Christ Emmanuel and the Theotokos, after they changed his own life as a youth. He has a passion to fulfill God’s command to “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV)