The United Nations, joined by the governments of most of the developed nations of the world, have vowed to make the elimination of African poverty their No. 1 goal.
While there are success stories coming out of this beloved continent, still too many of the 450 million people living there exist in extreme poverty. Yet how to achieve that goal eludes our consensus, and differing approaches are accompanied by negative expressions of national pride, anger, and hostility. Consequently, much effort is made to justify the various positions - and this deflects from the goal.
I worked in Africa for many years, and my heart is touched by stories of courage and industry among my friends there. Too often, however, other individuals were thwarted by a tradition of dependency from the colonial period, well-meaning but sometimes inept international assistance programs, lack of transparency in local governance issues, and a general malaise that seemed to doom so many efforts.
I came to the conviction that simply pouring money into Africa wasn't the ticket; not infrequently it was diverted into some local officials' private bank accounts, or it was spent without sufficient consultation with Africans themselves, and wasted.
I found a statement by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, insightful. She wrote in the preface to one of her books: "A certain apothegm of a Talmudical philosopher suits my sense of doing good. It reads thus: 'The noblest charity is to prevent a man from accepting charity; and the best alms are to show and to enable a man to dispense with alms' " ("Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896," p. ix). Mere charity - pouring in money without regard to local needs and abilities - tends to demoralize and can create a culture of dependency.
Not long ago, when pondering this question, I found I was looking at a familiar Bible story in a new light.
The account in the Hebrew Scriptures of Nehemiah's God-inspired determination and success in building the wall of Jerusalem is a familiar one to Christians and Jews alike. While we are often accustomed to reading this story from Nehemiah's standpoint, it occurred to me to look at things from the point of view of the citizens of Jerusalem.
They probably didn't like the idea of living without a wall - completely necessary as a security device in that turbulent age, and so they were receptive to Nehemiah's vision to rebuild it. Nehemiah brought the vision, but he did not bring capital, building supplies, or laborers from King Artaxerxes's resources. Instead, the means for rebuilding were found within Jerusalem itself.
Within Jerusalem, Nehemiah found receptive hearts who were equally fired up with his vision. They didn't wait for handouts; they banded together to work. Neighbors worked with neighbors, and it's clear it was a grass-roots effort. They must have contributed their own resources, some perhaps quite modest. They must have taken off time from whatever jobs they had - goldsmiths, merchants, and apothecaries are mentioned - to build the wall. They ignored the taunts of others, set up divisions of labor that included a protective group, and finished the huge project in 52 days. They celebrated by reading the Book of the Law, blessing and worshiping God.
Can this story provide a model for the rebuilding of an entire continent? The impulse to help our brother is Christly and cannot be denied; it is also necessary to grant the dignity of each of God's children in finding a way to establish ownership and participation in the process. As we ordinary citizens support the goal with our prayers, our international efforts should become more effective and will progressively destroy the bonds of poverty.