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The 1980s may well be looked back upon as a decade of intellectual reformation in the so-called North-South debate. A burst of revisionist thinking has affected recent discussions of Third World economic development and may offer a harbinger of better policies vis-a-vis the world’s poor. There are signs of an emerging consensus that the development approach followed until very recently—one that emphasized large wealth transfers from the developed to the underdeveloped world, worried about the “population explosion” draining natural resources, and questioned capitalism’s ability to “trickle down” prosperity to the masses—has not brought sustained and stable growth to the Third World. Revisionists have questioned Club of Rome pessimism about the prospects for world development and recaptured the enthusiasm for market development strategies that characterized post-World War II U.S. foreign aid policy.

One example of renewed appreciation for market-oriented approaches is Pope John Paul II’s recent encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Sollicitudo, written on the twentieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, rejects that document’s predominantly statist model for development and endorses both the democracy-development connection and the crucial role of individual initiative in economic advancement. A more surprising example is prominent liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez’s tentative rethinking about democracy, development, and social-ism. Peter Steinfels of the New York Times reported not long ago that Gutierrez is willing—even if only “very theoretically”—to entertain the idea that “if evidence showed capitalism effectively relieving poverty, there could be a capitalist liberation theology.”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika tacitly admits serious doubts about the efficacy of centralized economic planning, which, as Nicholas Eberstadt’s latest work The Poverty of Communism (1988) demonstrates, has failed to provide freedom (which few expected) or bread (which many hoped for). Economic performance in terms of health and nutrition has been so shoddy that in some communist-bloc countries, life expectancy is actually declining.

Perhaps the most significant rethinking in the development community has been done by sociologist Peter Berger. In an article in Commentary (“Underdevelopment Revisited,” July 1984), Berger reconsidered the conclusions of his remarkable Pyramids of Sacrifice, published ten years earlier. Pyramids had evaluated the prevailing models of economic development, examining Brazil as a test-case of capitalism, and Mao’s China as an experiment in socialism. Throughout the book, Berger struck an evenhanded posture, arguing that both systems had “generated myths that had to be debunked,” and advocating an “open, non-doctrinaire approach” to development. “What came through,” he reflected in 1984, “was some vague notion of a ‘third way.’ . . . I had no clear conception of what this might look like . . . ” With ten years of hindsight, Berger articulated his new position on development: “Not to put too fine a point on it, I am much less evenhanded today in my assessment of capitalist and socialist development models: I have become much more emphatically pro-capitalist.” His The Capitalist Revolution: Fifty Propositions About Prosperity, Equality and Liberty sets forth the reasons why.

The most important reason is that not one case of successful socialist development can be found in the Third World. Socialism has proved unable to produce material prosperity and has failed even to live up to its pledge to distribute resources equitably. Rather, as Berger puts it, what has occurred with “disturbing regularity” in new socialist regimes is the establishment of an inefficient Soviet-style nomenklatura. At the same time, the “success stories” of Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea have demonstrated the economic superiority of market-oriented models of development. The experience of these so-called “Four Little Dragons” indicates that an exuberant embrace of capitalism doesn’t have to mean brutish consequences for the poor—indeed, the benefits of economic growth have “lifted the poor from grinding poverty and wiped out Third World misery.”

The Capitalist Revolution’s evaluation of capitalism follows the criteria of success Berger proposed in Pyramids of Sacrifice; namely, that the benefits of development must reach the poorest members of society and that development ought not to require the abrogation of human rights or the demeaning of cherished cultural values. For Berger, the evidence suggests that if one truly wants to adopt a “preferential option for the poor,” one should exercise a preferential option for capitalist models of development.


Christian participation in debates over development policy follows from the concern for the poor that is central to the Gospel message. That concern, if it is to be effective, needs to be informed, and it is unfortunate that key sectors of the Christian community have failed to keep up with empirical developments in the field. Protestant oldline (a term empirically more accurate than the former “mainline”) churches in particular have remained unaware of or stubbornly resistant to the wealth of new data on development that has emerged in recent years.

The oldline, in deliberations on economic development, is at best stuck in Pyramids of Sacrifice’s nebulous “third way”; at worst, it advocates discredited statist (socialist) models of development. That it has failed to “catch up” with the economic realities of the eighties is readily apparent from analysis of four recent church pronouncements on economic development: the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) 1987 study paper, Christian Faith and Economic Life; the United Methodists’ 1988 “Resolution on Economic Justice”; the Episcopal Urban Bishops Coalition’s 1987 study guide. Economic Justice and Christian Conscience; and the 1984 Presbyterian Church (USA) statement, Christian Faith and Economic Justice.

Oldline church activists base their conclusions about development economics to a considerable degree on their understanding of biblical theology regarding poverty. They seek to identify themes and biblical principles that, coupled with prudential judgments about the world economy, provide a conception of “economic justice.” All four documents argue that any “just” economic system will reflect, at minimum, the following biblical principles.

1) Special concern for the basic human needs of the poor. According to the oldline, God wills that all people have access to the basic necessities of life. The Methodists’ 1988 “Resolution on Economic Justice” notes that “law codes in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy show a special concern for the resources necessary to meet human needs and guarantee basic rights such as food, clothing, just business dealings, and access to the juridical process.” God’s love for the poor is also expressed, the oldline claims, in Old Testament regulations promulgated to prevent gross economic disparities among the Israelites. The New Testament continues these themes. The 1987 UCC study paper reminds readers that Jesus came to “preach good news to the poor” and to “set at liberty those who are oppressed.” It argues that the Parable of the Great Judgment (Matt. 25:31), in which the righteous are defined as those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and ministered to the poor, “discloses God’s fundamental relationship with and intentions for humanity.”

2) Stewardship. This theme has two implications for oldline economics. First, it teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” For the Presbyterians, this implies that “human domination over material things is limited.” For the United Church of Christ, it means that private property rights are similarly limited: “as the stewards of God’s creation, humanity’s access to resources, including ownership of private property is conditional . . . [A] recognition of the right of private property does not mean that anyone has the right to unlimited accumulation of wealth.” The Episcopal Bishops concur: “private ownership of property, in the biblical view, is never ultimate.”

Second, stewardship means taking care of God’s earth. Environmentally insensitive economic practices are immoral. The UCC argues that humans have already wreaked havoc on God’s earth; we have “violated our role as stewards” by failing to “live in harmony with nature.” Faithful stewards would follow development strategies that protect the earth, even if by doing so they sustained economic losses. The UCC contends that “as stewards of the earth, we must recognize the fragility of the ecosystems which sustain all of creation. This will require us to identify and enforce limits on economic growth.”

3) Recognition and avoidance of structural sin. Drawing on the Old Testament prophets, oldline analysts insist that sin must be recognized as both individual and corporate. The prophetic message, they argue, should be understood primarily as an economic one, condemning structural injustice in Israel. The economic, social, and legal arrangements of the society were “sinful” because they were based on greed, exploitation, and indifference to the poor. They produced gross disparities in wealth, and economic systems that do the same today also stand under prophetic judgment. These principles taken together lead the oldline to define a just economic system primarily in terms of its ability to ensure an equitable distribution of resources that guarantees the fulfillment of basic needs. At that level of generalization, few would disagree. Problems develop, however, as the discussion gets more specific.


Having defined the kind of economic system it wishes to attain, the oldline analyzes the present global economic order to identify obstacles to the achievement of a just world economy and to offer guidelines for its establishment. Four key themes emerge from their deliberations: a “limits to growth” mentality, agreement with dependency theory, sympathy toward the “basic human needs” strategy for development, and confidence in government-led programs of redistribution.

Essentially, limits to growth philosophy holds that the world is in the grips of a severe economic crisis; that reckless use of resources has led to critical ecological damage; that the world is rapidly running out of resources and radically new ways must be found to reverse the ominous trend; and that traditional emphasis on economic growth (as opposed to more equitable distribution) is no longer appropriate or feasible. This philosophy was publicly advanced in the Club of Rome reports during the 1970s that have since been brought into serious question by the new thinkers in development. Reflecting the old view, the Presbyterians suggest ominously that “warnings of a severe and multidimensional crisis abound.” The economic pie is no longer growing: resources are being depleted and growth cannot be pursued in the reckless, environmentally insensitive way it has been in the past. “The world’s present resources are dwindling . . . and at some point they will all be gone. Oil, water, valuable minerals and even arable land itself, are all limited.” The UCC argues for an “ecologically sustainable” system in which the rate of population growth and pollution are “within the capacity of the earth to support.” The upshot of all this is a renewed emphasis on redistribution. If there is only so much to go around, and the present distributional patterns are leaving so many without basic material resources, then radical new ways of distributing wealth must be adopted.

The fundamental assertion of dependency theory is that the international economic system is structured in a “core-periphery” relationship; the “core” being the rich, industrialized “North,” and the “periphery” being the poor, underdeveloped “South.” The periphery is said to be “dependent” upon or dominated by the “neo-colonialist” economies of the core states. This arrangement has presumably had various adverse consequences for the South, most notably the “immiseration” of the population. In dependency theorist Andre Gunder Frank’s words, the relationship leads, necessarily, to the “development of underdevelopment”; in other words, the poverty of the periphery is brought about by its relationship with the core. As the relationship continues, the gap separating rich and poor grows. In short, poor nations entering the international system are made worse off by so doing.

Oldline statements reveal a deep indebtedness to dependency analysis. All four agree that the “gap” between the rich and the poor is widening. All four believe that the international order is characterized by gross and unjustified disparities in income. All four worry about the negative influence of multinational corporations on the Third World’s poor. The UCC notes that “in its extreme form dependency theory asserts that in order for the rich to remain rich, the poor countries must stay poor.” It goes on to state both that “many thoughtful Third World Christians subscribe to dependency theory” and that “some of the claims of dependency theorists can be substantiated.”

The oldline looks favorably upon dependency theory’s call for a “new international economic order” (NIEO) in which resources will be distributed more evenly among nations—even if this requires involuntary resource transfers executed by powerful new international economic institutions. The UCC’s enthusiasm for NIEO spills over into a suggestion that a “progressive global tax of between one and five percent of GNP be levied on all countries with per capita incomes of over $2,000 per year.” The tax revenues would then be redistributed to “the two-thirds of the human family who live in the low-income and middle-income economies”—presumably by national and multinational agencies.

The oldline favors the so-called “basic human needs” approach to development that focuses on providing health services, schools, housing, and food to the poor. In this model, development aid is judged by its ability to relieve the material suffering of the poor, as against the “cold” standards by which the other prominent development strategy, industrialization, is measured: real GNP per capita growth, increases in investments, balance of trade, etc. The UCC statement is forthright in its preference for models of development which “focus more on meeting key national or basic human needs and which promote a more equitable income distribution within Third World countries.”

The Methodist statement holds that “covenant people are committed to equitable distribution of resources to meet basic human needs and to social systems that provide ongoing access to those resources.” For the Presbyterians, income disparities between the North and the South mean that the “the world is characterized by grave economic injustice” and needs to be brought into line with biblical teaching, i.e., redistribution. The oldline insists that redistribution is the only practical and “biblical” solution to poverty. Its intense attachment to redistribution leads it to favor an expansion of government’s sphere of authority. The Episcopalians submit that “government at all levels must be challenged once again to play a responsible role in correcting the inequities in the economic crisis.” In a section entitled “The Limits of Friendly Persuasion,” the Episcopal Bishops wonder whether “we are willing to mobilize ourselves” for the radical reform measures necessary to carry out redistribution. And if such will cannot be summoned, the bishops confess that they “do not know” whether alternatives to “revolution” can be found.


The oldline’s program of theological economics yields its conception of itself as being in “solidarity with the poor.” But slogans should not substitute for analysis, and careful examination of the oldline philosophy reveals that it relies on insufficient biblical analysis and clings stubbornly to dubious economic propositions. That being the case, one wonders about the actual value to the poor of the oldline’s “solidarity” with it.

The oldline’s theology of economic development would be much improved, to begin with, by more serious reflection on the doctrine of creation. One obvious lesson of creation is that man is created in God’s image, meaning, man is a creator. Since He creates, we should as well, and this includes the creation of wealth. God’s commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” may well have significant implications beyond procreation; it may be interpreted as a general encouragement to productive labor. The oldline’s discomfiture at economic inequalities leads it to suggest a moral necessity for an equality of outcomes, and thus to emphasize not production but distribution. The Presbyterians, for example, accept John Rawls’ formula for distributional justice: distribution of all social resources should be equal, unless an unequal distribution benefits the disadvantaged of society. But as Michael Novak has commented, “the Jewish and Christian view shows that God is not committed to equality of results. One steward differs from another in his performance; some virgins are foolish, some wise.”

The oldline statements also fail to draw important distinctions as to who is responsible for carrying out God’s commandments with regard to the poor. Doug Bandow’s recent book. Beyond Good Intentions (1988), helps demarcate the lines of responsibility, noting biblical instruction on the proper roles of individuals, family, and church. The responsibilities of civil government in executing charitable duties are less certain. But the oldline statements indiscriminately apply biblical injunctions to care for the needy to believers and nonbelievers, to the Church and the civil government. In addition, they seriously alter the biblical message when they pass from admonitions to give voluntarily to policies which compel redistribution. The Episcopal and Presbyterian statements, for example, call for more government taxation, redistribution, and expanded provision for material needs. This indiscriminate application of biblical injunctions clouds the Church’s understanding of the right role of government, and tends to increase government’s sphere of influence. In effect, these churches encourage the state to enforce upon nonbelievers the standards of charitable conduct to which believers aspire. Moreover, they encourage economic policies whose actual results in helping the poor are ambiguous at best.

In addition, the oldline’s conception of solidarity with the poor suffers from excessively economic interpretations of certain biblical passages. For example, the oldline’s interpretation of stewardship emphasizes only the distributional aspects of the doctrine (i.e., personal accumulation of wealth at the expense of others is bad stewardship) and disregards equally important productivity issues encompassed in the notion. As the Parable of the Talents suggests, good stewards are also good investors, creatively using God-given resources to produce new wealth. Moreover, the oldline’s economic interpretation of the prophetic message misses the larger point: the prophets’ primary lament is that Israel has departed from its God. Economic injustice is but one result of this disobedience. The prophets’ call is not for an overhaul of “sinful structures” as much as it is for spiritual repentance and the conversion to God-centered attitudes that will allow needed socio-economic reforms to take place. The prophets’ agenda starts with transformation of individuals and leads to transformation of society, not the reverse.

While the oldline’s theology reminds Christians of the importance of being involved in ministry to the poor, it does not provide sufficient guidelines for relating faith to economic questions. Although the oldline statements appear to begin with the biblical text and end with policy pronouncements, the economic philosophy advanced seems to have been predetermined.

In any case, that economic philosophy does not bode well for the poor. In recent years, writers such as Julian Simon, P. T. Bauer, Michael Novak, and Ronald Nash have effectively debunked both the “limits to growth” mentality and dependency theory. As with ideas, so with practice: three decades of underdeveloped countries following the types of economic policies advocated by the oldline have resulted in anything but a liberation of the poor. The 1987 “Index of Human Suffering” report of the Population Crisis Committee rated nations on a scale of human misery using various data including GNP per capita, inflation rate, infant mortality, access to clean water, literacy, and general personal freedoms. The eleven countries with the worst ratings have followed internal economic policies that closely resemble the measures advocated by the oldline.

The oldline’s conception of solidarity with the poor, fortunately, is not the only Christian development philosophy available. Five evangelical relief and development agencies—Food for the Hungry, Transformation International, World Concern, World Relief, and World Vision—are already performing relief and development tasks. These evangelicals can lead the way to a reformation in Third World development strategy because they have for the most part avoided the errors of their oldline co-activists and have shown more sensitivity to the forceful empirical analysis of the 1980s.


These five organizations do not represent the full spectrum of evangelical engagement with questions of poverty and development. Rather they reflect only a small part of “evangelicaldom,” that complex social movement that includes hundreds of denominations and independent churches; publications such as Christianity Today, Sojourners, Moody Monthly, and World, evangelical colleges and seminaries; evangelistic and discipleship groups such as Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship and Navigators; Christian television and radio networks, stations, and programs; the National Association of Evangelicals and a host of other Wheaton-based Christian ministries; and activist groups such as Evangelicals for Social Action.

Many evangelical scholars, publicists, and activists participate in the development debate. At times their involvement largely echoes the perspectives of their new-class peers in the oldline church, and to the extent that evangelicals buy into the oldline’s conception of solidarity with the poor, their contribution to the reformation of development policy will be limited. (One sees signs of this on the evangelical left.) But there is reason to hope that they can resist that temptation.

The five agencies considered here carry out similar programs. All except Transformation International are involved in emergency relief efforts and in traditional community development projects: digging wells, building health clinics, constructing irrigation systems. All are involved as well in vocational training, technical assistance programs, and micro-economic development. Some are active in “development education,” seeking to inform American Christians about the problems of hunger and underdevelopment; proportionally, though, only a small share of their budget is earmarked for this. The agencies also employ similar development methods. Wherever and whenever possible, they work through local churches—believing this provides greater financial accountability and more opportunity for spiritual witness—and invite the active participation of local people in development projects.

One notable feature of evangelical involvement in economic development is its relative lack of visibility. Due in part to the oldline’s liberationist rhetoric and in part to the relatively unpublicized activities of evangelical relief and development agencies, many people believe that oldline churches are far more active in efforts to alleviate poverty than are evangelicals. Evangelicals, so it is thought, are much more interested in the “vertical” side of ministry, bringing people to faith in God, than in the “horizontal” aspect, caring for the neighbor. In fact, in terms of financial commitment to development, it appears that evangelicals are doing more on the ground to help the poor than their oldline counterparts. Although differences in methods of financial reporting among church agencies make the comparisons difficult, the available evidence indicates that the evangelicals are spending more than twice as much as oldline agencies on Third World relief and development ministries.

The evangelicals’ theology of development coincides with the oldline’s in its concern for the poorest of the poor. Each agency is committed to helping the most vulnerable members of poor societies: widows, children, orphans, and the disabled. But several significant differences distinguish the evangelicals’ development theology from the oldline’s.

First, while the evangelicals accept the oldline’s twofold understanding of Christian ministry, they place greater emphasis on spiritual outreach. Each of these agencies has struggled with the delicate balancing act between food for the body and food for the soul. Staff are confronted with overwhelming and desperate physical deprivation; response to the simple physical needs of people can become all-consuming. Bryant Myers, vice president for corporate services at World Vision, notes that while the agency has always linked spiritual and material sides of its ministry “in word,” it has sometimes struggled with the problem of how to combine them “in deed.” Following a three-year consultation on “philosophy of mission,” World Vision issued a policy paper strongly affirming the significance of spiritual ministry. As Myers puts it. World Vision came to the recognition that “there are two destinations for mankind, heaven or hell.” “We had to realize,” he reflects, “that we might be improving the standard of living for people, but they were still on the wrong path.” As with the other evangelical agencies. World Vision stresses both the need for redemption in Christ and the need for renewed communities to reflect “Kingdom-like values.” In this view concern for salvation includes the desire to help those who have been saved better reflect the transforming experience of Christ in their behavior, attitudes, and relationships.

The agencies also relate spiritual ministry to tangible results in economic affairs. Jerry Ballard, executive director of World Relief, notes that “unless people have a good concept of God’s love for them, they may find it hard to be motivated to change their situation.” Fred Gregory, executive director of World Concern, believes that acceptance of the Gospel can bring hope to the poor and liberation from fatalistic attitudes that are barriers to development.

Second, and more significant, while the oldline’s theology is rooted in concern for distributive justice, the evangelicals’ is centered in their understanding of human nature. “Man made in the image of God” has several specific implications for these agencies. First, it means that all people have inherent worth and are due the Christian’s attentive concern. Relief and development assistance will be offered not only to fellow believers, but to people of other faiths as well. Second, all people have God-bestowed dignity. Abject poverty and the slow death of starvation are affronts to this dignity; the Christian’s response is to help meet the basic physical needs of the poor. Evangelicals recognize that man’s dignity requires much more than basic material provision: the ultimate goal in development is to help people “be all God intended them to be.” At the core of man’s dignity is his freedom, and the evangelicals seek to recognize that God-given freedom in implementing their development policies. “Unless people participate in the decision-making,” says Fred Gregory, development “is not going to be a very liberating experience.” Ballard believes that charitable activity must he designed in such a way as to avoid negatively affecting the self-esteem of the recipient.

Recognizing that man is but “a little lower than the angels,” these groups also stress that man is sinful. For evangelicals, the effects of the Fall are pervasive, affecting individuals, communities—even nature itself. In this view, all sufferings and evils, including poverty, can be traced to sin. This is particularly stressed by Transformation International and World Relief. For example, Robert Hancock of Transformation International argues that greed, dishonesty, and moral compromise are more a reflection of individual character than they are of economic and political systems. “The problem is not in the economic system, but in moral degeneration.”

Some evangelical development leaders follow their oldline counterparts—at least part way—in speaking of “structural” sin. Bryant Myers believes that “institutions are fallen,” and that “evangelical theology is badly underdeveloped on the concept of the principalities and powers. Both individuals and structures need transformation.” Dr. Manfred Grellert, regional vice president for Latin America at World Vision and a Brazilian theologian heavily influenced by liberation theology, goes even further. For him, the international economic order embodies structural injustice; it is “anti-Kingdom.” Grellert concedes that “evil resides in the human heart,” but he sees its presence also “in socio-economic and political structures. These structures are at the service of a privileged few . . . and they generate misery and poverty for many.”

Because their theology of development rests on their understanding of who man is and what he is meant for, it is not surprising that the evangelicals define development as more than the alleviation of poverty. World Concern believes that there are choices people can make in determining their futures. The agency speaks of liberating people from the bondage of contemplating only “what is” and helping them to see “what can be.” Its intention is to increase people’s freedom over their entire lives—not just their economic life. Similarly, World Vision defines development as “a process by which people in a community work together to remove those individual and corporate barriers which prevent them from moving toward a better future.” It recognizes that some of those barriers are internal—individual feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness—while others are external—oppressive political, economic, and social structures. Tetsunao Yamamori, president of Food for the Hungry, defines development as “a process of positive change by a community or an individual in values, behavior, attitude, and the quality of life.”

The evangelical agencies differ within and between themselves in their attitudes toward dependency theory. Dr. Grellert of World Vision wholly accepts it; he believes that “underdevelopment and development are two different sides of the same coin.” But his does not appear to be the dominant view among World Vision executives. His colleague Bryant Myers agrees with Grellert that the “results of the international economic system are unambiguously unjust” and that the gap between rich and poor is increasing; unlike Grellert, however, Myers sees shortcomings in dependency theory. It is too simplistic, he says, and tends to search for an economic answer to a problem that is “fundamentally spiritual.” However, Myers estimates that many World Vision field workers in Latin America would tend to agree more with Grellert’s position than with his own: “many field staff personnel buy the North-South paradigm of a rich core that oppresses the periphery.”

Leaders of World Concern and World Relief have adopted two components of the dependency theory: that the “gap” between the rich and the poor countries is widening, and that the international economic system consistently favors the “haves” at the expense of the “have-nots.” For example, Gregory of World Concern argues that “economic power is becoming more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands” and that “the gap between those who have and those who don’t is becoming greater.” Ballard believes that it is the functioning of the international economic order that has produced the Third World’s crushing debt, and he suggests that debt forgiveness may be in order.

Yamamori of Food for the Hungry and Hancock of Transformation International are the most skeptical of dependency theory. For example, Hancock calls dependency theory “simplistic” and argues that “win- win” relationships are possible in our global economic system, as the experiences of several East Asian countries attest. Yamamori is also impressed with the Four Little Dragons and believes that their commitment to economic growth, encouragement of private enterprise, and willingness to compete vigorously in the international export market have been the keys to their success.

Even those within the evangelical agencies who see some truth in dependency theory join their more skeptical colleagues in rejecting outright its call for a global redistribution of resources as the key to alleviating Third World poverty. Evangelicals, because of their appreciation of individual freedom and their sober assessment of personal evil, are naturally suspicious of government-led redistribution schemes. Rather than redistribution, evangelicals place emphasis on the importance of wealth creation. Mike Still, an economist for World Vision, sees wealth creation as the best strategy to combat Third World poverty. Yamamori states simply that “new wealth can and should be created There is no limit to value added.” Hancock believes that wealth creation is the only enduring solution to poverty. World Relief emphasizes micro-economic development and operates programs aimed at improving farmers’ productivity. Fred Gregory argues that “wealth is dynamic . . . not static,” and adds that “for someone to get ahead, someone else does not have to be diminished.”

Taken all in all, the views of the five evangelical agencies seem more attuned to the realities of economic development than do those of oldline groups. The evangelicals show more awareness of and willingness to learn from the revisionist studies of recent years. For that reason, they would seem better suited than the oldline to establish a “solidarity with the poor” that would in fact go beyond rhetoric and offer genuine hope for long-range alleviation of Third World poverty.


There have been signs in recent years that U.S. foreign aid policy is beginning to take into account the emerging scholarly consensus on development. Though a combination of bureaucratic inertia and reluctance to forsake old orthodoxies has hindered those developments, the policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations indicate receptiveness to new thinking. An opening therefore exists for Christians to participate in the defining of a new foreign aid policy consensus. Evangelical relief and development agencies like those described above could help in a variety of ways to further this reformation. First, evangelicals can expand their “theology of development,” building on foundations they have already laid. An “evangelical statement of development” along the lines of the impressive NAE Peace, Freedom, and Security Studies Guidelines would provide a valuable resource for foreign aid policy makers. As it happens, a number of far-sighted activists have already taken steps toward development of such a document.

Forty evangelicals, concerned over the emergence of liberationist currents within evangelicalism, met in 1987 in Villars, Switzerland to consider the proper role of evangelicals in “opting for the poor.” The Villars participants noted a number of disturbing tendencies in development thought within the churches:

. . . the tendency [of development ministries] to focus on meeting material needs without sufficient emphasis on spiritual needs . . . the attempt to synthesize Marxist categories and Christian concepts, to equate economic liberation with salvation . . . the emphasis on redistribution of wealth as the answer to poverty and deprivation without recognizing the value of incentive, opportunity, creativity, and economic and political freedom . . . and the attraction to centrally controlled economies and coercive solutions despite the failures of such economies and their consistent violation of the rights of the poor.

The conference’s resulting “Villars Statement on Relief and Development” represents a first step toward a comprehensive evangelical vision for development. The statement notes that the “causes of hunger and deprivation . . . are spiritual as well as material and can only be dealt with adequately insofar as the spiritual dimension is taken into account.” Its policy recommendations include support for private property and for “the family as the basic social and economic unit.”

Second, evangelicals can press their broad definition of human development in the public debate over foreign aid. If development is understood as something including but transcending the alleviation of material poverty, internal economic and human rights policies of recipient countries may be scrutinized far more carefully than has been the case in the past. If development is conceived of as both the alleviation of poverty and an increased scope of human freedom, recipient countries’ records on religious tolerance, democratization, and human rights may take their place alongside traditional strategic considerations in decisions on foreign aid.

Third, evangelicals can improve the quality of “development education.” Thus far, efforts to inform the public by (mainly oldline) Christian development agencies have been limited to relating the gruesome facts of human deprivation and hunger. Rarely are explanations for poverty given other than the standard dependency arguments. Internal causes of poverty, such as corrupt or oppressive political systems, are neglected—unless the nation under consideration is a right-wing military dictatorship. If the subject is poverty in Ethiopia, Vietnam, or Kampuchea, seldom are the disastrous political and economic policies of their totalitarian Marxist-Leninist governments raised as possible explanations.

Fourth, based on their conception of development, evangelicals can press the argument for three critical “pro-poor” institutions: private property rights, the rule of law, and democracy. The religious left views private property rights with suspicion, believing that they lead to the massive and unjust accumulation of wealth by the wealthy. Nicholas Eberstadt notes that in societies where private property rights are disregarded, the state can, in the “interests of the poor,” expropriate at will the property of the wealthy. But surely, he argues, a state with sufficient power to steal from the rich and powerful may with even greater ease steal from the poor and vulnerable. Private property rights, in other words, ought to be understood as potentially critical for the poor as well as the rich.

Evangelicals can also press the rule of law—with its attendant virtues of order, fairness, and impartiality—as a precondition to sustainable development. The absence of the rule of law may stymie development in that it may adversely affect the investment climate, individual savings rates, and productivity. Furthermore, the rule of law, as Eberstadt contends, “affords to society’s most vulnerable members the protection that can only be bought by wealthy people in a ‘state-of-nature’ situation.”

Moreover, evangelicals can publicize the democracy-development connection. They already recognize the critical role of local participation by citizens in development projects. Local citizens ought to be involved both because they best know their own needs and because their freedom and dignity are demeaned if they are not included. Evangelicals should press the analogy to the national level, arguing that democratic and participatory forms of government best “fit” with his own welfare. Evangelicals need to carry the argument for expansion of civil and political freedoms in the underdeveloped world because too many other Christians have succumbed to the Marxist siren song of bread before freedom. Evangelicals must remind those who argue that the poor lack interest in “bourgeois” civil rights and political freedoms that none of us lives by bread alone. They can also publicize the strong empirical evidence linking freedom to material prosperity and authoritarian and totalitarian control to poverty.

Finally, evangelical private organizations can encourage vigorous consideration of government assistance programs to the private sector. Government-to-government transfers have often failed to improve the lot of the poor, either because they were diverted by corrupt leaders into Swiss bank accounts or because they enabled ruling elites to persist in following repressive political policies and/or destructive economic agendas. As Eberstadt has eloquently commented: “Transfers of wealth enlarge the capacity of recipient governments to pursue their intentions; they do not change those intentions. If the intentions have consequences that are economically destructive, the government will be empowered to act more destructively.” In contrast, government-to-private-sector projects bring funding close to local problems, and they use resources in ways that villagers themselves, and not distant government bureaucrats, determine are most efficacious in addressing local needs.

Evangelicals are poised at the cutting edge of a reformation in development policy. Their contribution to that reformation can be significant if they forthrightly reject conceptions of solidarity with the poor that in fact lead to greater suffering for the poor. The task is theirs, in solidarity with oldline and Catholic co-activists willing to share an empirical temper, a comprehensive conception of development, and an appreciation for market-oriented economic models. For the sake of the poor, one hopes that the opportunity will not be missed.

Dr. Amy L. Sherman got her graduate degrees from the Woodrow Wilson Department of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. She is now a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities.

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