Fight Poverty—What Works

I keep a running to-do list. I put things on it and only cross an item off when it is done. I don’t rip off the pages until everything on the page has been completed. The pages get ratty.

When I get toward the end of the year, I look at some of the things that have been hanging on and see if I can complete them so they aren’t carried into the new year. In mid-December I noticed an entry that said, “Clear out magazine basket.”

Christianity Today, February 2012 Cover Story

When magazines arrive in my house, all of them except Time end up in a basket. As I have the chance or inclination to read them, I pull them out. My basket was overflowing. The bigger problem, though, was the age of some of the magazines. Some were issues of magazines that had been out of business for several years. Some we’d received when we still lived in Delaware (5+ years ago). They were issues of magazines I had loved and of which I had always read every article. But if I was going to empty the basket by the end of December I had to get ruthless. I was, and I did. Clean, empty basket.

Then Les started in on his pile, some of which I inherited. (I refused to put them in the basket; they’re sitting by my chair and I am paging through them quickly.)

In that stack was a Christianity Today from February 2012. It’s cover story was “The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really: Cost-Effective Compassion.” The article is written from an economist’s point of view. The author provided economists with ten common poverty-fighting strategies and had them rate them by how effective the impact is per dollar spent.

Here are the three they rated the most cost effective:

  1. Getting clean water to rural villages.
  2. Funding de-worming treatments for children.
  3. Providing mosquito nets.

Read the article to learn where your favorite poverty-alleviation method ended up ranking.

I had concerns about the list. First, only ten activities were included, leaving out whole areas of charitable work, like providing homes, as Habitat for Humanity does, or rescuing the enslaved or working for peace.

Second, it seemed focused on immediate solutions rather than long-term impact that would allow individuals to make a life, not just stay alive. These top three, for instance, were rated high for their effectiveness in keeping children alive and healthy at a minimal cost. But if their parents have no way to feed them and have no funds to send them to school, will they really end up out of poverty?

It’s good to quantify things so donors understand what brings a bang for their buck. But I believe this method may have oversimplified things and could hurt organizations doing valuable in-depth work to make our world one without poverty.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the article, on your favorite charities and what they bring to the fight and why you support them. Talk to me.

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