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The Secret Ingredient of Our Poverty Relief

Economists are showing that one attitude makes a statistical difference in developing nations.
The Secret Ingredient of Our Poverty Relief
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Driving on a main highway in Mexico, I slow down at a stoplight. A man outside my window is igniting a cotton ball on a stick soaked in gasoline and extinguishing the flame in his mouth. He starts approaching the cars to ask for money for his admittedly breath-taking stunt. I don’t give him anything; I don’t want to reward him for potentially blowing his head off. Nor do I want to facilitate the slow but certain onset of brain damage caused by inhaling gasoline fumes. I have the urge to give him 200 pesos if he promises to take the day off, but I know he won’t. The scene makes me wonder how hopeless a man must be to try to earn a living this way.

Oaxaca is a curious place to try to find hope. It is the poorest state in Mexico, and many of the people in villages like ours are not very hopeful.

For six months this year, my family and I lived in a small village in Oaxaca to study hope. Oaxaca is a curious place to try to find hope. It is the poorest state in Mexico, and many of the people in villages like ours are not very hopeful. The same social and political problems that have plagued other regions in Latin America linger here: vast inequality, corruption, unemployment, violence against women. Children in Oaxaca suffer one of the worst educational systems in the Western Hemisphere. Such realities wither hope into a dry fatalism. “Mexico is the country of the future,” say the locals—“and always will be.”

I continue in my mud-spackled Toyota pickup down a dirt road in our village, toward the highway that leads to the office of Fuentes Libres in the City of Oaxaca. The nonprofit is a good example of the challenges we are facing.

Fuentes Libres is a micro-lender affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church. Its leaders kindly agreed to participate in our research. The experience of Fuentes Libres mirrors that of many nonprofits who offer microfinance: It doesn’t work as well as they hoped. This is consistent with recent controlled studies of microfinance, which show it typically makes only a small impact. Most women receiving microloans in Oaxaca still struggle to make ends meet. Their businesses are mostly stagnant. Barely any have hired a single employee. Hope is low.

In this context, we will carry out an experiment among 600 microfinance borrowers—what we call a “hope treatment.” A film crew will first create a documentary about the organization’s most successful borrowers. We will show the documentary in half of the organization’s community banks. Meanwhile, we will offer a biblically based curriculum about hope, as well as a goal-setting exercise. We will do our best to increase hope among this group of women—and see if it fosters not only changes in hopes and aspirations, but also fosters growth in their businesses.

Different Types of Hope

Most people in our village own small plots of land. My village neighbor, Davíd, planted his field two months ago, just before the rains came. When he plants, a bag of seed hangs around his waist. At every step down the earthy row, he tosses two kernels into the dirt and buries them with his foot. There’s rhythm in the work: step, plant, cover; step, plant, cover—a rhythm that has been echoed through the centuries of families who have lived and died in this Zapotec village since 500 years before the birth of Christ.

With the help of the whole family, the field is finally planted. Davíd hopes for a bountiful harvest.

Aspirational Hope has one crucial element: Those who have it believe they can make a difference.

But there are different types of hope. Consider the difference between these sentences: “Davíd hopes that it may rain on his field tomorrow,” and, “Davíd hopes to irrigate his field this Saturday.” Both uses of hope suggest optimism and uncertainty. But the first is Wishful Hope, or “hope that.” “Hope that” is an important form of hope, but it lacks human agency. Davíd hopes that something will happen, but he believes he has little or no influence over it.

The second phrase reflects Aspirational Hope, or “hope to,” which means he participates in it.

Both Wishful Hope and Aspirational Hope are important in the Christian story. We see Wishful Hope among the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, who looked for and found a deliverer in Moses (Ex. 3). Wishful Hope is the longing of the prophets for a Redeemer (Isa. 52–53), who came in the person of Jesus. Some things are out of our control; we can hope for a certain outcome, but we must entrust ourselves to God.

We also find Aspirational Hope in the Bible. David exemplified such hope as he expanded the borders of Israel (2 Sam. 8). Solomon did so when he constructed the temple (1 Kings 5–6). We see Aspirational Hope in Acts and in many of Paul’s letters, where God accomplishes his purposes through the apostles’ Spirit-filled efforts (e.g., Acts 27).

Aspirational Hope has one crucial element: Those who have it believe they can make a difference. The shorthand for this is agency, something given by God to human beings in many spheres so that we might steward his creation (Gen. 1:28).

Psychologists suggest that what I am calling Aspirational Hope has three dimensions: goals, pathways, and agency. For example, a single mother trying to make ends meet in rural Oaxaca might have the goal of sending her daughter to high school (not free in Mexico). To realize this goal, she must be able to identify a pathway for getting there: perhaps increasing her savings or making a key investment. Most important, she must believe she can accomplish her goal. She must not only have agency, but also believe in her agency.

Fatalism

Agency is precisely what is often lacking in places like Oaxaca. Large parts of the region suffer from the opposite of Aspirational Hope: fatalism. This is somewhat ironic in a country with Christian roots.

Among the many social revolutions ignited by the early Christians, one had to do with hope. Greco-Roman culture largely believed the course of events was left to fate; anything humans did could be trumped by the capricious will of the gods or impersonal natural forces. By contrast, Christians assumed they lived in a world where their choices and actions had consequences, some of them eternal. Christianity assumed that people could actively respond to the gospel and, as led by the Holy Spirit, be transformative agents in their world.

Fatalism is the opposite of Aspirational Hope. Fatalism can creep back into some strains of Christianity, including the strain of Catholicism that exists in Oaxaca. I know this from the sermons of the village priest, Padre Julian, who broadcasts over a loudspeaker of impressive power mounted atop the Catholic church, a block from our house. With such impressive amplification, Padre Julian knows that even people working in their fields many miles away can be edified by his sermons. I know fatalism is a problem in our village if for no other reason than Padre Julian is constantly admonishing the local flock against it; he knows how hopelessness is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By contrast, a person with hope believes that his or her actions make a difference. Our neighbor Sylvia runs a tiny papelería in the village with her 15-year-old daughter, Míriam, who gets As in school and wants to be a doctor. One day, my daughter Allie saw a stethoscope in a medical store and said, “We should buy it for Míriam.” It was a real stethoscope, not a cheap toy imitation. So we bought it and gave it to her. Nobody cried as much when we left the village as Sylvia and Míriam, and we think it might have been the stethoscope.

We’ve seen the power of hope demonstrated in many fields of study. In The Anatomy of Hope, medical researcher Jerome Groopman summarizes the many studies that demonstrate how hope helps a body heal from injury and disease. In Making Hope Happen, Shane Lopez (probably the world’s leading authority on hope) reviews studies showing that hopeful people are more productive, happier, healthier, and more resistant to setback. Hopeful people live longer than hopeless people. A subsequent meta-study undertaken by Lopez finds that hope makes a substantial difference in academic achievement. While research is still needed to more precisely determine cause and effect, the consensus is clear: Hope matters.

Material intervention does not always produce hope. But loving, patient encouragement can.

Spiritual Grit

I finally arrive at Fuentes Libres, where Isabeth greets me. She tells me how the organization serves the women in their community groups. They not only give the women microcredit, but also teach them about domestic abuse, youth violence, and spiritual development. Much of what gives the Oaxaca women hope is simply knowing that Fuentes Libres—and God—care about what happens to them. When Christians become the active limbs of Christ, we can bring lasting hope to our neighbors. Material intervention does not always produce hope. But loving, patient encouragement offered so that others can build goals, navigate pathways, and affirm agency almost always does.

Our research on child sponsorship bears this out. We gave 540 children living in the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia, a box of colored pencils and asked them to draw a self-portrait. About half of the children were sponsored through Compassion International, through which they receive care and mentorship for many hours a week; the other children were siblings or children on Compassion’s waitlist. We coded the self-portraits based on 20 drawing characteristics that psychologists believe correlate with mental health. For example, a self-portrait that is frowning or crying suggests depression, a missing mouth, insecurity, and bright colors, optimism.

After analyzing the drawings, we found that child sponsorship was responsible for increasing the index of hope by over half of a standard deviation—which, in lay terms, is a whole lot of hope.

What we found among Compassion children is a third type of hope: Overarching Hope. This is a stronger, more general optimism not tied to a single event or outcome. This hope whispers, “In the end, everything will be all right.” It offers resilience in the face of failure and disappointment. It is vital to what is called “grit”—the socio-emotional skill found to be strongly associated with successful life outcomes in research by Nobel-winning economist James Heckman.

But make no mistake: the driving force behind Ramona’s success is not the microloans but Ramona’s gritty version of hope.

We all know Christians who have a strong Overarching Hope. For them, sayings like “All things work together for our good” and “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” are not merely Bible verses; they are words tattooed on their souls. This is true for Ramona Tejas, a hero of mine, who is featured in our documentary. Poverty quashed Ramona’s childhood ambition of becoming a doctor. But her determination to help the sick in her community led her to start a pharmacy, which is now thriving after a few microloans. But make no mistake: the driving force behind Ramona’s success is not the microloans but Ramona’s gritty version of hope.

We have analyzed the early results of our Oaxaca experiment. Seeing the documentary that featured women like Ramona helped to increase the aspirations index in the treatment group by a quarter of a standard deviation—which is impressive. It’s still too early to establish statistical significance, but women who received the “hope treatment” realized sales and profits about 18 percent higher than those in the control group.

Overarching Hope releases our minds from worries about whether we are going to be okay. It literally sets our minds free to pursue higher callings. May it do so for the people of Oaxaca.

Bruce Wydick is professor of economics at the University of San Francisco and a research affiliate at the Kellogg Institute of International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of the novel The Taste of Many Mountains (Thomas Nelson).

March
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The Secret Ingredient of Our Poverty Relief