Phantom Needs: Projecting Poverty Where It Doesn’t Exist
Religion & Liberty Online

Phantom Needs: Projecting Poverty Where It Doesn’t Exist

As we continue to encounter the adverse effects of certain forms of foreign aid and other misaligned efforts to alleviate poverty, it becomes increasingly clear that those in need require a level of care, concern, and discipleship not well suited to detached top-down “solutions.”

But just as we ought to be careful about the types of solutions we create, we ought to give the same level of attentiveness to the needs themselves, which are no less complex and difficult to discern.

Steve Saint, author of End of the Spear and missionary to the Waodani people of Ecuador, offers some helpful insights and warnings along these lines, critiquing the West’s tendency to project its “standards, values and perception of need onto others,” particularly when it comes to material needs.

“When people visit the Waodani,” he explains, “they look around and think, ‘Wow, these people have nothing!’” Yet, when the Waodani encounter the lifestyles of foreign outsiders, they tend to find them unseemly and excessive.

As an example, Saint writes of one tribesman, Mincaye, who having visited the United States on numerous occasions, finds the hustle and bustle of American life entirely undesirable. “Mincaye is always greatly relieved to get back to his thatched roof hut, with the open fire wafting smoke in his face, eating whatever happens to be in the cooking pot,” Saint writes. “He sits around in jungle-stained clothes and the look on his face tells it all. He would not live in North America for all the green paper and little pieces of plastic he could carry.” Yet if the lifestyle did grab Mincaye, how might it impact his attitude and actions toward his primary obligations in his local community?

For these reasons, Saint argues, outsiders (and Christian outsiders in particular) ought to be careful not to impose their “distorted and exaggerated perception of need” on others. In doing so, not only do we risk introducing new problems that come with prosperity, but we are likely to miss the areas where poverty actually does exist — physical, spiritual, material, or otherwise:

When we try to meet phantom needs of people who live at a lower material standard than we have learned to consider “minimal,” we not only fall into a trap that keeps us from seeing their real needs but we also tempt them into a snare that can raise their perception of need beyond what their economy can support.

When we project poverty on people where it doesn’t exist, we also overlook the actual poverty with which they struggle. Solomon said it well, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase so do those who consume them” (Ecc 5:10–11).

But although Saint’s warnings point us to a deeper humility and stronger skepticism toward our lofty plans for “the poor,” it ought not breed apathy, cynicism, or inaction toward those in need.

On the contrary, our distorted perception of “needs” is problematic precisely because it is a distortion. And here, Christians can steer down a unique path of sacrifice and service, reorienting our action around the Name of Jesus, and sourcing guidance not from our own faulty perceptions about pocket books and picket fences, but through active discernment of the Holy Spirit and obedience to the God who proclaims good news for the poor.

By reorienting our solutions around the Gospel, focusing on real, personal, whole-life discipleship that goes before and beyond materialistic humanitarianism, we can trust that God will reveal the needs we are called to meet, and will empower and equip us to fulfill those needs in turn.

As Saint concludes:

Where the Church is being established among people that perceive themselves as powerless, there is a great need for deep discipleship, wrestling with the roots of poverty at the community level rather than concentrating on the individual. Financial help that does not develop sustainable, local, financial self-sufficiency is much more likely to create poverty than it is to meet real needs. Until we realize that we can’t overcome poverty with handouts, we will never be much help in completing Christ’s Great Commission.

As followers of Christ we must fight poverty through discipleship rather than covering it with spiritual frosting. Either we do God’s will God’s way or we aren’t doing His will at all. Discipleship means teaching others what we have learned so they can teach others to care for their community’s physical, economic, emotional and spiritual needs on a sustainable basis! (2 Tim 2:2, Mt 28:19–20)

The church exists to contribute far more than “spiritual frosting” on the proverbial do-gooder cake. We are called to particular modes of sacrifice and service aligned to the particular will of a particular God and Savior.

As we seek to contribute to the common good — whether through service to our families, communities, churches, workplaces, or those across the globe — let be careful to remember the God who makes all things new, and take our cues accordingly.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.