My Take: The church can end extreme poverty
October 17th, 2011
10:35 AM ET

My Take: The church can end extreme poverty

Editor's Note: Scott C. Todd, Ph.D. is the senior ministry advisor in the President’s Office of Compassion International. Previously, he served as director of Compassion’s AIDS Initiative, Child Survival Program and strategic interventions. He is the author of Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty.

By Dr. Scott Todd, Special to CNN

(CNN)–Here’s a headline I haven’t read or heard yet: We’re winning the battle against extreme poverty.

I know that sounds unbelievable, but it’s not. It’s just that we’re conditioned to believe the opposite is true.

Every “breaking news” item that hits my inbox or travels across the bottom of the TV screen carries the potential to be another gut punch to the world’s poor. A hurricane in the Caribbean. An earthquake in Asia. A famine in Africa. Or a disease outbreak anywhere.

When we hear enough bad news, “crisis fatigue” kicks in. Often we go into protection mode to deaden the impact or filter the news out altogether. We turn the channel. Read something else. Or simply focus on our own lives. They’re topical anesthetics to deaden the ache of chronically bad news.

But I believe there is a better story when it comes to extreme poverty and long-term solutions. People are often surprised to hear this, but I am rationally optimistic about the destruction of extreme poverty. There’s no anesthetic needed because we’re winning.

Consider that from 2000-2008, 78% fewer children died from measles.

Malaria infections have plummeted by 19 million cases per year between 2005 and 2009.

We used to say 40,000 children under 5 died every day from preventable causes. No more. In 2010, that number is 21,000.

We’ve dramatically slowed the spread of HIV infections.

And most of all, 26% of the world’s population now exists in extreme poverty. That’s a staggering number until you realize that it is half of what it was in 1981. We’ve cut the extreme global poverty rate in half in just 30 years.

Let me say that I don’t believe in the magic power of positive thinking or soft, Pollyanna optimism. I don’t subscribe to naïve idealistic platitudes. But I do believe that churches—thinking creatively and working strategically—have done and are yet to do amazingly redemptive things.

This is really the strength of my optimism. Governments have their role. Charitable organizations have theirs. But no entity has the reach, the placement and the backbone to meet the needs of the poor, as do the churches located in the world’s poorest communities.

First, these churches don’t need to arrive on a white horse from the outside. They are strategically planted in the poorest communities right now. Some are large, visible entities. Others are small gatherings on roads that lead into alleys. But they are there.

Second, their intimacy is deeply embedded in those very neighborhoods. I have walked dangerous streets I would never walk alone because I walked them with the pastor of the neighborhood church. They knew the residents. They knew the needs inside the homes. They don’t know poverty on a philosophical level. They know it by name—the Ngari shanty in teeming Nairobi. The Hernandez apartment in dangerous San Salvador. Or the Raj home in Kolkata.

Third, this strategic placement, coupled with a practical passion to do good, make churches the most powerful delivery system in the world. Period. Much of the progress that has been made against the realities of extreme poverty is because of these strategic churches. They are the ones who sunk wells. Taught sanitation. Enabled health screenings. Instructed in nutrition. Distributed food. Taught planting. Encouraged education. Rescued children from abuse and trafficking. And facilitated micro-enterprise—just to name a few of their redemptive strategies.

There simply is no organization on the globe with the placement and the reach to deliver strategic aid and give hope like the hundreds of thousands of Christian churches around the world.

There is stubborn power in good news, inspiring motivation in progress, and hope in the rock-ribbed evidence of statistical facts. We don’t need to look the other way when we face extreme poverty, or duck the darts of guilt. We can face the hard realities ahead knowing that we are well on our way.

I believe that abject poverty—poverty at its worst—is beatable in our lifetime. I know that is has been Christian churches who have paved the way. And I know they are poised to do even more.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church

soundoff (156 Responses)
  1. Student

    TL;DR: Be careful when you include supporting numbers in your article. They have a mind of their own, and today they've contradicted you.

    This is a neat trick of numbers. The majority of the "extreme poor" are in India, China, and Africa. In India, only 2% of the population is Christian. In China, only about 6% of the population is Christian (though reports of this figure vary wildly). In Africa, you at least have a serious case for Christianity impacting poverty, as most of the very poor, southern countries are also predominantly Christian. However, the overall numbers aren't really on your side, since the population of all of the continent of Africa is roughly 1 billion (including the countries with rather low poverty levels), while China has 1.36 billion people and India has 1.2 billion people. I find it hard to believe that the Christians are driving change in India and China. You might've maintained more credibility by limiting your claimed influence to African poverty.

    By the way, the number of people in "extreme poverty" has only been cut by about 24%, not in half. This is some more numerical magic to try to prove the author's point and get around realities on the ground. By your own numbers in the article, there were 2.36 billion in "extreme poverty" in 1981 and today there are 1.811 billion in extreme poverty. There's a rather significant possibility that the "extreme poor" are simply dying much faster than everyone else. In a span of only 30 years, we're pretty much talking about the same group of people and their direct descendants. It's fabulous that half a billion people are no longer in poverty, but how many of them made a better life for themselves, and how many simply died? If I use only the lower 2010 figure for preventable deaths per day, I can attribute half of this "improvement" to the mass deaths of the poor over the last 30 years. Hmmm.

    October 17, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  2. brad

    The Catholic church teaches the corporal works of mercy. They are: To feed the hungry; To give drink to the thirsty;
    To clothe the naked; To harbour the harbourless; To visit the sick; To ransom the captive; To bury the dead.

    If the atheist/materialist had any brass, he would face up to his own belief: that mass poverty and starvation are merely nature thinning out the herds.

    October 17, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • AGuest9

      It is thinning out the herd, and today that was announced as the solution to the starvation going on in the Congo. We see what good Live Aid did in the 80s, didn't we? They are still starving in Ethiopia, after millions and millions in aid. That's how these people have lived for hundreds of thousands of years.

      October 17, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • HellBent

      "If the atheist/materialist had any brass, he would face up to his own belief: that mass poverty and starvation are merely nature thinning out the herds."

      No. Although, non-believers typically aren't in favor of providing help while also teaching that contraception is evil. Maybe if the RCC wouldn't be going into extremely poor areas and teaching that unsustainable and thoughtless population growth is a good thing there would be less mass poverty and starvation.

      By the way, teaching something and actually practicing what you teach are two totally different things.

      October 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  3. Reality

    How much money would the following save the US taxpayers ?? Said money would go a long way in ending extreme poverty.

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:
    There never was and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror

    One trillion dollars over the next several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end.

    Eighteen billion dollars/yr to Pakistan will stop.

    Four billion dollars/yr to Egypt will end.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians including the Mormons:
    There was and never will be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity.

    The Mormon empire will now become taxable as will all Christian "religions" and non-profits since there is no longer any claim to being a tax-exempt religion. Ti-thes and other donations to various Christian sects would no longer be tax-deductible.

    Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses probably never existed.

    Four billion dollars/yr to Israel saved.

    All Jewish sects and non-profits will no longer be tax exempt.

    Now all we need to do is convince these 3.5+ billion global and local citizens that they have been conned all these centuries Time for a Twitter and FaceBook campaign!!!!

    October 17, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  4. brad

    Instead of feeding the hungry guy next door, I'll write the Vatican and demand they send him a check.

    October 17, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • snow

      *snot.. good luck.. Vatican did not do anything except write a letter even during the Holocaust.. what makes you think they would give a whit's a$$ about the sufferings of a common man?

      But if you have some extra money laying around, they would surely take them off you for a little charge.

      October 17, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  5. snow

    Aww comeon... why can't you all make one stinking argument without quoting something from the book. Hear this from me.. "I DON"T CARE WHAT THE BOOK SAYS".

    if you are capable of having some self thought, use it to make your argument. "It says so in the book and so its true" just doesn't cut it and is smiliar to a kindergartener saying "It's true coz my DAD says so"

    October 17, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Richard Kaiser

      @ snow,,,

      You must be from a family who argues a lot for your wanting to take an argumentative stance upon which you shoulder your thought progressives.

      October 17, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • snow

      No.. I try to learn it from people like you on forums like this.. But I try to make logical connection, so I know I can never reach your levels..

      way to deflect the point though, without answering..

      October 17, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Richard Kaiser

      @ snow who wrote,,,, "Aww comeon... why can't you all make one stinking argument,,,"

      I was just pointing out that you wanted to be argumentative,,,,,,,,,,,,,that's all I wrote,,,, 😦

      October 17, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  6. derp

    "the church can end extreme poverty"

    It can cure gay too.

    October 17, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Using a tincture of 2 parts shame, one part guilt and a pinch of fear of eternal torment, they can cure almost anything!

      October 17, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Richard Kaiser

      @ Doc Vestibule,, et al,,,

      Sorry Doc, for I am allergic to tinctures of shame, guilt but I have no allergies toward hope. Can you Doc, still help me from my conditioning?

      October 17, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  7. Bo

    I have taken my phone to the store, there is no reply button available to me. I wish more than you do that I had that function.

    October 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  8. Bo

    @Doc 2:19 post That's according to your way of thinking and others like you. I think 2000 yrs is a long time too, but my way of judging time and God's way are not the same. God is not confined to time like mankind.

    October 17, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      OK then – how about this.

      "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."
      Matthew 24:34
      One of those things was the Second Coming.
      The biblical definition of a generation can be found in Psalm 90.
      "The years of our lives are 70; and if by reason of strength they be 80 years, yet most of them are labor and sorrow; for life is soon cut off and we fly away."
      26 Psalms 90:10
      This is confirmed in the Gospel of Matthew.
      "Therefore all the generations from Abraham down to David are 14 generations; and from David down to the Babylonian captivity are 14 generations; and from the Babylonian captivity down to messiah, are 14 generations."
      – Matthew 1:17
      Matthew is using the Psalm 90 definitions of Generation in order to tell a specific chronological story.

      Why didn't Jesus come back during the last hour, 2,000 years ago?

      October 17, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Richard Kaiser

      2Pe 3:8 But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day [is] with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day

      To the Gods that do dwell inside our bodies and upon the atomic scales, a thousand years goes by to our one day and to GOD who resides outside the Cosmos of Celestial Relativity only a day goes by to our thousand years.

      Luk 17:21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is inside/within you.

      October 17, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  9. Bo

    Oh come on Doc V! The people who need condoms as protection againist HIV/AIDs aren't going listen to anything the RCC has to say about condoms or anything else. Get your head srewed on right. That dosen't mean I agree with the RCC.

    October 17, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  10. MaybeAgnosticMaybeNot

    Genesis 14:20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a TENTH of everything. How many of these big business conservatives follow this Bible verse? How many Christians actually follow this?

    October 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  11. Bo

    @ Hippy I don't know where you get your prophecy, nor do I know yor age, but if you live long enough and you have seen some of my posts and what I have sais about the religious right, it is in their agenda to bridge the gap between the protestant and RCC, and when that happens then hell will break loose. I may not live long enough to see it happen, but you may. You are not going to like those times when they come. Have you ever heard of the antiChrist?

    October 17, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.”
      —1 John 2:18

      The last hour was 2,000 years ago.
      But lemme guess – any day now, right!
      Jesus is a'comin back!

      October 17, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Seriously

      Take your phone down to the store you bought it from and ask where the reply button is – your posts are annoying!

      October 17, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • derp

      "But lemme guess – any day now, right!"

      Jeebus likes surprises

      October 17, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  12. Doc Vestibule

    No more than six deadly infectious diseases – pneumonia, tuberculosis, diarrhoeal diseases, malaria, measles and more recently HIV/AIDS – account for half of all premature deaths.
    The reduction in death from malaria and measles mentioned by the author is not through some concerted effort by any religious organization – it is primarily becuase of the World Heath Organization's Integrated Management of Childhood Illnesses programme.
    The war against HIV/AIDS has been greatly hindered by the Vatican's anti-condom policies – so one can harly argue that religion is doing anything positive in that regard.
    While churches may be able to provide some food, water and spiritual solace, the real difference in peoples quality of life is being made by secular medical organizations like Doctor's Without Borders.

    October 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • SPA Knight

      If all your faith is in secular organizations then why do you repeatedly bash the Catholic Church? Next to Government, the church is the largest provider of health care services in the world. Their probably more cost effective as well because so many provide the service at no cost. In terms of condoms, would you have the church change it's moral position in order to prevent infection? That logic is moral relativism correct. With that line of thinking we can also justify that abortions are acceptable in order to avoid infected babies etc. A slippery slope indeed.

      October 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  13. Central Srutinizer


    Sun arise come every mornin' sun arise come every mornin'
    Sun arise come every mornin' bringin' back the warmth to the ground
    Sun arise fillin' up the hollow sun arise fillin' up the hollow
    Sun arise fillin' up the hollow bringin' back the warmth to the ground
    Sun arise she come every mornin' sun arise each and every day
    Sun arise she come every mornin' sun arise every every every every
    She drive away the darkness everyday she drive away the darkness everyday
    She drive away your darkness everyday bringin' back the warmth to the ground

    Vincent Furnier

    October 17, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • hippypoet

      no offense intended but that poem wasn't very good... i shall compose one that is better... in my opinion.

      October 19, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  14. Fight Poverty

    Keep up the good work Church!

    Proof in action! that's what we like.

    October 17, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  15. AGuest9

    Interesting picture. Poland or Russia in the 1980s? No, America in 2011. Parallels?

    October 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Anglican

      No doubt.

      October 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  16. William Demuth

    How about we just tax the charlatans?

    Parasites all!

    October 17, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  17. Jimtanker

    Maybe if the Vatican would empty its coffers. But we know that it will never happen.

    October 17, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Anglican

      I am not RC, but I do believe the RCC contributes millions in aid. Not all is bad, not all is good there.

      October 17, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • TCS

      The RCC does contribute millions. As for the 'coffers' you speak of, there is not that much money in it. The RCC is extremely wealthy in it's people. That is the treasure of the RCC, and pretty much any large Christian denomination. The RCC doesn't just sit on all the money it collects. It usually spends it in extremely poor areas that need it. You probably think that they are loaded because of all of the art, and giant cathedrals. You could try selling it off, but that wouldn't solve much because most of the material items in possession have more historical value than monetary value.
      Also note that the Vatican does not control the finances of the entire church. Each dioceses is in charge of its own finances.

      October 17, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Most churches contribute to the needs of people but so do many secular organizations. It really is not news to anyone that charity is part of the church, the sad thing is that the church holds the meal at ransom-if you want this you must listen to our bogus stories of eternal life. You should not have to listen to fairy tales in order to survive in this world, supporting and recognizing the needs of mankind should be enough.

      October 17, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • TCS

      "Holding meals ransom"? That is like walking in a library wanting to check out a DVD and being 'held ransom' by all of the signs promoting books. It sounds stupid because it is. The charitable organizations will still provide food and other services that the people need. Those services also include spreading their message because they believe that those in poverty need that message of hope. Most probably don't mind and welcome it.
      But for the sake of argument, let's go to the extreme situation:
      A starving man is adamant in not wanting to join up with or even listening to those 'crazy Christians' that keep passing out food and rosary beads. He stays on the outskirts cursing those 'jerks' for not just giving him food, the one and only thing that is causing him problems. He then passes out from starvation and wakes up in a hospital bed with a doctor, wearing a cross, hovering over him checking his vitals.
      How dare those selfish people are for trying to push their message on to this chap.

      Adamant atheist or not, you have to at least respect the work that these organizations are doing.

      October 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • snow

      @TCS.. So, you agree that you would rather let the starving person faint than feeding him without pushing your "message of hope"?

      What kind of mercy and good naturedness does you god teach you?

      October 17, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Ed


      Have you ever been to one of the religious soup kitchens?

      October 17, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • TCS

      @ Snow
      Ed is right, have you ever been to a soup kitchen held in a church basement or a PADS location? They provide a warm meal in especially cold times to anyone who shows up. There is no waiting time for a bible lesson, only for the line to go forward.
      Sometimes there are counselors there trying to help see what is wrong and to try and help those unfortunate souls that are there. And yes, religion (how dare they) will sometimes be brought up to try and comfort and guide them. There is no pushing of it onto people who do not want it. They do not kick you out if you don't want what they are trying talk to you about.

      If you read my story properly you would have gotten the message that the starving man stayed away from the food center because it was religious based, not that they would not serve him because he didn't want to listen to them. When he did finally faint (and would eventually die), my God teaches that we should bring him in and treat him. If he finally gets the strength to tell us "to screw off" and want to be miserable on the outskirts not wanting our help because we are religious, we let him. We'll pick him back up when he faints again.

      Your god, on the other hand would feed him and send him on his way. Just fix the immediate problem and don't try to dig deeper or try to pick up his spirit. Don't worry, he'll be back the next day because he is lost in the world and the meal he receives is the only thing he looks forward to.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  18. hippypoet

    sure the church can end it, let itself get taxed and no worries.

    October 17, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • J.W

      So you think that if churches were taxed that poverty would end? I do not think that the government is likely to set up a new program to help the poor just because churches are taxed. They will find a way to waste it instead, or give themselves raises.

      October 17, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  19. Bo

    In spite of the fact that I'm a Christian, this guy is living in dream land. I can't prove it, but I think there is more poverity now than ten years ago, and things will get worse. I'm sorry, but that is Bible prophecy so this guy isn't reading his Bible very much, or at least not the significant parts.

    October 17, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Anglican

      Depends how you interrupt prophecy.

      October 17, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Words, words, words

      You can interrupt prophecy, you can interpret it, but it is still time wasted on delusion.

      October 17, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • hippypoet

      interrupt this prophecy: the united states will crumble and it will be ran by the states and not by the government based out of d.c. it will come by bad leadership and hard economic times, it will be preceded by a great number of people claiming to have the answers but none will have all ...there be one with ideas for a possible solution and that person will be known by many.

      hehe interrupt that! 🙂

      October 17, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Anglican

      Hippy. I do believe things will get worse in the West, and how we emerge will certainly be different than where we started. Quiet sad, but it is simply evolution. Yes, we evolve.

      October 17, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Bo, famine in the land in the Bible prophecies means refusing to hear the truth about Jesus. It's the phony preachers doing this to the people, giving them feel good messages as they pick and chose a few scriptures of Jesus instead of teaching Jesus' truth book by book, scripture by scripture the way His message is suppose to be taught.


      October 17, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      Heaven sent. So your god starves people to make point... If he were real i would be very concerned..

      October 17, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yeah, well god is kinda like HS. He smacks us all upside the head to make sure we're listening.

      As if.

      October 17, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  20. Anglican

    Prayer and hard work. The primary issue Is that we must brings God's love and grace along with the food we bring. The Bread of Life must come first in the faces of those who bring bread. Also, we all, those of faith, and our brothers and sisters who are atheist must lobby to erase third world debt. This is a must.

    October 17, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      While I agree that the world debt must be erased, it is not going to happen in our lifetimes unfortunately. Praying for anything is not helping. No-one should have to listen to fallacies in order to get a warm meal. There are other ways for people to be assisted without the need for the god delusion to be shoved down their throats.

      October 17, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Anglican

      I guess we shall see.

      October 17, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • HeavenSent

      TruthPrevails, you wrote "While I agree that the world debt must be erased, it is not going to happen in our lifetimes unfortunately. Praying for anything is not helping. No-one should have to listen to fallacies in order to get a warm meal. There are other ways for people to be assisted without the need for the god delusion to be shoved down their throats."

      Answer: Each generation is different. The baton for world leaders is being passed to the youth as the old timers retire. Jesus' truth is the most positive message anyone could hear even though you non-believers have no ears to hear or eyes to see His truth. Yet, you pick and chose what messages you want to steal into your tool belt of life, change where it came from and of course, call it your own.

      Time for your generation to get things down that you constantly complain about on this blog.


      October 17, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      Hard thinking ,not prayer, will solve the problems. God would not need to be reminded to help the starving why would he/her? Humanity to the rescue as it has always been. I agree that organized groups, such as churches, have been a help in these areas, they may have also contributed to some of the problems in the first place.

      October 17, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Yaz

      Just a reminder Ms. Truth, you forgot to take me last night, so tonight remember to take two of me. Oh, and i am just a sugar pill this week, so no foreplay...sorry mr truth 😦

      October 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • HellBent

      "Jesus' truth is the most positive message anyone could hear even though you non-believers have no ears to hear or eyes to see His truth"

      Yup – believe or burn. Extortion is oh-so happy!

      October 17, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.