Seeing poverty on the television is one thing. It is quite another thing to see it up close and personal, as I did on a brief trip to Kenya at the beginning of July. Though I spent most of my five days in one of two guest houses, it was very obvious from the pot holes in the road, the age of our cab, the ramshackle shops at the roadside and, above all, the enormous numbers of people on foot, that this was a country which enjoyed very few of the privileges we take for granted.
Even the guest-houses, one run by the Anglican church, the other by the Presbyterians, were a reminder of the poverty, since access was only through a barrier controlled by a security guard. Indeed, the most smartly dressed people in Kenya seemed to be these guards at every entrance to every private building or complex, including the Anglican cathedral!
Just as well, then, that the point of my being there was to attend a workshop on Micro-enterprise and poverty reduction, organized by the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK).
Micro-enterprise refers to the very small-scale businesses, sometimes only requiring a few pounds in capital investment. But although this may be a trifling amount to us, for people in developing countries it is a significant amount, and their willingness to borrow this money reflects a entrepreneurial spirit worthy of any contestant on TV shows like Dragon’s Den or Tycoon.
The church’s involvement is simple. About 17% of the population of Kenya are Anglicans (many more, of course, are members of other denominations), the majority of whom are poor. The church sees it as part of their mission to address that poverty.
One of the important things I realized while I was there, however, was that traditional approaches based on overseas aid have largely failed to reduce poverty. People have certainly been helped. In some cases they have even been helped to reach a level of self-sufficiency. Yet there has been little or no reduction of poverty itself.
If we are, as a recent campaign has said, to ‘make poverty history’, it will not happen through poverty-relief but only through economic growth. That is why the workshop title spoke of poverty reduction. The need is not just to help poor people, it is to enable poor people, quite frankly, to become a bit richer!
And this is where, to an extent, the church struggles. A point made several times in the workshop was that there is a mistrust of business people in the Christian community. The suspicion is that anyone who is successful must be corrupt (a suspicion which, of course, has some basis in fact!). There is also a widespread attitude that if you are Christian you are not expected to be business-like. The Christian is not expected to charge as much for their goods and services or to be as diligent as the non-Christian in seeking payment! (Indeed, if you look at the finances of our this parish magazine over the last few years, you’ll see it is an attitude not just confined to Kenya.)
So there were many challenges to be faced, and not just the obvious ones of helping the poor or feeding the hungry.
My rôle in all this was to give three morning Bible readings. (If you’d like to hear them, they are available on the Ugley Vicar weblog.) My first talk dealt with the nature of the fallen world, and the paradoxical way that in the Bible it is the bad guys, the descendants of Cain in Genesis 4 and the builders of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, who seem to be the ones with all the ‘civilizing’ skills.
Next, I considered how the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments, gives us a challenge to be radical in our dealings with other people. As part of the practical application, I considered the firm of Cadbury’s, founded by Quakers in the 19th century, who not only built factories but provided for the physical and moral welfare of their workers.
Finally, I looked at the problem of how to avoid just becoming Westernized — can countries like Kenya undergo economic development without losing their soul?
After six days away, I was glad to get back home — glad to be driving on good roads, glad not to sleep under a mosquito net, glad not to be woken up at 5.30am by the call to prayer from the mosque next door, glad to be able to clean my teeth in tap water.
However, this is not the end. The next stage is to think through how we in the churches in this country can help with poverty reduction in places like Kenya. Until now, I must admit, I’d largely thought of the help we could provide in terms of theological skills for training church leaders and money to help buy resources. Now I’m beginning to realize what we can contribute is business skills. Our churches are full of people who know how to generate wealth, and they have something which these places need. That is a whole new way of thinking, and one which we are all going to have to work on.