12 Days of Giveaways - Spin & Win! Sign up before Dec. 25th to win daily prizes and a $250 Amazon.com Gift Card. Find out details.

“A Mind for the Poor”: Avoiding the Traps

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Thursday, July 16, 2009

“A Mind for the Poor”: Avoiding the Traps

July 16, 2009

Abdoulaye Wade has been president of Senegal in West Africa since 2000. During that time, he has been one of Africa’s most enthusiastic proponents of economic development. “I don’t want money,” he has said, “and I don’t want hand-outs. I want trade agreements.”

I thought of President Wade while reading an essay in the book In the River They Swim: Essays from Around the World on Enterprise Solutions to Poverty. The essay by Andreas Widmer, co-founder of the S.E.VEN. Fund, “A Mind for the Poor,” provides the principles for economic development that the stories and ideas in the book illustrate.  Widmer learned these principles in, of all places, a pastoral counseling class at seminary. 

Father John, the instructor, warned his students of four traps into which would-be counselors fall: “employing crisis intervention instead of counseling, having sympathy rather than empathy, being a codependent, and playing the redeemer.”

“As I listened further,” writes Widmer, “it struck me that counseling and development are susceptible to the same set of traps.” 

If someone’s spouse dies, crisis intervention is the correct response.  Filling the refrigerator with meals, running errands, and being a shoulder to cry on are necessary immediately after the death, but over time these become harmful. The need for crisis intervention shrinks over time as the need for counseling grows.

Regarding development, Widmer writes:

Humanitarian aid and economic development are different both in their nature and in what drives them. …Humanitarian aid seeks to relieve imminent but passing threats. It is much like crisis counseling. Economic development comes later and is more like long term counseling.

He then addresses sympathy and empathy. “Sympathy,” Widmer writes, “occurs when we make someone else’s problem ours.” This is the best response to a crisis when a friend or the poor can do little or nothing to help themselves.  Sympathy offers a solution that we prescribe and pursue.

Empathy, on the other hand, “is the ability to look at a situation from another person’s perspective.” Empathy is a walking with people through their problems, adding advice and encouragement. Rather than prescribing solutions, empathy is empowering.

Widmer notes:

Many good people who want to assist the poor identify with them and want to help them directly. That usually means “solving” the problems of the poor for them, through government or other outside intervention. These solutions are driven by sympathy; they take over and attempt to act in place of the poor themselves. In that sense, they paternalize the poor and deny their right to self-determination.

Sympathy, to use the old adage, gives out free fish. Empathy is about the freedom to fish.

Remaining in the crisis intervention mode and providing prescriptive sympathy lead to the third trap: dependence and codependence. Widmer believes that we have already arrived at the point in development where “’helping’ others becomes a form of enabling them to perpetuate their need for help.” There is a foreign aid industry that needs the poor to stay poor and needy, a sad situation for everyone.

The final and most dangerous trap—dangerous because it is the most destructive and the most seductive—is the redeemer trap. In a crisis, a redeemer coming to the rescue is a God-send. Long term, however, there is only one Redeemer and forcing our rescue efforts on others invariably leads to new crises.

Widmer comments:

Westerners enter the stage of economic development thinking of the help we can offer and the good we can do. Under the current economic playbook, we see ourselves entering to the sound of trumpets and fanfare to rescue the poor and bring justice and prosperity to all. We are the heroes of our own movie.

The problem with this scenario is what happens when the westerners leave. The blight left at the end of colonialism in Africa is a grim example of what happens: things fall apart, sometimes in frightening ways.

Widmer leaves his readers with three questions:

Do our development solutions enable the target countries to participate in global markets? Are our solutions focused on reducing poverty (the problem) or on creating wealth (the solution)? Would we be more effective by opening our markets to trade with developing nations and doing business with them, rather than engaging in the aid cycle?

Crisis interventions—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, housing the homeless, comforting the sorrowful, freeing victims of injustice—are moral imperatives. They should all, however, be short-term moral imperatives that give way to another moral imperative: a larger liberation of poor people and nations to be what God has called them to be. This approach involves the rule of law, human liberty, and wealth creation through entrepreneurial economic development. 

As Rwandan President Paul Kagame writes in In the River They Swam:

How can Rwanda join the ranks of the more successful developing countries, those that have transformed themselves in a single generation? It is increasingly clear to us that entrepreneurship is the surest way for a nation to meet those goals, and to develop prosperity for the greatest number of people.

This is “a mind for the poor” that properly balances a heart for the poor.


The Institute on Religion & Democracy is an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform our churches' social witness, in accord with biblical and historic teachings, thereby contributing to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad.  IRD depends on support from people like you.  Click here to learn how you can help support IRD's mission.