The Ultimate Resource: Investing in Human Potential

What if misery was a product?” asks June Arunga.

“Assume for an instant that it is one of Africa’s exports, and that the money sent to relieve it by many well-wishing humanitarians is a form of capital. The amount of capital expended to purchase this product makes it as great an export — if not greater — than Nigeria’s oil or Congo’s gems.”

This comes from a speech by Arunga at a recent event sponsored by The Economist. I highly recommend watching the video in full (HT).

Arunga covers a few specific areas related to the ineffectiveness of foreign aid, but her main concern seems to be this:

The scary thing for me might be that [foreign aid is] not merely ineffective, but that it is in itself a form of investment in misery…It is a choice to invest in pain and suffering rather than in aspiration and human potential…It is a choice between on the one hand, a blinding pessimism, and on the other hand, an illuminating optimism. It is a choice between denial and acknowledgement of human potential.

Arunga provides a few scenarios to illustrate how aid proponents typically approach Africa’s downtrodden, focusing primarily on one poor woman’s struggle toward upward mobility. Those who view this woman as a hopeless victim, Arunga argues, are making the mistake of seeing Africa as a “continent of failure and business losses.”

As Arunga explains:

They are part of that same pessimism that insists that the only products worth investing in are misery and minerals. To turn toward the woman in that slum and focus on her aspirations is a matter of seeing her. This is what it is to acknowledge and then act on human potential — what Julian Simon calls, “the ultimate resource,” which is human beings’ imagination, ambition, and intelligence.

Arunga is speaking about foreign aid, but I’d like to take her perspective in a different direction. My question is this:

As Christians, do we make similar mistakes in our efforts analyze and meet the needs of others?

June ArungaThis would obviously include any material needs (as Arunga articulates), but what about spiritual ones? Do we see our neighbors as hopeless sinners and mere victims in need of our charity, or do we see them as Jesus does — as valuable individuals worthy of his overarching transformation and empowerment? If we attempt to debase Christ’s calling toward mere stagnation and humanistic do-gooderness, how much potential will we end up limiting?

Instead, we need to do as Arunga suggests. We need to recognize that every individual has imagination, ambition, and intelligence that God wishes (and plans) to leverage for His glory. Only when we recognize humans’ universal potential for such leverage will we ourselves be able execute our own individual callings to the fullest.

In other words, Argunga’s advice could just as well be given to the Church as it could to Bono.

We would do well to listen.

Note: Arunga’s perspective mirrors that of a few other prominent thinkers. If you are interested in the topic of mainstream foreign aid and its limitations, I encourage you to look up William Easterly, Matt Ridley, Dambisa Moyo, and Arnold Kling.

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