Peter Greer is the president and CEO of HOPE International, an economic development organization serving throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Ashley Dickens works as senior HOPE experience facilitator.
The coronavirus pandemic is having a devastating economic impact on people living in global poverty. We are in a moment that requires immediate, full-scale relief.
Such a statement may come as a surprise to those who know me. As head of a Christian organization focused on economic development and microfinance, I have been a vocal critic of indiscriminate charity and long-term handouts. Too often, misapplied relief is like a Band-Aid stuck on a broken bone. Instead, it’s jobs and sustainable development that can make a marked difference in the lives of individuals, families, and even entire communities.
Spending the last 20 years in international development, I’ve seen firsthand how charity efforts have not only failed to help but have caused lasting damage in communities around the globe. Books like Dead Aid, Toxic Charity, and When Helping Hurts have put to paper what the world has experienced when aid has been misapplied.
Yet, over the past few months, even this pro-business, pro-entrepreneur, and pro-sustainability leader has become pro-relief. We’ve seen the coronavirus pandemic wreak havoc across our world—precipitating country-wide lockdowns and sending the global economy into a tailspin. The impact is even more severe among families living in poverty. Many of these families were the least equipped to deal with COVID-19 and have been the most devastated by it.
In the wake of an emergency, families do not need another microloan, more skills training, or even a safe place to save their money. Right now, from India to Zimbabwe, people living in poverty are telling us the same thing: We need relief, and we need it now.
Pivoting our priorities
Some economists estimate that the impact of COVID-19 will send some countries back 30 years in their fight against extreme poverty. We’ve heard from men and women in low-income countries that their primary concern right now is not fear of the virus; it’s fear of starvation. The virus creates a “crisis within the crisis,” where the health emergency exacerbates food insecurity and poverty.
At HOPE International, we’re seeing the devastation caused by COVID-19 play out in real time. Farmers are eating their seeds to survive—leaving them with nothing to plant in the future. Entrepreneurs who raise livestock to sell are now living off of them. Shopkeepers are eating their inventory. As threats of hunger loom large, the small businesses that entrepreneurs have diligently built over many years are crumbling before their eyes. And for most of them, there will be no government bailouts or safety nets.
It’s not just about food, either. For many living in poverty, it’s an unimaginable luxury to even be able to follow the global health guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. For example, social distancing is nearly impossible for families in crowded slums, and extra hand washing is especially difficult in places without regular access to clean water. Should they become ill, people living in poverty are the last to receive limited resources like tests, medical care, and ventilators.
Thankfully, we’ve seen the world spring into action. The United Nations (UN) sent life-saving supplies to frontline workers and food to the most vulnerable. The World Health Organization (WHO) shipped personal protective equipment and 1.5 million diagnostic kits to 135 countries. And organizations like Preemptive Love, Partners Worldwide, and Plant with Purpose are actively responding to vulnerable families in need.