by Michael Matheson Miller
What role should the business leader and the entrepreneur play in helping the poor and promoting social justice in the developing world? As Legatus celebrates its 25th anniversary and looks forward to the future, this is an important question for reflection.
When we look at the reality of poverty in the developing world, the statistics can be overwhelming. Over 2 billion people live on less than $2 per day, and hundreds of millions are hungry. The Church lists almsgiving, fasting and prayer as the “three eminently good works.” All Christians, no matter our state in life, are called to be detached from material things and to be generous with our wealth. But what else can we do? Is there a specific place for business leaders in helping the poor?
In my experience, I don’t hear much about the role of business with regard to poverty and social justice. I find an implicit — if not explicit — suspicion about business as if it’s somehow part of the problem and cause of poverty. In fact, several businesspeople have told me that they don’t have much to say or contribute to these discussions. They’re missing the important role that business leaders and entrepreneurs can play in helping the poor — not only by giving alms, but by forming partnerships with the poor, training, investing and helping to build businesses.
Poverty is complex and there are many needs that require all sorts of skills and gifts. Emergency assistance has its place, but the way to alleviate poverty in the long run is for people in the developing world to create wealth and prosperity for their families and communities. When we think about the developing world, we often wonder why such poverty exists and how to alleviate it. But those aren’t the right questions. Poverty has been the norm for most people throughout history. The real question is: How do we create wealth?
That’s where businesspeople come in. Governments can help by providing clear private property rights, rule of law and justice. But they cannot create wealth. The Church is essential because it helps build a moral culture that supports strong families and vibrant communities. But the Church’s function is not to create wealth. Wealth is created through business and entrepreneurship.
The medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides discussed eight different levels of charity. He argues that the highest level of charity is to give a loan or partner with someone so they can engage in productive enterprise and no longer be dependent upon others.
I met a young Kenyan businessman named Joshua living in one of the largest slums in Africa. He had searched unsuccessfully for work for two years. Finally he borrowed some money — about $8 — from a friend to start a small business, which I had the chance to visit. It’s small, and he works from 5 am to 10 pm almost every day. But he’s growing the business and saving money to pay for his child’s education. He hopes to move to a place where he can acquire private property and register his business. That’s just one small example of how a small loan or investment can change someone’s life.
It’s important to remember that it’s not just small loans that are needed. Also necessary is the growth of the small- and medium-sized business sector, which accounts for close to 75% of employment and GDP in the U.S. and Europe. In the developing world, however, there are very few mid-sized companies. There are many reasons for this, but one is lack of access to financing, training and partnerships. This is an area where Catholic business leaders could bring their skills and their desire to make a difference. As my friend Andreas Widmer, author of The Pope and the CEO, says, “We give aid to Africa, but we don’t do business with Africa.” What if Catholic business owners started doing business with the developing world?
Earlier this year, I met an entrepreneur in Haiti who makes solar panels. He worked with a solar-panel expert to develop appropriate technology. They received training from a Michigan-based company with expertise in construction. Some of their contacts came from a Protestant organization called Partners Worldwide, which connects business owners in the U.S. to entrepreneurs in the developing world. Can you imagine what would happen if Catholic business owners and entrepreneurs were involved? Think of how many parishes in the U.S. have twin parishes in the developing world.
As Legatus moves into its next 25 years, I encourage you to think about how to bring your faith and business skills to bear on questions of poverty, social justice and development. It’s not easy and there isn’t single or simple solution to poverty, but the role that faithful Catholic businesspeople can play has been overlooked. It’s time to change the paradigm.
Michael Matheson Miller is a research fellow and director of media at the Acton Institute. He is currently leading PovertyCure, an international network of organizations which promotes enterprise solutions to poverty rooted in a Christian understanding of the human person.