Scarcity Mentality

Why do the poor make such bad decisions - is it a lack of character or a lack of cash – or something else?

A few years ago, I spent months sitting and listening to people’s life stories in the horrific, dangerous slums of Freetown, Sierra Leone. A place where sickness is rife, fight for survival dominates the daily routine and where death comes early.  

I listened as those who live a life dominated by physical poverty took time to share their challenges and fears alongside their hopes, dreams and visions.

The insights I gained caused a course correction in my life.

As I visited government, NGO’s, embassies and businesses, no one had a plan for nearly one million people who live like this.  I concluded that if I didn’t do something then perhaps no one else would.

Observing this behaviour, attitudes and actions, I asked, “Why do the poor make such bad decisions?”

It seemed as though dishonesty was trained from birth.  Is it, as Mrs Thatcher said, ‘a personality defect’? Or is it as simple as a lack of character or lack of cash?  These are the questions I now wrestle with.

In a land that in the last 25 years has known little but corruption, civil war, disease and death there seemed little hope.  There was no sense of future.  If I offered £10 or instead gave a job for life, they would always take the £10 as no one could be trusted to stand the test of time.
I realised that what these peoples faced was a scarcity mentality.

My judgement melted and, with empathy, I faced the stark reality that if I lived with their daily challenges, I would probably make equally bad choices.

I established a new mission called Home Leone.  Now we have built 60 homes, opened a primary school, moved over 200 people, set up businesses and much more.  The journey with those who have moved to Destiny Village is challenging.  We might yet write a book titled “You can’t make it up.”

It seems to me that much of the international aid industry is often about trying to “fix” people.  To adopt our western ways and value systems.  We see huge sums of money invested in gender and women’s rights, healthcare, etc., some well used, some less so. It says we can educate people out of poverty.

I observe that Freetown’s slums look like they did when I first visited in 2003, only bigger, despite millions of pounds of aid poured into the nation.

We find that faith is used as a badge rather than a lifestyle and belief.

Secret societies and satanic animism trump the Christian and Muslim veneer. Beating your wife and children, stealing from your employer is the norm.

I am passionate about bringing change and have given my life to it.  In this short blog I could not do the subject justice so will leave you just a few thoughts to ponder.

Being poor, where every day is about survival, is endemic across the world.  Our massive wealth, however, could deal with it simply by giving everyone say $1,000 per month, regardless of whether they work.

Giving money could work - seeing people move from fear of lack to certainty of survival.
The few attempts to try this (like one in Canada in the 1960s) saw population health improve.  Those of us with the money, though, often want others to have it, as long as there is no sacrifice for us.  We don’t realise that we’re as rich as we are. As someone noted, “We drive our cars and 92% of the world’s population watch us drive by and say, ‘Rich’”.

The story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46) says ‘what you did for the least of these you did for me’.  And then it counters with ‘what you didn’t do for the least of these you didn’t do for me’. If you read this in isolation, you may think that it is our good works which save us as the consequences of not doing are devastating.

COVID affects us in different ways – some become very rich and others poorer.  If Sierra Leone was another UK county rather than a 3,000-mile-away nation I suggest we would not tolerate that poverty in our own back yard.

As Christians, what is our responsibility to those dying of their poverty but out of media focus?  
The aid industry seems to say poverty can be educated out of people.  To some extent we are seeing that the training and insights we bring are making a difference to some.

What I conclude though is that, despite pouring in a few million pounds, without a change of heart and encounter with Jesus, life for so many remains a battle.

So whilst Poverty may have elements that can be addressed partly by cash and partly by education, I observe that freedom from the prevailing scarcity mentality can only come through an encounter with Jesus, who offers a new worldview and fresh insight.

My prayer for us today, as we consider the poor in stuff and spirit, at home and abroad, is based on the men of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32): “They understood the signs of the times and knew what they should do”.
Nigel Hyde