Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why Christian Developing Countries Are More Unequal that Others

My friend Martin Allaby is a public health doctor and researcher who has recently published the book of his PhD dissertation: Inequality, Corruption and the Church: Challenges and Opportunities in the Global Church (Oxford: Regnum, 2013) (buy here). The book is the fruit of Allaby’s research into the causes of economic inequality around the world with a view to mobilizing Christians to do something about it. When Allaby first suggested his research topic to me at the school gate in Nepal, where we were both living at the time, I must admit I was sceptical. After all, how can anyone compare very different countries around the world and come up with anything conclusive about the relation between religion and poverty? Undeterred, Allaby, who had been working in public health in poor urban neighbourhoods believed it should be possible to isolate the data in such a way that something useful may be drawn from it for church and mission to reflect on and hopefully do something about. Several years later, and back to public health in Britain, Allaby has published his findings. 
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Allaby was, and continues to be, very concerned (as we all should be, of course) about the plight of the world’s poor. It is one thing for a doctor like him to travel with his family to serve the poor in a place like Nepal. But that wasn’t enough for Allaby. It wasn’t long before he had figured out that there wasn’t enough of him to go around and he might do more good challenging the local church to get more involved in poverty alleviation. After all, the church in Nepal was growing rapidly and should be able to take on the challenge of holistic mission.

If I remember right, Allaby thought (or was it just hoped?), naively as it turned out, that developing countries with a majority Christian and particularly Protestant population would be the least unequal economically. It wasn’t long before he discovered that the very opposite was true: economic inequality is, in fact, greatest in Christian, and especially Protestant, developing countries. How could this be? Isn’t the gospel supposed to impact the pocket of the believer as well as his soul? A careful reading of the literature, and field studies in the Philippines, Kenya, Zambia and Peru enabled him to explain this apparently incongruent fact.

What are Allaby’s conclusions? “It turns out that, although Christianity is associated with the main influences on economic inequality, it is not a significant cause of inequality in itself” (195, my emphasis). Economic inequality is greatest in countries that export raw materials, such as minerals, and where governments are large and corrupt. Many such countries have a majority population that identifies itself as Christian. How has that happened? Such countries, Allaby argues, had a pre-colonial history characterized by a relatively sparse population and unsophisticated technology, political organization and religion. This made such societies much more ready to convert to Christianity than the relatively densely populated and technologically and culturally sophisticated societies of Asia.

This problem of a high reliance on raw materials for export is often accompanied in Protestant developing countries by large and corrupt governments. These, Allaby asserts, are probably the result of colonial authorities trying to leave behind the legacy of a functioning welfare state upon independence. Corruption wasn’t controlled and state resources meant for the poor have been diverted to the ruling elite.

You might ask how it is that so many of those developing countries had sparse and technologically, and culturally unsophisticated populations. To answer that question, I would encourage you to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everything for the Last 13,000 Years (London: Vintage, 1997). This fascinating book, by an evolutionary ornithologist as it happens, explains among a host of other things, how it is that the societies of sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas were so susceptible to being taken over by the colonial forces of Europe from 1492, why they had sparse populations, and why they were so ready to convert to the religion of their colonial masters. The relative technological and cultural advancement of Eurasia is largely, says Diamond, to do with the continent’s E-W orientation. (To treat Eurasia as two continents really doesn’t make sense at all and is a Eurocentric geographical construct of the first order.) The Americas and sub-Saharan Africa are oriented N-S and relatively cut off from the major cultural advances that were going on in Eurasia over the last several millennia. It is as simple as that, as Diamond argues most cogently. 

Back to Allaby: the second conclusion that Allaby draws from his data is that Christians can most readily reduce economic inequality in their countries by tackling corruption. In relatively wealthy majority Christian countries governments tend to be much less corrupt. This, says Allaby, is because they are also the countries where Christian influence has been more long-lasting. Christians in developing countries where the church is young and corruption rife need to avoid the twin evils of withdrawal from the world and such involvement in the world that they lose their distinctive character. My prayer is that Allaby’s study will be read and its message taken on board and acted on.


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