Six Luminaries Answer Students' Questions on Poverty

Six Luminaries Answer Students' Questions on Poverty

Last week, the Stein Center for Social Research at Ave Maria University, together with the Mother Teresa Project, held its second annual conference, “Reimagining Care for the Poor.” At the luncheon on Friday, November 6, a panel of nationally recognized speakers spoke to Ave Maria students on the various aspects of poverty in the United States and the challenges of addressing global poverty.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Catherine Pakaluk, Chair of the Economics Department at Ave Maria University, Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Pakaluk opened the panel session with an anecdote from her own experience applying to graduate school. When asked by her advisor why she wanted to pursue graduate studies in economics, Pakaluk replied that it was because she “cared about people” and wanted to make their lives better. She was warned by her advisor not to say that in her applications—that she cared about people—if she wanted to get into a competitive graduate program. In response, Pakaluk resolved to herself: “When I eventually finish graduate school and teach college, I will not seek to reproduce that kind of cynicism among students.”

Introducing the members of the panel, Pakaluk said that they were all there “because they are trying to help.” She encouraged the students to ask questions about “why and how you can build a life around helping people.”

I. Do international organizations cause more harm than good?

The first question a student asked was about whether or not international organizations with the mission of alleviating global poverty end up causing more harm than good in the countries within which they operate.

Andreas Widmer (Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at The Catholic University of America, President of The Carpenter’s Fund, and co-founder of SEVEN Fund, a philanthropic organization run by entrepreneurs who invested in original research, books, and films to further enterprise solutions to poverty) was the first to respond. He drew an analogy to crisis counseling, explaining that “the situation of crisis is, by definition, short-lived; therefore,” he said, “you should never set up any kind of aid that institutionalizes itself.” Once we shift away from fighting crisis to fighting the status quo, Widmer pointed out, then we no longer need to supply aid, but integral human development.

Jonathan Reyes (Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and former President/CEO of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Denver) agreed with the distinction Widmer made between immediate crisis and alleviation. The ongoing project of alleviation, Reyes said, often involves helping to rebuild infrastructure and establishing markets in these countries. “Part of the beauty of the Catholic Church,” he commented, “[is that] the Church is one of the few institutions on the ground that actually knows the people and knows the place. … We have access to helping to know the systems and solutions that actually involve the people there.”

Robert Keith (co-founder & CEO of two high profile startups and a broad-based executive with more than 25 years of experience in building and growing innovative, high-impact life science businesses) added that, based on his own experience, there needs to be a focus “on creating an optimal environment for humans to flourish” and on “creating conditions by which individuals can discover their gifts.”

[Above: Jonathan Reyes responds to a student’s question.]

II. How do we get to where you are?

A second student, inspired by the testimonies of the panel speakers, asked how she could follow a similar path and use the years after college productively in order to arrive at where the speakers are today—in varying positions of being able to offer real answers to the problems of poverty in the world.

Erika Bachiochi (an American legal scholar who specializes in feminist legal theory, Equal Protection jurisprudence, Catholic social teaching, and sexual ethics) replied: “My simple answer would be: Pray. Spend a lot of time in front of the Blessed Sacrament.” Her second piece of advice was to follow your questions, and to follow your desire to serve. “One of the main prayers I always prayed was: How can I help?” Bachiochi recommended that the students watch the address Seamus Hasson, Founder of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, gave at Ave Maria University’s 2013 Commencement; Hasson, reflecting on the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, told the graduating AMU students repeatedly to “ask God to let you help.”

Robert Reynolds (Partner at Avesta, a company which renovates apartment buildings in order to provide families with clean homes in which they can live abundantly) replied that he did premed in college, taught for seven years, and now owns a real estate company. “So, there’s that clear path,” he joked. The path, he went on, “doesn’t have to be straightforward.” For him, he was guided by the desire “to make a difference” and to avoid treating people as income. Reynolds concluded his comments by emphasizing the importance of being guided by prayer and trusting that God will lead you where He wants you to be.

David Lapp (Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, and Contributing Editor at the I Believe in Love Project) suggested that there was something to be said for living alongside people in poverty, in daily contact with their needs. “Let ourselves be evangelized by the poor,” he recommended. Quoting the theologian Frederick Buechner, Lapp said: “Your vocation is where your gift best meets the world’s need.” By spending time among the poor, we will be able to get a sense of the meeting place between our gifts and the needs of others.

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[From left to right: Bachiochi, Widmer, Reyes, Lapp, Reynolds]

III. What is the “logic of the gift”?

The third question from the audience asked the panelists to expound on something Lapp had said in his keynote address the night before, namely, that, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, we should think of economics from the point of view of the “logic of the gift.”

Widmer replied that he and Pakaluk had co-authored a paper on this topic in which they make the point that “just starting a company to begin with is an act of charity… If you create meaningful work and allow others to fulfill their God-given talent…that’s an act of charity.” Furthermore, Widmer said, deciding to create more jobs by reinvesting the money instead of taking it out of the company is an act of “magnanimity.” A second way of understanding doing business as a gift, he said, is paying intention to where and how we do business. Doing business, for example, in a neighborhood that is suffering economically can also be considered as a gift.

Reyes followed up by saying that what Benedict was pointing to is that when humans interact, they rarely treat one another strictly as some kind of financial calculus. “Is there a space in business,” Reyes posed the question, “that would say gift is actually part of the relationship between employer and employee, between consumer and producer? Is there some way in which we can look at this as more than just financial exchange?”

IV. How are we expected to do business in a corrupt environment?

The fourth and final question addressed the issue of fighting corruption in Third World countries, asking how it is possible do business in unstable environments.

Keith replied that the answer comes down to culture and the ways of going about daily life. “The ability to act in a certain ethical and noble way with long-term stewardship mentality can go a long way,” he said, “but it also takes great individuals going against the grain.”

Widmer joined in with his own experience doing business in emerging countries, remarking: “How do you change corruption? Not easily, and slowly.” As Christians, do we go in and say we won’t do business, or do we go in and start doing business, moving yard by yard. “Maybe you can’t change it short-term,” he said, “but you can change it long-term. … If you avoid it altogether, I find, especially in business, that you become part of the problem rather than part of the solution by not being there.” Widmer closed by warning against treating the poor as if they were stupid. Any one of us, in a similar situation, would act as they do. “They are exactly like you and me,” he said.

Reyes added that “corruption does more than prevent business, corruption actually can create bad business.” The situation of doing business in emerging countries is “complex,” he said, and the question needs to be explored further, because sometimes we can end up creating “business opportunities that are bad for the country in the long run.”

Bachiochi had the last word, drawing a comparison to the corruption in our own government. Many Americans have lost faith in the political process, she said, but we don’t pull out because it is corrupt. As Christians, the answer to this problem is that we must work to put ourselves “in positions of influence.”

The panelists made themselves available afterwards for further discussion with the students.  

Reimagining Care for the Poor (Nov. 5-6, 2015) was the second conference organized by the Stein Center for Social Research at Ave Maria University through the support of the recently launched Mother Teresa Project. The meeting facilitated creative discussion about the possibility of developing new, Church-based solutions to poverty in the United States, with a particular emphasis on parish activities of the Catholic Church. The unifying thread between the conference participants was a passion for the poor and the firm conviction that strong church communities are vital to social change.