Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a lot to say about poverty as well as racial injustice. I wrote this post for the Microcredit Summit Campaign’s website a few years ago, and it speaks to the same issues raised here on the Soul of Finance site.
On Monday, January 21, in the United States we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Dr. King represents for us a man who used moral vision and courage to bring about a change that started first in people’s hearts, and then moved into actions and law. He fought for change in a way that highlighted injustice while calling people of all faiths and races to work together to overcome it.
Dr. King’s vision went far beyond garnering equal rights for his own racial group. His experience of oppression and suffering led him to identify with all who suffer from systems and structures that exclude them. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. King used the metaphor of a “World House” to remind us that we all inhabit the same fragile planet and that the way we live together will either make the house more habitable or destroy it altogether. (You can hear the full acceptance speech here.)
Dr. King talked about the great advance that humankind has made in science and technology, but then he contrasted that with another important aspect of humanity that had not seen the same measure of progress. “In spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.”
In some ways, Dr. King’s descriptions of scientific progress in 1964 accurately describe the field of microfinance after years of rapid and unchecked growth. We have made spectacular strides in the numbers of clients we serve and in the financial performance of the institutions that serve them. Yet, as our investors expand their material riches, we still struggle to reach that moral richness that so defined the original intentions of our industry, to serve those living in severe poverty, and to make it possible for them to improve their lives.
Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau: ‘Improved means to an unimproved end.’ This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual ‘lag’ must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul.
In many ways we have seen the truth of Dr. King’s word played out in microfinance. We have greatly improved the means by which we deliver our services and measure our performance, but we are avoiding the moral imperative of our work. We are evading the responsibility to demonstrate whether we are accomplishing what we set out to do. Our “enlarged material powers” are leading to “enlarged peril” for clients in places like Andhra Pradesh , Nicaragua , and Morocco.
Dr. King then points to three interconnected global problems that grow out of what he called our “ethical infantilism”: racial injustice, poverty, and war. He describes poverty as “a monstrous octopus [that] projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world.”
“There is nothing new about poverty,” Dr. King points out.
What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it…There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed—not only its symptoms but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task.
In our work in microfinance we have tended to shy away from this fierce struggle. When our poverty measurement tools show us that we might not be reaching people very far below the poverty line, we blame the tool or we change our terminology to talk about serving the excluded. When academic studies show that financial services alone may not be enough to help clients move and stay out of poverty, we learn to talk about offering people better financial choices instead.
Dr. King would have none of this. He looked squarely at the mountain of global poverty and told us to start climbing.
The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’ Deeply etched in the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that [all people] are made in the image of God and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value, the heirs of a legacy of dignity and worth. If we feel this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see [people] hungry, to see [them] victimized with starvation and ill health when we have the means to help them.
In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny.
Microfinance operates in that delicate space where personal good and social good overlap, where owners and operators of microfinance providers make decisions about how much profit our clients keep and how much goes to us and our investors. It takes moral discipline to make these decisions well, and the best way to develop that discipline is to keep Dr. King’s challenge in mind. We do that by measuring our success not by the size and profitability of our institutions, but by the number of people who have moved out of severe poverty.
Dr. King often talked about “the fierce urgency of now,” of not waiting to for a better time to take on the injustice that we see around us. We have an opportunity, now, today, to be part of a larger movement that brings an end to severe poverty in our world. It is time for us to take up the challenge of pursuing a remedy no matter how formidable the struggle, to openly and honestly measure our progress toward reaching our end goal, and to erase the deficit in human will to act in the fierce urgency of now.