Why Should We Be Thinking about New Approaches to Alleviating Poverty? Interview with Michael Matheson Miller, Part 1


What is the best way to help the poor locally and globally? That’s the main question of Poverty Cure, a 6-episode documentary that promotes an approach to poverty with economic intelligence and genuine faith. We spoke with Michael Mattheson Miller, host and director of Poverty Cure to learn more about the documentary and their global partnerships, but we also learned a lot about poverty and development. In this first section of our interview, we asked about his personal beginnings with poverty and development, and we learned a lot about why we should be thinking about new approaches to alleviating poverty.



Todd Scacewater: So you’ve created this documentary and initiative to promote more economically successful ways of helping the poor. What got you interested in poverty alleviation and development in the first place?

mmmillerMichael M. Miller: There are a couple of things. I had studied international development in graduate school, and I remember everything was a top-down social engineering approach. Nobody really took markets, business, or religion very seriously. It was all kind of this secular, social engineering to eradicate poverty based on foreign aid, and it seemed intuitively off track and didn’t hit the real issue or ask the right questions.

I remember thinking about the simple question, not so much why there is poverty, but how do you create wealth? Most people over time have been poor, so why are some nations more wealthy than others? It was almost like poverty was this strange aberration from the norm of wealth. But nobody else was asking those questions.

Ask not so much why there is so much poverty, but rather how to create wealth Click To Tweet

So then I remember looking around for different sources and there weren’t many. Of course, the great P. T. Bauer who had done great work and been always critical of the dominant approaches to development, such as social engineering and foreign aid. In a place where aid might work, they don’t need it, because they create their own prosperity. But in a place where people get aid it won’t work because they don’t have the right institutions of justice.

So there was P. T. Bauer, but even in the Christian space that was favorable to markets, such as Michael Novak, the Acton Institute (which I didn’t know at the time and had just started), they weren’t really dealing with it. And Hayek and the Austrian school were holding these socialism vs. capitalism European-focused discussions, so there wasn’t a lot out there.

So one of the reasons and inspirations for Poverty Cure was that it would be great to create a resource that engages these questions and brings markets, enterprise, entrepreneurship, business, and religion to the table and engages these complex questions and would be able to bring in different voices so another person who is studying development and economics would have this as a resource.

Poverty Cure brings markets, enterprise, entrepreneurship, business, and religion to the table Click To Tweet

Now, since that time (the mid-90’s), there have been many people critiquing aid. Angus Deaton just won the Nobel Prize and he is a critic of aid– gentle and respectful, of course. Dambisa Moyo, William Easterly, and there have been big debates between Jeffrey Sachs and William Israel, so there has been more discussion about it. But at the time the development industry just assumed that foreign aid worked, except for Bauer.

So when I came to work at Acton and started talking about doing a project on poverty, that was one of the things we thought would be great to bring some different ideas to bare.

Another part of it you just stumble into. In one sense, I didn’t grow up in a missionary family. When I started studying development, it was international relations and economics and so I went to a development school. At the time, my parents (mother was a physician) retired in their 70’s and they went to Africa where my mother was a mission doctor at a very poor hospital and my father was an administrator. I was in Japan and next thing I knew I was going to Africa and studying development. So part of it was stumbling upon it and finding I had a deep interest in  economics and liberty and these other questions.

But when it came to economics and the developing world, none of the important insights that I thought were important for human flourishing and for families were really being applied to the developing world, it was all social engineering. So that became part of the context of thinking about development not only with social engineering, but also with the person in mind.

Watch out for our next post from our interview with Michael on treating the poor as subjects, not objects. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay informed.

Find his documentary series Poverty Cure here on Amazon.


Michael Matheson Miller is a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute and the Director/Producer of the documentary Poverty Inc. and was formerly director of Poverty Cure for five years. You can connect with Michael at michaelmathesonmiller.com.

About Todd Scacewater

Todd is a Teaching Fellow in New Testament and PhD candidate at Westminster Seminary in Hermeneutics. He holds a Th.M. in New Testament and a B.A. in Political Science, and has served the church in music, college, youth, children, and discipleship ministries.