Gleanings – Rediscovering God’s Solution for Poverty

Gleanings.  There’s a word from the (very distant) past.  Except for attentive readers of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament portion of the Bible, most people today have never heard the word, much less know its significance.  That’s too bad, because three thousand years ago God himself preemptively weighed in on one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century — how can we solve global poverty?  His answer: gleanings.

God mandated that the landed farmers of ancient Israel not reap their fields to the very borders.  They were to leave the edges unharvested so that the poor could come and gather for themselves these set-aside “gleanings”.  There is more wisdom here than meets the eye, wisdom long since lost but now in urgent need of rediscovery.

Unfortunately, the wisdom of gleanings is veiled to our modern eyes.  We are distracted by the circumstances of its particular application.  After all, gleanings seems to be about making a curious connection between farming and the poor.  That might have been helpful, we surmise, in ancient agrarian economies (provided the farmers cooperated).  But today’s industrialized, urban world is very, very different.  Even agriculture has become an industry, with factory farms instead of family farms.  From our modern vantage point, gleanings seems simply a very quaint idea from a very distant and different past.

Hidden beneath its ancient agrarian trappings, however, the gleanings model has much to teach us about solving the challenge and travesty of global poverty.  And we are badly in need of wisdom.  Two thirds of the world’s people live in poverty.  For one third, subsistence itself is under constant threat.  All this despite an absolutely unprecedented scale and variety of anti-poverty efforts over the last half century.

The early portion of those efforts was largely conducted by governments, typically via massive infrastructure projects, or similarly large-scale health and education efforts.  But results often fell far short of aspirations, leaving poverty undiminished.  Eventually governments grew disenchanted.  But as government energy flagged, a flood of humanitarian NGO’s rushed in.  On balance, their track record has been better.  Yet both critics and fans agree that NGO’s have proved much better at relief responses to acute poverty than at sustainable solutions to chronic poverty.

Part of the problem is money.  Even the best NGO efforts are radically and chronically underfunded relative to the scale of the need.  Yet the donor community is being solicited more thoroughly than ever before.  As a result, even the best fund-raising (development) efforts are increasingly subject to the law of diminishing returns — sometimes labeled ‘donor fatigue’, or simply ‘burnout’.  And, of course, the “great recession” of the last few years has further aggravated the funding problem.

Against these daunting 21st century challenges — spotty success in addressing chronic poverty, a huge mismatch between the scale of need and the scale of funding, and a donor community that looks increasingly ‘tapped out‘ — gleanings speaks fresh hope, hope especially for the NGO’s on the front lines of the poverty battle.  Across the millennia, gleanings offers fresh guidance toward effective solutions for chronic poverty, a fresh and potent take on poverty funding, even an answer to  donor fatigue.  Let’s take a look.

The Gleanings Model — Rediscovered

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.   Leviticus 19:9-10

As the former Hebrew slaves entered Canaan, God issued a great many commands.  In our terms, he was nation-building.  The commands were of two types: ceremonial and civil.  The ceremonial laws were religious, and specific to the unique relationship between God and the Hebrews.  The civil laws, however, provided a blueprint for God’s conception of ‘the good society’.  They were God’s operating instructions guiding Israel’s embryonic citizens into behaviors by which they could coexist harmoniously and justly.

A significant portion of these instructions have to do with what we now call social justice.  Several focus specifically on economic justice.  The command regarding gleanings is at the center of these, and is, arguably, God’s most creative and sweeping effort to preemptively solve the problem of chronic poverty.

For context, it is important to note that God is not averse to relief (or “aid”) as a response to poverty.  In fact, God himself engaged in the most massive relief effort ever: daily supernatural food provision for the entire Hebrew people during their time in the wilderness.  But this was God’s response to an instance of acute poverty, i.e., atypical circumstances in which no opportunity for self-provision was possible.

On the very day the Hebrews entered Canaan, however, God’s relief project came to a full stop.  The manna ceased.  Strikingly, at the earliest possible moment that the Hebrews had the prospect of providing for themselves, God quit with relief.  He didn’t wait until the first harvest, or even the first planting.  Rather, he seems so acutely aware of how relief can cause enervating dependency that the mere prospect of the Hebrews providing for themselves was sufficient for God to bring his relief effort to a close.

But God also understood that, over time, and for a variety of reasons, individuals could find themselves marginalized, i.e., without a place in the normal workings of the economy.  The potential causes were many: the untimely death of the family breadwinner, or a failed harvest, or a costly illness, or the ruthless or fraudulent behavior of a powerful neighbor.  Once marginalized, these individuals, their families, and their descendants were at grave risk of becoming permanently impoverished.  God knew the solution was not relief, but opportunity to provide for themselves.  Gleanings provided that opportunity.

Three thousand years later, the anti-poverty international development community has (largely) come to the same conclusion.  Modern relief efforts have worked well in response to acute poverty (flood, famine, earthquake, tsunami, and the like) but failed miserably when applied to chronic poverty.  But starting with the success of microfinance, NGO’s and others have increasingly come to understand and embrace the idea that what the chronically poor need most is the opportunity to provide for themselves.

This aspect of ancient gleanings wisdom — that the chronic poor need opportunity, not provision — is what we might call the recently recovered portion of the model.  But there are two other aspects that still lie largely undiscovered.  Both of these hidden treasures have significant implications, and opportunity, for anti-poverty NGO’s.

The key to unlocking the fuller significance of the gleanings model is to realize that commercial farms were the chief means of wealth creation in ancient Israel.  Landed farmers were not merely farmers, they were privileged owners of the primary business (wealth-creation) engines of their day.  Understood more broadly, therefore, God brought the gleanings mandate not to farmers per se, but to those who control the engines of wealth creation.  Gleanings was meant for business people.

Viewed through this lens, two important principles jump out:

  • God intentionally forged a direct connection between business engines and the poor.  

Businesses are the creators of economic wealth and opportunity — precisely the resources of which the poor are in desperate need.  Via gleanings, God made business engines the primary means of (economic and opportunity) provision for the poor.

It is easy to miss the essence here.  God did not say to the business owners, once you’ve harvested the economic rewards of your business efforts, please pass a portion of those rewards along to the poor.  Rather, God did something more pointed, more radical.  He says instead to the farmer/business people of Israel, I want to make a direct link between your business engine itself — your commercial farming operation — and meeting the economic and opportunity neediness of the poor.

  • God forged a direct, experiential connection between business people and the poor.

Note, again, that God could easily have found a less direct way to leverage the wealth generation of businesses to assist the poor.  But he didn’t.  Rather, via gleanings, God brought the poor and the business person into direct contact.

Picture how this played out.  A farmer/business person stands in one of his fields, overseeing the harvesting effort of his employees.  He thinks back to the risk and effort in acquiring this field, plowing, planting, tending, all the while not knowing whether the rains would come or the locusts would stay away.  Now though, God be praised, a rich harvest is being gathered.

This is a pregnant moment.  The business engine is producing its rewards and there is an invisible question on the table: who should rightfully share in those rewards?  To the business person, all too often, the question is invisible because the answer is obvious: the rewards are mine!  I had the vision.  I took the risk.  I labored long and hard.  Of course, I now deserve the rewards.

And then the farmer glances over to the edge of the field and sees several of the poorest members of the community gathering the gleanings.  He thinks to himself, without the gleanings from my field, these people would probably be forced to beg.  They might even starve.  And very often, a heart softening, even a heart and vision recalibration, begins.

The farmer/business person thinks: you know, that makes me feel good.  In fact, it makes me feel proud to see that all the risk and effort of running my business is doing more than fattening my purse.  Via gleanings, my business is doing something important and good for the neediest members of my community.  As a result, my entire community is strengthened and blessed.

I begin to see that this business engine I run, and this business vocation I pursue, is capable of more than merely giving me and my family a good life.  It’s capable of giving a good life to my community, even my society.  And, as I think about it, that’s the way it should be.

After all, I didn’t cause the rains to come or the locusts to stay away.  God did that.  So this harvest is really the fruit of a partnership between my efforts and the goodness of God.  It’s only right, therefore, that those God wants to bless — the poor and marginalized especially, and my community generally — share in the rewards of his and my partnership.

This transformation of heart for the business person gives insight into God’s deeper wisdom and intent for gleanings.  God was addressing two very different poverty problems for two very different groups of people.  One group was the economically impoverished — those who had been pushed to the margins by the socio-economic system.  They needed opportunity for provision.  Gleanings connected their need directly to the business engines of the day.  In doing so, gleanings effected a resource/opportunity reallocation that was considerably more potent and scalable than personal charity.

But that wasn’t the only poverty God targeted.  Business people face a different poverty problem.  The very risk and hard work inherent in starting and running a business inclines them toward selfishness regarding its rewards.  And God knows that selfishness, left unchecked, inevitably impoverishes the soul.  Like a cancer, it chokes the life out of relationships, and eventually chokes the very life out of life.

But God also knew that many business people, seeing firsthand the poor being blessed through the fruits of their business, would begin to experience a transformation of heart and vision.  Their souls would taste just how good it feels to have their hard work serve a purpose greater than selfishness.  Ideally, they would begin to see their businesses as capable of bringing about not merely the good life for themselves, but the good society.

One form of poverty required resource reallocation; the other required heart realignment.  Gleanings targeted both.  It was — and remains — God’s radical plan to bring the rich (and their business engines) and the poor together to solve each other’s mutual poverty, and prosper the human community in the process.

The Implications — and the Opportunity — for NGO’s

So what does gleanings mean for the anti-poverty NGO’s of the 21st century?  At least these three things:

  • Chronic poverty solutions must focus on opportunity, not relief.

The chronic poor need opportunity to provide for themselves.  Aid solutions foster dependency.  Rather than solve, they exacerbate chronic poverty.  Fortunately, most NGO’s have (pretty much) learned this fundamental lesson.

  • Business engines are meant to be a critical resource for the poor (and for the organizations that help the poor).

Of course there is a role for individual philanthropy in the effort to solve poverty.  But individual philanthropy is not enough.  Business engines represent a large, and largely untapped, resource.  Even more importantly, successful businesses are inherently self-sustaining and scalable, i.e., they live and grow under their own economic power.  In contrast to (most) philanthropy, when business engines are directly connected to efforts to help the poor, the funding resource keeps flowing and growing automatically.

  • NGO’s must directly connect the poor with business people, not just with their checkbooks.

Rarely does a story or a solicitation change someone’s heart.  A donation might result, but not a heart change.   Yet heart change was critical to the gleanings outcomes God had in mind.  And he knew that personal connection between the business person and the poor was far and away the best strategy to get there.

It is very interesting to note that God provided no specifics regarding the portion of the harvest to be set aside for gleanings.  Leave unharvested a six-inch border?  A six-foot border?  Sixty feet?  God gives no answer, not even a hint.  That’s curious.  He goes to all the trouble to connect rich business people (and their business engines) and the poor — then leaves entirely unspecified the particulars of the connection?  What if farmer/business people, spotting the loophole, leave only the tiniest amount for gleanings?  How will the poor be cared for then?  What’s going on?

On reflection, though, God’s intent and wisdom shines forth.  Suppose he had specified the gleanings set-aside.  Immediately, for the business person gleanings would simply become a (religious) tax — just another levy on one’s business.  An annoyance, nothing more.

But God did not intend the business person to get off the moral and emotional ‘hook’ so easily.  Instead, gleanings purposefully forces a question that is personal, particular, profound: with how many, or how few, of the impoverished individuals I see around me am I going to share the rewards of my business?  This is the crucible for heart change that God engineered with gleanings.  And heart change was always the point, because God’s ultimate poverty solution is transformed business people, inspired by the good their business engines can do for the poor and their community.

NGO’s need to pay attention to God’s blueprint here: they need to thoughtfully and intentionally bring business people and the poor into direct, experiential connection — ideally, into relationship — and they need to help business people capture a vision for the ways and extent to which their business engines can be harnessed on behalf of the poor.

The Gleanings Connection: Contemporary Examples

On a small scale, this is happening already with business people whose hearts sense God’s heart for their business.  Let’s take a quick look.

Thain Boatworks/Earthwise Ventures

Thain Boatworks builds commercial and consumer boats at its shipyard outside of Seattle.  Rob Smith, founder and CEO, is a native of South Africa.  He is intimately acquainted with the derelict state of the road system in much of Africa, and with the constraint that poses for business/economic development.  Recently, Rob decided that Thain could do something to help.

Thain launched Earthwise Ventures with an ambitious vision: build commercial ferry boats (passengers and cargo) in Seattle, disassemble and ship the components to the shore of Lake Victoria, then reassemble and launch the boats to provide commercial ferry service to strengthen the transportation infrastructure in east Africa.  (The first of ten planned boats has launched.)

Keystone Custom Homes/HOPE International

Jeff Rutt, the CEO of Keystone Custom Homes in Lancaster, PA founded HOPE International to provide microfinance services to the poor in the developing world.  To help capitalize HOPE, Jeff had Keystone every year build a house and donate to HOPE all the profits from its sale.  To maximize profits, he invited all the subcontractors working on the house to join Keystone in donating their labor.

This proved terrifically popular.  Jeff eventually invited several other home builders to follow his example.  Today, via the Homes for HOPE program, HOPE International benefits annually from the proceeds of several houses built expressly to generate funds for microfinance efforts to help the global poor.

Oil Stop/World Vision

Larry Dahl, President of Oil Stop — a chain of oil-and-lube shops — is focused on service.  He had a vision for how Oil Stop could serve not only its customers, but also the poor in Africa.  Now each Oil Stop customer is invited to donate $1.00 toward the company’s partnership with World Vision to dig wells in Africa.  Each customer dollar is matched by Oil Stop, making $2.00, which is then matched by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, making $4.00.  Last year, their “Oil and Water Do Mix” effort generated over half a million dollars to drill clean water wells.

Theo Chocolate

Some businesses (in fact, many large corporations) have engines that are inherently linked to the poor.  These businesses obtain raw materials — ore, crops, forest products, etc. — from the labor of the poor.  Increasingly, these businesses are trying to ensure that the laborers at the base of their supply chains are treated and compensated fairly.  This is often referred to as “ethical sourcing”.

As an example, Theo Chocolate, an artisan chocolate maker in Seattle, pays its cacao farmers six or seven times what typical indigenous farmers earn.  In Theo’s case, two different objectives are in complementary alignment: helping poor farmers succeed and ensuring that their company obtains premium quality cacao beans.

Sozo Planet

Sozo Planet is a producer of artisan crafted wines and gourmet food products.  For each product purchased, Sozo donates to several non-profit partners who care for the hungry and homeless.  By way of example, purchase of a bottle of wine effects a donation providing 5-25 meals.

Silver Cup Coffee/World Vision

Silver Cup Coffee has a similar approach.  Through their One Cup Project, they sell one-pound bags of  ground coffee for $11.00 and donate $2.00 to World Vision’s work in Africa.  U.S. Aid and other partners provide super-matching funds.  The result is that for every $11.00 bag of coffee sold, $11.00 in new funding flows to World Vision.

Partners Worldwide

For approximately fifteen years, Partners Worldwide has been forging deep mentoring/relationship connections between small teams of North American business people and groups of small-scale indigenous business people in the developing world.  The mentoring commitment of the North American business people includes spending a week every year, for at least three years, visiting personally with the business people with whom they are working.  Over and over, these relationships prove transformational for both parties.

The mission of Partners Worldwide is to connect rich and poor business people in relationship, and to leverage the business experience of North Americans on behalf of business/economic development in the developing world.  Partners Worldwide does not, at least at this point, have a vision for connecting the business engines of their western business people with the poor.  Despite that, the testimony of many participating western business people is that their relationships with indigenous business people have given them an entirely new vision and enthusiasm for using their business to serve the poor.

Call to Action for NGO’s

God had ambitious, even audacious, intentions in connecting business people and their business engines with the poor.  He knew that solving poverty requires both resource reallocation and heart realignment.  Gleanings addressed both.  And we now have compelling evidence that the model adapts well to a contemporary setting.

Despite that, most anti-poverty NGO’s have yet to recognize the wisdom and opportunity in proactively forging these connections between business people, their business engines, and the poor.  It’s time for that to change.  It’s time for the wisdom of God’s gleanings model not only to be rediscovered, but to be reapplied.

As a key first step, NGO’s need to develop pilot programs focused on two objectives:

  • Proactively forging direct, creative connections between business engines and their own work with the poor.
  • Proactively forging more significant relationship connections between business people and the poor whom the NGO’s serve.

Translated into our contemporary setting, gleanings represents a potent new approach to addressing global poverty — and a compelling new opportunity for funding the work of poverty-focused NGO’s.  It’s high time to leverage that opportunity.