Gregory Clark thinks the help we give other nations does worse than no good at all. He thinks it actively harms them. This is troubling as an American, certainly. It is much more troubling as a Christian.
Christians are used to their generosities doing no good at all. We rather expect that will be the case many times. It is ours to give, and then the matter is out of our control. We even accept, more reluctantly, that our gift may go to wrong purposes, that in the free will of the recipient are many of the evils common to mankind, and our nickel may go to the devil.
When we know that the gift will harm, however, does the picture change?
Let me make a distinction that will become important in the discussion. There may be a conflict here between what we are to do as Christians, and what we are to do as Americans. Both the right and the left, though in different ways, have their Americanism interpenetrate their Christianity, and their faith invade their picture of what it means to be American. Actually, the left and right do this the same way, just on different topics.
As I was reading Clark's A Farewell To Alms, I kept thinking, and sometimes saying to my wife, this is very troubling. I noted previously my willingness to believe writers too easily; a third of the way through I noticed him getting something wrong about Christian history, then drawing an unwarranted conclusion from linguistic information. I became more suspicious, and decided he had Jared Diamond envy, drawing widely but not always accurately from other fields to support his point.
Still, this only weakened his argument and made me cautious. It did not eliminate it, and by the time I had finished the book I thought he had made a strong case that the poorer nations of the world have had their poverty increased, not so much by our trade with them, but by our efforts to lift them and help them. It is not colonialism per se that has reduced their standard of living, but their cultural decisions - possibly quite justified in their previous contexts - in response to income from trade. Put briefly, more money turned into more people, rather than a higher income for a stable population. That is what humankind (not to mention plants and animals) has always done: used increased resources to increase the population and fill the environment. Traditionally, that is the best way to keep out competitors.
So now their babies don't die so much - a good thing; and they live longer because of medical things we can help them with - another good thing; and they can grow more food per acre, and transport their goods, and trade more freely - all good things. Which ends up with too many people and gradual downturn in income per person - very bad things.
Conservatives will dislike Clark because he doesn't think that free markets and good government will solve things for poor nations; liberals will dislike him because he thinks that the west is prosperous because of our culture and even our genes. He makes a pretty good case for both, though. His first chapter is a summary of the book, and I recommend it. In fact, I give the summary four stars, but the book only three.
What all this means for Christians, going on medical and agricultural missions to far places, I hope to discuss at length. I don't have an answer I am fully comfortable with. I think I am going to have to relook at Christian charity in general in order to get any farther.