I live in Washington, and we get demonstrators in the springtime the way folks with beachfront property get houseguests in the summer.

Among our most recent guests were the occasionally unruly folks who came to town intent on disrupting the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund but succeeded primarily in breaking the overtime budget of the Metropolitan Police Department.

Because it's difficult for a layperson to understand precisely what the World Bank does, it was difficult to figure out exactly what the protestors were against, and almost impossible to say what they were for. I think this accounts for the fact that most D.C. residents approached the protests almost exclusively in logistical terms, a matter of whether to get off at a different metro stop or to eat lunch in a different restaurant, in order to avoid unpleasantness.

But the protestors' failure to arouse much in the way of public support points to a more pervasive problem that faces religious and civic organizations attempting to focus attention on the plight of the poor. That problem, in a word, is history. At the moment we seem to be on the wrong side of it.

The collapse of socialism has extinguished what little faith Americans had in a planned economy. Welfare reformers have persuaded us that financial assistance is as likely to prolong poverty as to relieve it, and the rampaging United States economy has raised enough boats to distract our attention from those still left on shore.

Too many world aid agencies have behaved as though they could conquer poverty without learning anything about the poor.

In this kind of atmosphere, it's easy to believe that the free market works toward moral ends, and that the "invisible hand" that Adam Smith spoke of is actually the hand of God. In fact, several theologians, comfortably ensconced in conservative think tanks, have made a nice living saying so. They have been abetted, unfortunately, by the mistakes of world aid agencies, too many of which behaved as though they could conquer poverty without having to learn anything about the poor.

We are in an era of malign neglect, and we've gotten here in part by accepting the notion that consuming is a virtuous activity, and in part because, when it comes to attacking global poverty, it's hard to understand what individuals can do.

In an effort to address that second issue, I offer this story:

Until a few years ago, I belonged to a Catholic parish that had a "sister" parish in San Salvador. During El Salvador's civil war, refugees from the countryside streamed into the capital every day, fleeing the army and seeking food, shelter, and medical help. In such circumstances, it wasn't difficult to figure out how to respond. We sent money. We sent supplies. We remembered the parish in our prayers.

But when the war ended, we, like other donors, were faced with a more difficult question: how best to help rebuild the parish. By this point, we'd had the benefit of observing other people's mistakes. We'd seen what happened when aid agencies gave the parish something that the agencies thought it needed--a woodworking shop was built but not much used. We'd seen what happened when the parish was overly optimistic about what an untrained labor force could accomplish--equipment was donated that no one could operate. Mostly we'd seen programs get started but die out as soon as outside support dried up.

This was in the early 1990s, and the success of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and other "micro-lending" establishments was just coming to public attention. You can learn most of what there is to know about micro-lending from FINCA International, which works with more than 120,000 families in 18 countries. Suffice it to say that FINCA lends to people too poor to receive conventional credit; that its repayment rate--96%--is better than that of most commercial banks; and that its success has inspired CARE, Catholic Relief Services, and other international aid agencies to sponsor similar programs.

We liked village banking because it confronted, head-on, the types of problems that have handicapped other foreign-aid programs.

First, it put money directly into the hands of the poor. Recipients spent their loans however they chose. They owned their new ventures right from the start.