Searching for Solutions that Work
BookTrends - The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty
By: Peter Greer and Phil Smith|Published: January 13, 2010 7:36 PM
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the physical and spiritual needs in this broken part of the world became evident.
Members of a church in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, asked, “How can we help?” Through the Slavic Gospel Association, they partnered with a church in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, a city of a million people straddling a river in the country’s southeast. This was not a distant, impersonal partnership that amounted to sending an annual check. The church leadership and congregation of Lancaster’s Calvary Monument Bible Church (CMBC) considered this a true relationship and wanted to find ways of supporting their brothers and sisters overseas. Just as important, they wanted to be supported by them in a mutually encouraging relationship.
After an initial assessment trip, the leaders at Calvary Monument identified immediate needs and responded. Recognizing that local food production and distribution were inadequate, they shipped food from Lancaster, a region of fertile farmland. They saw that the Ukrainians wore old clothes often insufficient for the harsh winters. Following Jesus’ command that if you have two tunics you should give one away, they shared their clothes with their Ukrainian friends. Hospitals and infirmaries in Zaporozhye had little or no supplies, so CMBC arranged for shipments of medicine and medical supplies donated by area doctors and hospitals. They saw that the Ukrainian believers had only a crowded building in which to worship, so they helped purchase land and provide funds to build additional educational space. This pattern continued for several years, marked annually by a special Thanksgiving offering and shipping container filled with food, clothing, and church supplies. CMBC did everything it could think of to help the church in Zaporozhye, and it was not alone; dozens of other American churches developed relationships with churches throughout the former Soviet Union at this pivotal time in history.
CMBC’s response was admirable; it was based on relationship, was responsive to seen needs, and was generous. But, paradoxically, it was also flawed.
What was wrong? Shouldn’t we celebrate such acts of generosity? Shouldn’t we encourage many more churches to give sacrificially? Before answering these hard questions, we need to continue the story and watch how the relationship between the Lancaster church and the Ukrainian church developed.
After three years of this “partnership,” leaders from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean came to the realization that the help from the American church was, at best, insufficient. The Ukrainian church would always have “needs” that the American church could respond to—no amount of giving would change the socioeconomic reality of life in the former Soviet Union.
At worst, the seemingly admirable American support could be harming the Ukrainians. The pastor of the church in Ukraine initially thought it was a blessing to receive generous gifts and support from a church that had no previous ties to his country or people. But he grew increasingly concerned about how this relationship was changing his congregation. He wanted to find a way for his church to become self-sustaining rather that reliant upon distant generosity. He feared his church was becoming increasingly dependent on outside resources and was losing the motivation to serve each other. Why sacrifice anything to feed or clothe a neighbor when an international shipment would soon arrive?
The Ukrainian pastor had other important questions too: What would happen if the generous people in Pennsylvania suddenly stopped providing? Would this kind of assistance produce a stronger community long after the donations stopped? How could the church continue distributing the supplies to the most needy?
There were economic repercussions as well. After more investigation, this pastor determined that the well-intentioned generosity of the Lancaster church would likely hurt the incomes of local businesses which competed with the free American goods and services entering their marketplace.
It seemed the gifts from America, however well-intentioned, might cause more problems than they solved. Both churches were learning a difficult lesson: Compassionate responses to certain needs work well in the short term but are insufficient for the long term. Effective obedience to the clear biblical command to clothe the naked and give food to the hungry requires asking the question of how. Thoughtless responses run the real risk of strengthening the chains of poverty that bind captives around the world.
These are hard words for the American church to hear. The experience of CMBC is not unique. More and more American churches are seeking meaningful ways to serve their brothers and sisters around the world. The convenience and affordability of travel have exposed churchgoers from the United States to formerly unknown people and places. We feel compelled to help. The shock of seeing severe poverty has a way of confronting us with how much we have and how protected we are. This emotional reaction—we have to do something!—is a wonderful place to start but an insufficient, and possibly even harmful, place to end.
What makes the story of the Lancaster church somewhat unusual is that some of its members were prepared to respond with their hearts and their heads.1 They didn’t let their urge to be compassionate stifle their need to ask and listen to tough questions. They were ready to offer an integrated, correctable response to the issue of poverty. The church leaders recognized that unintended and even unimagined consequences always follow actions. We will tell you the ending to this story in chapter 15.
Consequences are seldom discussed at church functions. After a presentation from a team that just handed out food and clothing on a short-term mission trip, who wants to be the pessimist that points out the potential problems of this act of kindness? Imagine responding to a child’s excitement about missions with a statement like, “But what unintended impact will our actions have on the local people and marketplace?” Many would be offended by your challenge to their good intentions. When a church body sincerely pours itself into a ser vice project, nobody wants to doubt the results or imagine there could be negative consequences. Yet the detrimental effects of some of the most minor and well-meaning actions are more common than people want to believe.2
There are common pitfalls that trap our churches and organizations when they fight global poverty. It is important to take a serious look at successes and failures and honestly evaluate if our efforts leave communities better off than before our “service.”
Dependency and Disincentives
In 2005, I went to Afghanistan with a group of donors, pastors, and development practitioners and had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of touring northern Afghanistan in a Russian-made helicopter. We were welcomed into small towns and villages that had not visibly been touched by the outside world.
I particularly remember one tiny mountain village where we were paraded around by local elders who showed us all their “needs.” They brought us to a community center that had some minor water damage to the roof. Outside this building, an elder waved his finger at me, saying, “You must fix this!” Now I’m not particularly handy, yet even I could have repaired this small problem with locally available materials and a few hours of sweat. The attitude in that village was that foreigners should be responsible for meeting every need.
Outside assistance had weakened and begun to paralyze local initiative and ownership. As we lifted off, my mind was racing as swiftly as the rotor blades above my head. Surely there must be a better way for believers to participate in addressing the incredible needs in our world. The attitudes of dependency and disincentive are human—they plague our daily decisions and large-scale development efforts with equal ease. Last year, I heard through the grapevine—okay, my wife spilled the beans—that my in-laws were going to buy me a new watch for Christmas. My watch was on the fritz and I had to keep tapping it to encourage the second hand to move. Knowing a new watch was coming, there was no way I would spend my own money on a new one, and, crucially, there was no incentive to bother fixing it either. In fact, solving the problem myself would have been an act of foolishness in this circumstance.
We perpetuate a terrible lie when we say that individuals living in poverty are “too poor to do anything.” Each of us has something to give and some responsibility to use our resources and skills to serve. Misguided giving can actually rob the poor—not of their physical resources, but of their dignity, responsibility, and self-worth. We cannot afford to waste limited resources that could equip and enable people to rebuild their lives, churches, and communities. Joel Wickre, a board member of Blood:Water Mission, warns about how bad the problem can become:
A few months ago, my grandmother fell ill and was hospitalized. For two weeks, doctors watched over her and ran a battery of tests until they finally discovered she had a medical condition related to her nervous system. Only at this point was it possible to start proper treatment.
The same principle of diagnosis is true for believers involved in overseas projects. How much time is spent diagnosing the causes before imposing solutions? How much time is spent listening to the people we are seeking to serve and developing strong enough relationships so that we can hear their voices? This model of diagnosis does not fit with the American way of taking charge and getting things done. For instance, we often plan the solutions before we embark on a short-term mission trip. We collect our luggage at a foreign airport and jump into projects without sufficiently involving and listening to the local people we are seeking to serve. Mission committees are typically sincere and compassionate, yet the results of their intentions are not always sound because they are based on insufficient information.
If we don’t understand the problem, how can we choose an appropriate solution? What looks like a good plan in the church boardroom may not seem as wise on the steep streets of a Peruvian village. A key initial step in understanding a problem is gaining perspective about the local environment and social conditions. A good doctor will first ask probing questions about a patient’s family history, health, dietary habits, and personal relationships before making a diagnosis. Similarly, we must approach missions opportunities with a spirit of inquiry. We risk proposing ill-fitting and ill-received solutions if we do not first humble ourselves to learn about the local culture and respect the local people.
A Christian author, well known for his bestselling book on praying for prosperity, made just such a mistake. After selling millions of copies of his book on prospering through prayer, Bruce Wilkinson moved his family to South Africa and launched a nonprofit organization to help Africans suffering from HIV/AIDS. The centerpiece of his efforts was to have been a grand theme park in Swaziland—including a golf course, cannery, chicken farm, schools, and churches, among other things—that would cater to Western tourists and house ten thousand AIDS orphans. Despite cautions from the U.S. ambassador, who warned Wilkinson that uprooting orphans from their communities went against Swazi culture, Wilkinson forged ahead. He gave the Swazi king five days to approve a plan that would give his nonprofit organization a ninety-nine-year lease on prime game parks, forcing out local environmental groups that had controlled the parks for decades.
When the Swazi press caught wind of Wilkinson’s proposal, they detected a scent of colonialism. Justified or not, the Swazi media turned popular opinion against the project. When he failed to get the king’s approval for the tracts of land, Wilkinson quit the project and returned to the U.S., explaining that Swazi traditions had failed to adequately provide for the multitudes of poor AIDS orphans, and that drastic new measures and bold dreams were required. Wilkinson’s heart may have been in the right place, but how would things have turned out if he had adequately engaged the locals and listened to their ideas before proposing his solutions?
Confusing Relief with Development
A helpful first step in thinking about working with the poor in any context is to discern whether the situation calls for relief, development, or some combination of the two. Relief is a rapid provision of temporary resources to reduce immediate suffering. When we see need, we think of providing relief. James 2:16 questions, “If one of you says to [the man with physical needs], ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”
I found myself in this situation recently in Haiti. We were visiting a small village and saw a small child with sores on his body and fluid coming out of his ears. When we asked the mother if she had visited the hospital, she responded, “Yes, but I just didn’t have the funds required for the prescription.” Looking at her other children, her house, and her surroundings, we knew she was telling the truth. This woman was clearly among the poorest of the poor. What must it be like to know how to heal your child but to have no way of coming up with a modest amount of money for critical medicine? We knew that the urgency of this situation required an immediate response. The knowledge that we were engaged in bringing longer-term sustainable economic development to her community did nothing for the immediate need of her sick child. We secretly gave the necessary money to a local staff member and asked him to ensure that this child received proper treatment.
Despite occasions like this when short-term immediate aid is required, we know that longer-term development is a preferable response. Certainly it would be better if this mother had an income sufficient to guarantee that if her kids fall sick she will be able to pay for their treatment. Giles Bolton, a veteran African diplomat, describes the difference between relief and development: “In consumer language, [development] is a bit like making an investment rather than an immediate purchase . . . [It’s a] much better value if it works because it gives poor people control over their own lives and enables them better to withstand future humanitarian disasters without outside help.”
Both relief and development can be appropriate interventions, but if we sustain relief efforts instead of transitioning to longer-term development, we hurt the very people we are trying to help.
After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, many Christian organizations were motivated to rebuild this broken country. Following the example and admonitions of Jesus to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and show compassion to the hurting, these organizations and their dedicated people responded. Churches in America rebuilt Rwandan churches and schools, sent food aid and supplies, and attempted to address the unimaginable physical and psychological damage inflicted by the hundred days of terror. Several years after the genocide, peace and stability allowed Rwanda to transition from a country needing emergency assistance to one needing long-term development. Unfortunately, many churches and aid organizations failed to recognize this, leading to frustrations like that encountered by a Rwandan named Jean.
After the genocide, Jean seized an opportunity to begin a small poultry business to provide his neighborhood with eggs. He managed to scrape together funds to purchase several fowl, and his business grew. Later, a church in America “adopted” the village where Jean lived and worked. The church decided to donate clothes and supplies. They also imported eggs from a neighboring community and gave them away. Suddenly, this one village was flooded with surplus eggs. It is not difficult to imagine what happened to Jean’s business: people went first to collect the free eggs and bought Jean’s eggs only when the supply of free eggs was depleted. The market price for eggs plummeted in Jean’s village and, as a result, Jean was forced to sell his productive assets, his chickens.
The next year, after Jean had left the poultry business, the church that had supplied the free eggs turned its attention to another disaster in another part of the world. Jean’s community had no capacity to produce eggs locally and was forced to import eggs from a neighboring town. The cost of these eggs was higher than the eggs Jean had sold, so both Jean and his village were hurt economically by the good intentions of one American church.
Have you ever donated your used T-shirts to your local thrift store? Often these are bundled and shipped to Africa. This business of secondhand Western clothing, called the mivumba trade in East Africa, decimated clothing production in countries like Uganda and Zambia that previously had thriving textile industries. Several other countries, including Nigeria and Eritrea, have imposed significant tariffs on foreign imports to avoid a similar fate.6 It is hard to comprehend that our used T-shirts could harm local producers on another continent, yet the American church must learn to be aware of such consequences in our increasingly interconnected world.
Focus on the Foreigners
If we were to hold an impartial mirror to our hearts, we would have to admit that sometimes our “noble” actions are self-serving. We in the West who have been so blessed with material wealth often feel guilty about our relative prosperity and good fortune compared with our distant brothers and sisters in the developing world. Guilt can motivate us to “bless others as we have been blessed.” And yet we face a serious problem if we act out of a desire for clear consciences that enable us to continue living in abundance. I hosted a group of church members who traveled to Rwanda to visit HIV/AIDS, maternal health, and economic development programs that they had been supporting for several years. As we drove around the hilly countryside, they tossed handfuls of candy out the window at random groups of Rwandans they passed. They were filled with happiness at the thought that they were bringing joy to this country and making a difference. The local staff members were embarrassed, but they kept silent because they did not want to offend their guests. These local staff members knew long-term actions like this transform some poor but hardworking Rwandans into beggars and exacerbate the poor dental health of the region.
Connecting Heads and Hearts
After hearing about the unintended consequences of very good intentions and reflecting on our own culpability, it might be easy to slip toward hopelessness and discouragement. “We’re just trying to help!” a friend complained after seeing a missions project fail. “I didn’t know it was going to be so hard...I feel like giving up.” Something in us knows that it isn’t right to turn a blind eye to the enormous needs in our world—that doesn’t square with the biblical teaching on compassion and action. But just as inaction is not an option for followers of Christ, neither should we act inappropriately.
We want to do more than just care about the poor—we want to find solutions that make a permanent difference.
We are required to do the hard work of continually evaluating our actions and determining what is most helpful to the people we’re seeking to serve.
It is necessary to connect heads and hearts and to fully engage both for God’s glory. There is a problem if we have one without the other. Our desire is to see the church move from well-intentioned blunders to thoughtful, compassionate acts of mercy that result in lasting change.
This excerpt from The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World out of Poverty by Peter Greer and Phil Smith is used with permission of Zondervan. Copyright 2009.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or Prison Fellowship. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.