Giving to others is central to the Christian life and an important part of a healthy church. It is also a beautiful thing to see in action. I have witnessed hundreds of such acts done either by individual Christians or by the collective body of Christ in a local church or denomination of churches. I know individuals who have given the roof over their own head to provide a roof over the heads of a worshiping congregation on a mission field.
I have been a part of work and witness teams that have gone abroad to build churches, paint buildings, teach classes, bring medicine and bandage wounds. I have been a part of helping orphans in India, providing vehicles for Mexican pastors, digging wells in remote villages, installing water purifiers in Haiti and providing rice for typhoon victims in the Philippines. I have helped single mothers provide Christmas for their children, bought food for someone struggling financially, helped college kids with clothes and tuition and given money to the beggar on the street corner. My experiences in giving have confirmed the important lesson that it “is more blessed to give than to receive.”
What I haven’t always been so sure about is whether my giving actually gave the kind of help that I intended for it to give. This nagging question led me to study and think about the “end result” of my giving which led to the discovery of another important lesson in giving – that giving has the power to hurt as well as help.
I have never had a problem understanding the damage that “welfare programs” can inflict on segments of the population. I also found it easy see how over-indulgent parents could destroy motivation, appreciation and self-respect in their children by handing them a living rather than letting them earn one. But I never saw how my involvement in missions, in particularly my giving, had any potential to harm rather than help!
My eyes were first opened when I read Dr. Robert Lupton’s book, Toxic Charity. The questions this book forced me to ask myself led to discussions with several long-term missionaries about the Western idea of helping and how it works in cross-cultural settings. Finally I ran across the book, When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. These books opened a window of insight that had been previously closed to me. I can see very clearly now the mistakes that I have made in my giving as well as some mistakes the Bible Methodist Missions program has made in the past.
Examples of Helping that Hurts
An American church decided to ramp up their sagging mission’s spirit by sending their youth pastor and a group of teens to a church they supported in Ethiopia to hold a VBS. The youth raised money, the ladies bought children’s clothes and the church staff put together an amazing VBS program – puppets and all. The VBS “wowed” the kids and on the last day the team gave all the village children several outfits of beautiful American clothes. The group came home declaring a ministry success and that their “lives had been changed forever.” But eight thousand miles away in Ethiopia, the story was very different.
The Ethiopian kids no longer wanted the “boring” lessons they were used to – they felt deprived without puppets. A village clothing store had to close due to a sudden loss of business. The village fathers were ashamed to face their children. These men had worked long hours but were not able to provide the kind of clothing that the Americans handed out freely. The mission team meant well, but despite good intentions they had undermined the ministry of their Ethiopian partner church, had embarrassed the church fathers, and had made the poor even poorer than they were before.
A group of American men spent thousands of dollars to fly to South America on a work team to make repairs and paint a school building for a mission their church supported. The trip was a blast and they came home in high spirits after accomplishing a great deal of work. However, they left behind a group of embittered nationals for the mission leader to deal with. The nationals felt robbed of employment. The job could have been hired out to them for a fraction of the cost the Americans spent on travel. Thus providing work for the local men and means to feed their families.
These stories can be repeated by the thousands. Sincere people spend tons of money to take short term mission trips every year. The latest figures show that in one year Americans alone took over two million trips spending a total of $1.6 billion in travel cost. It is not uncommon for these teams to spend $30,000 in travel cost to build a $3000 house or church. This is not only bad stewardship but not helpful to the nationals they are trying to assist.
Principles for Helping without Hurting
Corbett and Fikkert provide some basic principles to guide helping that doesn’t hurt. I have summarized them below:
1. Understand the culture.
Most North Americans view poverty as a lack of material things. In contrast, poor people in the majority world (Africa, Asia and Latin America) describe their poverty more broadly, using psychological and social categories such as humiliation, shame, inferiority, vulnerability, hopelessness, powerlessness, lack of education, lack of access to health care and entrapment.
2. Avoid paternalism by thinking in terms of partnering.
Do not habitually do things for people that they can do for themselves. As Americans we often assume that we know more and that we can do it better. We rush in and take charge, and in the process we can undermine the capacity of local people to exercise their own gifts and to be stewards of their own communities. When help is needed, provide matching funds or no interest loans.
3. Relief during a crisis is necessary but don’t provide relief inappropriately.
Relief is a temporary handout in response to a crisis. Relief is only necessary when people are completely incapable of helping themselves and need someone to stop the bleeding. For example, medical attention in the initial hours after a tsunami would be an appropriate application of relief. However, the overwhelming majority of poverty in the world isn’t due to an immediate crisis, but rather to long-term, chronic issues. In such contexts, handouts tend to undermine people’s dignity and stewardship, thereby exacerbating the very problems they were trying to solve.
4. Focus on assets rather than needs.
Most ministry efforts begin by asking local people what their needs are. When people feel a deep sense of inferiority and shame, it’s difficult to imagine a more harmful approach than having outsiders ask questions that communicate, either explicitly or implicitly, “What is wrong with you? How can I fix you?” In addition to confirming people’s humiliation, the nature of these questions creates a presumption that solutions and resources will come from the outsiders, which undermines the entire goal of restoring the local people to their God-ordained place as stewards over their own communities.
In contrast, an asset-based approach starts out by asking such questions as: What gifts and abilities do you have? What resources—physical, social and spiritual—has God placed within this community? What can you do to use your gifts and resources to solve problems and create bounty?
5. Focus on people and processes, not on programs and products.
How the project gets built is more important than the finished product. The process must affirm the dignity and gifts of poor people and local organizations.
6. Support interventions that can bring lasting change.
It is unrealistic to think we can spend a week somewhere and bring about positive and lasting change to people’s lives. The good news is that there are a number of interventions (e.g., micro-enterprise development) that can be consistent with a long-term, reconciling framework. Do research to find out more about how your church can be involved appropriately. In particular, consider ways to strengthen the efforts of grass-root churches and ministries.
The Bible Methodist family has been very generous in their missions giving and we need to continue to live with an “open hand” to our international works around the world. However, it may be that we need to evaluate the end result of what and how we give so that we can truly be a long term blessing to those we seek to help.