Thorns and Weeds in the Humanitarian Garden

Paul Vander Klay

October 25, 2010

Wherein lies the greater guilt? with the naive whose aid given in response to crises gets misused, corrupted, even helping (not causing) further conflict and crises? or with those evil perpetrators of the conflicts, who not only oppress the poor and the weak, but who also abuse and take advantage of the poorly-thought-out mission trip or the weakly-administered fund-raiser, small or large scale? Aid, poorly done or long-range implications not considered, is still aid given; those who corrupt the purpose deserve the most guilt, over and above the short-sighted.
I'm a recycler; I dutifly each week separate glass, metals, plastics, paper, etc. from garbage and trash; I compost, etc. I've been told my efforts are in vain---"it all goes to the landfill anyway." My initial response is "I'm doing my part---if the garbage company makes the choice to not recycle, then the guilt is theirs." Yet---have I done my homework? have I asked the trash haulers for an accounting---do they really recycle? If I'm so intent on doing my part, should I more actively recycle by getting glass to a bonafide glassrecycler, metals to the same?

One-time gifts to aid programs will assuage guilt, but at the same time they are still gifts that can be used. What agencies need to do, as well as keeping up with bringing in donations, is to develop strength and credibility of presence, a sense of savvy in dealing with local populations that shows working with and working for people's good, not just a short-term dumping of goods and services. Greg Mortenssen's Three Cups of Tea book comes to mind.

October 26, 2010

Thanks for bringing up these tough questions, Paul. I think what makes this issue so tricky is that it's a distinctly modern problem that is difficult to find a way out of. Global injustice is a result of global economics, and therefore should be our concern. However, the complexity of intercultural interactions means the solution is far from obvious.
My temptation is to just ignore it and focus my charity and justice concerns locally, where I can work with others I can see to fulfill their specific needs. But, this is a terrible cop-out, because my actions and purchases impact people in other countries whether I choose to see it or not. I suppose it is better to make an effort with mixed results than to do nothing at all, but perhaps we should also put more of our money into listening to locals and figuring out how to do it better.

October 26, 2010

I think honesty is something that both Christian mission agencies and humanitarian agencies have to work towards especially in terms of fund raising. The temptation is always to communicate the more b/w, dramatic, manipulative narrative. "Only you can make the difference... all that stands between life and death, joy and sorrow is you donation..." This is almost never the case but it is effective in terms of getting money for your project. Over the long term it dehumanizes both the donor and the client and casts the missionary or NGO worker in the role of the divine. Our failures are complex and "solutions" are generally few and far between. To be helpful is the goal but even that standard can be hard to achieve.

I'm glad that the press is beginning to ask hard questions about this industry, and it is an industry. I think the world is better for its existence, but it doesn't change the game like the fundraising propaganda suggests.

November 15, 2010

I believe that I come at this from an unusual perspective: that of working for the government at the "welfare" agency for two decades and being involved in the inner city for far longer. My observation is that in some ways at the "welfare" office we did a far better job of tying expectations of performance to public generosity than most of the nonprofits/churches that I observed. Taxpayers can be very demanding in ways that nonprofit/church "taxpayers" are not.

This issue is a very difficult one and I heartily applaud the author for making the point. For years I have felt a "voice in the wilderness" asking relatives of the some 40+ "mission" trips they have gone on what the point of the point of the hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively was. (I don't do this all the time and try to be tactful--enough of a curmudgeon as it is)

November 15, 2010

Thanks for the helpful comment and for speaking to us from your experience. Government benevolence efforts often get dissed by some Christian groups yet I find churches lean on them plenty and as you rightly note churches can at times be generous in ways that do in fact damage communities and encourage unhealthy dependence. In a sense some of your comments are illustrative of Malcolm Gladwell's observation of 10,000 hours to become an expert. If you are working on something A LOT you begin to get good at it and for better or worse people in the government do get a lot of experience that is valuable and can help inform both governmental and non-governmental efforts. pvk

November 15, 2010

I agree. Anytime the church can be replaced by the government which will do the job so much better means we probably shouldn't be there in the first place. We are out of our sphere of expertise. The church then becomes just another ineffective social organization who helps for the spiritual ego boost. We need to concentrate on our unique mission, one that the government can never fulfill. That doesn't mean we don't go to Haiti, just that we focus on unique strengths or missions the church can offer, whether evangelism, healing prayer, teaching or Church rebuilding.

Add your comment to join the discussion!