Helping Without Hurting


A few minutes from where we work, ships offload grain from the US to feed eastern Africa.

Just outside the city, women stand in line at one of the trucks, waiting for their chance at some food for their families.  It's needed.  Drought, disease, and war have left millions on the very edge of survival.
Some charitable efforts help and some hurt. 
Why is that?    With good intent we feed, clothe, and shelter the less fortunate...  and sometimes we make matters worse.  The last five decades are full of stumbling examples both locally and internationally. 

Maybe we don't understand...  Ask an American  middle- class family to describe the lives of the poor.  They'll probably answer in terms of food and material things.  If however, you ask the poor themselves, they're likely to answer in terms of powerlessness to effect change.  An African father who has nothing for his children said he was ashamed at his inability to provide; he had no worth or influence or significance. 

With a few variations, the same response of helplessness and hopelessness will be true for the poor in the west and in the rest of the world.  If we pitch in to help without understanding, we can inadvertently deepen their distress in the process.  Food may be needed, but real help might need to be that and something more, something substantially more.

The big mistake many from the developed world make is assuming we know what poor people on the other side of the world need.1

Helping without hurting:
Before we start throwing help at a need, we might try to understand it.  In Haiti after the earthquake, the immediate need was for rescue, food,  medical aid, shelter.  Once recovery is underway though, the need is for helping them in getting back on their feet and beginning to help themselves, governing themselves, rebuilding, and moving toward self-sufficiency. 

Note (illustration left) that when the need is developmental, giving crisis or recovery aid misses the mark and  encourages crippling dependency.  Christmas in April folks repairing a family's roof while the young men of the household sit and watch is a good example of missing the mark.  

Addressing developmental needs, a village might need a well or a library, or a farm might need a pair of goats, but most of all, folks need to be involved in helping themselves, making a difference, effecting change by their own efforts. 
See Want to help? Here's what I know... for a list of what works and who is doing it well.

“We went into the heart of Africa self-invited — therein lies our fault,” Stanley confided to his diary.

Some efforts are ill conceived and poorly informed.  For example ...

Wry African Humor, a resort operator and his friend...

- We have this great project where our guests buy a cow for the local women.
- Ah ha.
- Traditionally in Maasai culture it is the men who own the cows, and so this project empowers local women as they actually own the cow themselves and can earn money from the milk.
- I see.
- They are then able to buy things and pay for their children's school fees. It's very popular and we have already bought eight cows for the local women.
- Are you not adding to the problem of over-grazing in the area?
- No, because the cows previously belonged to the husbands.
- You think a husband would really give up the ownership of his cow?
- Yes.
- They're not just taking the money?
- No.
- But the women have always sold the milk as it would be humiliating for a Maasai man to do so.
- Um.
- And milk money is just that, it would never be enough for school fees. it's nearly always the men who pay them anyway.
- Yes, but our guests don't know that.

Loving your neighbor.  Effectively.
It isn't a feeling.  It's an act.  It's what we do, not how we feel about it.            

Much like loving your own child, doing well by another requires thought and a measure of personal involvement.  Feeding the hungry is right and good.  Loving them effectively helps them tackle feeding themselves as well.   A friend will stick around long enough to get an idea of what's going on and then lend a hand if he can.  A friend will add that measure of encouragement, of affirmation that is so needed.  As a guideline, you'll want to avoid doing for them what they can do for themselves.

African Friends:
After three years working and traveling in Africa, my thinking has turned pretty much upside down.  Each one whom I've befriended there... well, actually they've befriended me.  I was a stranger in their country and they took me in to their families, their homes, their lives.  All I did was try to be polite.  They put up with my butchering the languages, stumbling over the customs, making awkward mistakes, and they lovingly made a place for me.  Few asked for anything at all, even the neediest among them.  They loved me with better understanding than I loved them, it hurts a bit to say.  Now, years into the process, I'm changed and I have a lot of new friends with whom to share life.   They've been more help and healing for me than I for them.

From her "Texas in Africa" blog about the D. R. Congo, Dr. Laura Seay;   "... they were really nice, but I have very mixed feelings about people who come to Africa for two weeks and decide that they know what to do about the poverty here. On the one hand, it's great that people become acutely aware of the suffering people here endure. On the other, the money that they spent on their trip could have sent several hundred children to school for a year. The same could be said of me, I suppose. But the thing is, despite all their well-intentioned words about how early childhood education might help cut down on violence in the future, it takes a lot more than an idea like that to understand what is really going on here, and it takes a sustained commitment to support Africans in solving their own problems to make a long term difference.

I was reminded of this late yesterday afternoon while having coffee with my friend Eva. Eva is from Goma, but went to the boarding school in Kenya where all the Baptist MK's go, and went to college in the U.S. to get an international business degree. She is incredibly smart and has lots of ideas about economic development and institution-building – and she understands the eastern Congo in a way that outsiders never will. If it can be done, it's people like her who will make things better here. And it's people like Esther and Camille, who work in a congregation that sings songs like "Seigneur, vous etes plus precieux que l'argent" (Lord, You are More Precious than Silver). That really means something here, just miles from the gold and coltan and diamond mines that drive so much of this conflict. It means even more to sing a song based on Romans 8:38-39, to be able to say with confidence that nothing -- not death, not evil, not a very uncertain future – nothing, can separate us from God's love. I am humbled to be part of their community."

1From her "Texas in Africa" blog about alternative ideas;  "
There's nothing wrong with wanting to help those in need. But when we're not experienced or familiar with the people we want to help, the biggest mistake many Americans make is assuming that we know what poor people on the other side of the world need. I've learned over time that we're usually wrong. Poor people know what they need, and what seems like a good idea to us many be completely inappropriate for the culture, climate, or community norms. Since bad aid can actually be worse than no aid at all, it's really important to get it right.

The good thing about this is that it's not that hard to figure out how to make a real, lasting difference in someone else's life.   All you have to do is ask.
"        Thanks, doc.

Another consideration:

Having difficulty
seeing past the edges of your luxurious lifestyle?  Me too.  It takes some effort.  If you haven't realized how fortunate you are living in the developed world, try living for a day without electricity, without running water, without television, without your computer or the web, without a car, without a grocery store, without a regular job, without a washing machine, and without hope of changing things for your children unless someone else gives you a hand. 

Imagine carrying all the water you use to the house in plastic jugs.  Imagine living in a simple hut made from scrap lumber and packing crates.  Now put a face to the children.  Browse through the pictures here and imagine their prospects.  You can make a difference for one family for whom these hardships are all they know.

So what are we going to do with what we know?

Tell the rich folks to quit being so full of themselves and so impressed with their own possessions, which are here today and gone tomorrow.  It's not their merit that made them wealthy and others less so. Tell them to go after God who is generous to us all - and tell them to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they'll build a treasure that will last, gaining life that is truly life.

          1 Timothy 6:17-19 Africa, children, school, classroom, hope, Sao Tome, Principe, Guarda Costeria, RMAC, education, African schools, Nigeria, Nigerian