Monday, January 12, 2009

I was just thinking

Giving Stuff

A very dear friend contacted me last week. She is a teacher and asked about having her kids participate in a service project that would provide something "tangible" for some of the very poor Liberians with whom we lived and worked. Renita and I get these offers from time to time, and we always have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, the offers come from generous hearts wanting to give from that generosity. What could be wrong with that? On the other hand, in some situations, giving out of our desire to give may have little to do with the needs of those we give to and everything to do with meeting our own needs. That kind of giving is not generosity. In my conversation with my teacher friend, it was clear she was aware of the complexities involved to giving to people in cultures of poverty. But not everyone is. It is often more important that those of relative wealth learn about the complexities of poverty and how difficult it is to find solutions, than it is for the person in poverty to get something "tangible." Ironically, both the "Haves" of this world and the "Have Nots" desperately need something intangible with regard to their condition, and it is often in providing the tangible that exacerbates that intangible need.

It is essential to consider what "providing" teaches the "provider" and the "providee." Throughout the developing world, millions of people have been taught to "look outward, whence cometh my help." For millions, "my life cannot possibly be better unless others keep giving me something. I have nothing to give." There might be some truth to this in some places, but not in most. Definitely not in Liberia, as bad as thing are there. But the sense of internal adequacy or self efficacy for many Liberians is very low. By contrast, throughout the industrial world, millions have been taught that they have what everyone else wants, and it is good to "lend a hand" to "give to the needy." They have been conditioned that problems are there to be fixed and that they can fix whatever is broken by sheer force of will. They may think, "The poor have nothing to offer. They will not live better unless I give them something."

Yet both the poor person who thinks she has nothing to offer and the wealthy man who thinks he has nothing to receive are profoundly self-deceived and in desperate need, a need not met by giving or receiving "stuff."

The result of these self deceptions are that when people of means simply give to people in extreme poverty, there is no development, no change in the way either party sees themselves. People of means like to give, and people without anything like to receive. Both the free giving and the free taking reinforce the idea that "You Give I Take" (or "You Take I Give") is exactly the way the relationship equation is supposed to be, and that introduces death to the human spirit on both sides of the equation. Without changing the way we frame the equation, the way we see ourselves in relation to world poverty, how can things possibly change? How will the "Powerful Givers" or "Powerless Receivers" ever see themselves as more than just that?

The challenge is to create opportunities for all involved to see the full "intangible" humanity, intelligence, character and dignity of people in situations of profound poverty, and to help all involved see any spiritual poverty, ignorance, oversimplifying tendencies of people in situations of wealth and access. The challenge is to see poverty of spirit wherever it resides-- in the poor or in the rich, and work to bring people afflicted with various forms of poverty (economic, cultural, spiritual,) together, so that each may enrich the other by what they share in common.

Case in point: If someone "gives" the community a well, who is responsible for the well when the pump head gets stolen and the base crumbles? "How nice. They gave us a well. How sad, the well they gave us is spoiled. Where is the water hole?"

When is giving to an orphanage not helpful? When 80% of the kids are not orphans, when parents are solicited by orphanages to give up their kids so the orphanage has a population of wide-eyed waifs that no compassionate soul with money can resist. To freely give to an orphanage without working to understand how broken the orphanage industry is and how much damage it is doing to Liberian society is to participate in the damage and to enable its continuance.


Anonymous said...

My, you do make one think... you always have. One of my favorite things about you!

We have lots of extended family that has a wonderful heart for God and for ministry. I would like to share your thots with them...

Thanks for sharing. Blessings on you.

From Five to Eight said...

I've heard this from another American/living in Liberia/missionary family. That Americans are doing more harm than good "helping" Liberians.

We recently adopted from Liberia (our children's mother is dead and father in prison--we met I'm not feeling any guilt about taking our kids from their parents. I've heard of this happening in orphanages though.

But what is the solution? How can we help Liberia from here without hurting them?

It seems if a village is dying because of lack of makes sense to dig wells.

I'm not questioning your post...but at a loss of how to really help? You have more insight from living there.

I know Libieria needs truth and strong Christian leadership to rebuild...but if people are dying in the meantime from basic needs like food/water--then what?


The Reeds in the Wind said...


Your question is the perfect follow up question. I'm certainly not advocating a cessation of caring and support to people in need. I'm suggesting that the ways some have done it in the past do little good and actually maintain and reinforce the status quo. In essence, I want people to stop being so reactive, to stop trying to provide a quick fix, and to realze that there is no quick fix. There is a better way, a way of helping that actually helps, and many have found it.

My next post will address this.


Anonymous said...

Regarding digging wells, its not so easy as "if they need it, let's dig it. Wells don't last without regular maintanence. Something breaks or has to be replaced every few months. Plus the water should be treated occasionally if you want it to be free of bacteria. All that costs money. If the people in a village could not put one in, how can we expect them to maintain them? That takes a community effort and training. So, it only makes sense to dig wells in places where their ongoing maintanence is assured. I know, because I've built wells in Africa. There are a lot of useless, broken wells out there, built with the best of intentions, but not with much long range planning.

Kevin from Indiana

Anonymous said...

the problem isn't new - it's repeated over and over in many cultures/sub-cultures world wide. Some have described it as a "welfare state mentality" that is almost impossible to eliminate once the "haves" start giving. But I still believe that God will judge nations and individuals based on their willingness to use their resources to help those who are unfortunate. Jesus Himself said that the poor you will always have...Yes, the challenge is to help others become able to sustain themselves. You are right in that our help should be well planned. That requires a coming along side of to really understand how best to help - which is what you are doing and have done. But in the meantime, as systems and education is put into place, people are still dying from hunger/disease. I find that unacceptable. We must help where we can and not wait until the perfect answer is in place..

The Reeds in the Wind said...


Very nicely put. Who can argue? As Renita likes to say: "Somebody has to rescue the babies floating downstream while somebody goes upriver and figure out how to fix the machine that's throwing them in the river in the first place."

And I absolutely agree that we will be judged by the way we treated the most vulnerable in our world. ("Pure and undefiled religion is this..." Jms 1.27) As I said in my next post: "It is not ok to avoid engaging world poverty because it is too complex, or even because we might make mistakes."

Thanks for your passionate words.


CRWM said...

This reminds me of an article in the Banner recently that dared to question the sacred "shoe boxes for orphans" tradition. Angry letters from well-meaning (but misguided) folks followed . . . along the lines of, "how DARE you question what we do?" (my second-favorite is, "but our kids feel SO GOOD when they can do this for those poor children!")

(working in retail, I experienced many times people asking for a discount on products because, as they felt compelled to inform me, they were sending said items to the "POOR CHILDREN". I resisted the urge to strike back with, "Jesus said not to do your good deeds in public to be seen by men!")

ummm . . . I'm rambling. so don't mind me.