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.