Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I'll Try to Keep it Brief

More Giving Stuff

Weather: Exceptionally cold, with temperatures around -5F (-20c) and wind chills of -20F and more. About a foot of snow remains on the ground. Wind steady from the west at about 10mph.

After my last post, I anticipated a few questions along this line: "So, if giving to poor people messes them up and messes us up, what are we supposed to do to help? Nothing at all? What about the hungry children?" Those kind of great questions came, and provided the opportunity for nice conversations with friends around here. I'm glad for questions like this, because it leads to greater understanding and better options. For those of you Loyal Readers who had similar questions, but don't live close enough for a face to face chat, here are more thoughts on the rich extending a hand to the poor.

There are two aspects of poverty hidden in my post and especially in the questions I've received. The first is the macro issue of poverty, specifically poverty in a specific country or region, like Liberia. By poverty, I mean severely limited access to adequate food, water, shelter, clothing and health care to people on a large scale. Because these social ills are often deeply woven into the historical and cultural tapestry of an area, and also because they are often accompanied by corruption, exploitation of vulnerable populations, violence, and racism, addressing poverty is profoundly complex.

But, if I may be so bold, many Americans loath complex problems. In fact lots of Americans believe there is no such thing as a complex problem. I think that's in part because most Americans like to fix things, and keeping the problem simple makes it easier to fix. So, we usually only deal with the complex and macro problem of poverty on a simple and micro level. A village needs a well, so lets give 'em a well. The kids look sad at this orphanage, so let's give 'em some toys and food and make 'em smile. There is no school in this area, so let's build a school. People live in hovels, so let's build a bunch of houses. Too many individuals and organizations drop some money or a couple weeks into a complex situation, look for that smile or that well or that finished house, and then they simply move on to the next problem to be fixed. But the question to this kind of "fix" is this: if those we are giving to didn't have it before we flew in (often without invitation), what makes us think they'll be able to keep it or maintain it after we fly out?

The problem with addressing the superficial, micro symptoms of complex social ills is that our "easy-in-easy-out fix-it" mentality often ignores one of the key variables essential in supporting quality, long term changes: quality, long term relationships-- relationships committed to mutual change and transformation. On the macro or micro level, organizations/individuals willing to engage other organizations/individuals over time, and willing to be changed by that engagement will make a difference. A key to making a real difference over time is in sticking around, or in partnering with trustworthy people who are sticking.

So what might be some wise ways to approach communities of poverty?

First, by all means let us commit ourselves to doing something. It is true that figuring out how to lend a hand is hard. But that point is also moot. Standing together to alleviate poverty is a matter of justice and righteousness. It is not ok to avoid engaging world poverty because it is too complex, or even because we might make mistakes. So congrats on caring enough to stick with it.

Second, we need to do our homework. The concept of "Do No Harm" is the fundamental principle of international humanitarian intervention, and it sounds like a good motto for all of us as we think of ways to serve the poor. Let's make sure funds and efforts go to trusted people and organizations.

We need to avoid knee-jerk reactions to our own feelings of guilt or pity. Instead, we need to respond to world poverty with measured, informed actions out of a sense of of simple rightness and goodness.

It is wise to commit ourselves over the long term to people or communities in poverty. We must insist that the relationships be mutual, and expect to be changed by the people we get to know. After some time, we may see we were helped more than we helped others. We must resist "easy in/easy out" approaches.

If we cannot commit ourselves long term to people in poverty, we can commit ourselves to organizations who do it the right way. We can find out which humanitarian and mission organizations serve the poor by establishing long-term relationships characterized by mutual impact and change. We can partner with these organizations by offering our time and resources.

If we travel to a community of extreme poverty, we need to listen and watch far more that we talk or act. The complexities of poverty require that we try to understand more than we "do something."

If we travel to a community of extreme poverty in another culture, we need to avoid going with an attitude of "helping Them." We need to avoid expressions of pity, or demeaning behaviors. (e.g. Showing up without invitation, initiating projects based on our assessment of need, photographing people without permission, handing out trinkets, snacks, or candy, uninvited touching or personal assessments to strangers.)

If we choose to participate in short-term mission trips or service projects, we can select those that focus more on listening and creating relationships of mutual benefit and less on the tasks, less on "helping." We need to avoid service projects that are really only about us "fixing" things and not so much about engaging people. (e.g. Staying in compounds, going out and focusing on tasks, then returning at the end of the day.) Ask about the day to day schedule of activities of short term service trips.

We need to be especially careful regarding orphanages. Find out what trusted child oriented humanitarian organizations are doing, find out which orphanages are actually operating with true orphans and children without access to family. There is no doubt that millions of orphans need all the support they can get. But not all orphanages are honorable or ethical. Find out before you give.

The pathway of living a life increasingly consistent with the implications of our faith is not always clear before us. The Reeds have made painful mistakes in attempting to walk with the poor. In some of our clumsy but well-meaning giving to others, we have actually put their lives in jeopardy. Armed robbers have attacked and threaten the lives of people to whom we have given, stealing the gift and more, leaving them bloodied and shaken. And that's only the really bad mistakes. Let's all not give up, let's figure out how to love our neighbor, and let's take our time doing it.