18 February 2010

Intentions and results

Today: Back to the Moscow district after our brief trip to Klaipeda and Riga. On the train to Elektrostal, we look out the window and see station after snowy station, each neatly swept, surrounded by a seemingly permanent glistening white carpet of snow. Home again! And in the evening, we enjoy a fresh snowfall. Photo: Judy Maurer.

Back in 1990, when I was working for Right Sharing of World Resources, I toured our partner organizations in south India. On one of my first stops, I visited a non-governmental organization outside Chennai (then Madras), and got some valuable lessons from the organization's director.

He was blunt and honest about the pitfalls of doing development through transfers of money. Some examples: (1) Transparency is vital—money can get siphoned off at all levels; or even if it is being spent honestly, local participants can suspect that it is being siphoned off, especially when the funding seems fitful and capricious. (2) Funders must get to know the "target" communities in depth, not relying on intermediaries, who can become power-brokers, even selling "successful" applications for others to copy. (3) Never believe (or allow people to convince you) that you are indispensable. The communities were there before you ever showed up and will be there after you leave.

He said a lot more—and hopefully it's all preserved in the Right Sharing archives, along with more recent learnings. That session, and the 30 subsequent meetings that followed during my time in India provided lessons that no book could have supplied—especially not the books of nearly impenetrable prose that I was struggling to read in order to stay abreast, if that were possible, of the changing fashions in economic development.

One of the reasons that I enjoyed reading Brian Fikkert's and Steve Corbett's book When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Ourselves was its refreshing lack of jargon. It wasn't written for the guild, it was written for the church as a whole—and especially for those whose desire to help exceeds their exposure to the real-life results of such well-intentioned "help" in the past.

Along with keeping their writing crisp and simple, Fikkert and Corbett accomplish a great balancing act: they tell the awkward truths about harmful help ... while avoiding shaming the reader, who may have (or whose church may have) done exactly the sorts of things that the book advises not to do. As the authors candidly admit, they themselves made these same errors!

This balancing act is important, because the very thesis of the book is that poverty is a disruption of right relationships—so, presumably, the authors should keep a right relationship with us, the readers! Part of their balancing act is avoiding categorical rules—for example, their conclusions about the limits and dangers of short-term missions might give many of us pause after all the white elephants and pancake breakfasts we've paid for, to help raise money for such missions, and all the sentimental slideshows we've seen afterwards. But the authors don't totally lower the boom on short-term missions; instead, they list concrete ways to make them as productive as possible. This non-categorical, non-shaming approach (so different from the high-stakes games sometimes played in politicized development circles and their one-upping theoreticians) is reinforced by the exercises and discussion questions carefully placed throughout the book.

Some teasers:
[Bryant] Myers notes that the Triune God is inherently a relational being .... Being made in God's image, human beings are inherently relational as well. Myers explains that before the fall, God established four foundational relationships for each person: a relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation....

One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically richtheir god-complexesand the poverty of being of the ecoomically poortheir feelings of inferiority and shame. The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates—albeit unintentionally—that we are superior and they are inferior. In the process we hurt the poor and ourselves. And here is the clincher: this dynamic is likely to be particularly strong whenever middle-to-upper-class, North American Christians try to help the poor, given these Christians' tendencies toward a Western, materialistic perspective of the nature of poverty. [Emphasis in original.]

[Commenting on an inner-city case study:] The fall [i.e., Genesis 3] really happened, affecting both Alisa and the systems into which she was born. Unfortunately, as recent research has demonstrated, Caucasian evangelicals in the United States, for whom the systems have worked well, are particularly blind to the systemic causes of poverty and are quick to blame the poor for their plight.

When considering bringing in outside resources, we must always ask two questions: (1) Is it too much? (2) Is it too early? It would be far better to let a nonemergency need go unmet than to meet that need with outside resources and cripple local initiative in the process. Again, poverty alleviation is about reconciling people's relationships, not about putting bandages over particular manifestations of the underlying brokenness.

Unfortunately, while public policy has historically encouraged wealth accumulation for middle-to-upper-class people, it has often discouraged wealth accumulation for the poor. Middle-to-upper-class people are encouraged to accumulate wealth through such things as tax-deferred (and often employer-matched) retirement savings (IRAs, 401Ks, 403bs [these are USA-specific examples]), and mortgage-interest tax deductions. At the same time, poor people have been forced to deplete their assets before qualifying for welfare assistance and have been penalized with the loss of benefits if they somehow manage to save and invest too much! The end result is that many poor families are highly vulnerable to economic shocks and unable to even think about their financial futures.
For those who want to examine and critique the authors' underlying homework, there are numerous footnotes, but the book itself never drags. I'm grateful that this book has the potential to open up deeper conversations about poverty, justice, and discipleship within a much wider audience than the experts who too often stay at footnote level.

Righteous links:

Here's the online dot.org supplement to the book: When Helping Hurts.

Friends World Committee for Consultation publicizes a worthwhile appeal for a mental health project in Russia. I heard details about this project at the Friends House Moscow board meeting last fall—it sounds exciting.

Radio Free Europe on "Defending Disabled Children in Russia."

OpenDemocracy presents a level-headed analysis of the Ukrainian elections.

What's behind the decline in religious observance in the USA? New atheists, or "everydayishness"?

Could "Love your enemies" become the new trend in mission? At least it's a major theme in the latest (March-April 2010) issue of Mission Frontiers. (If you see this link after a couple of months, you may have to look in the archive listing here—something you should do anyway if you're not familiar with this fascinating and category-bending publication.)

Jim Wallis will be in Beaverton, Oregon, in a few days. His book-tour dates are here.

Jonathan Edwards, "Great Divider"—a controversial American theologian gets another look.

In the permanent-war-watch department: Tom Engelhardt addresses "Fear Inc."

The Winter Olympics are a great season for all of us with Norwegian roots. The rest of the time we can pretend to be global citizens, but every four years, for a brief couple of weeks, we can bask in the reflected glory of these amazing athletes who, on a medals-per-capita basis, leave the rest of the planet in the dust.

Tora Berger, biathlon gold medalist, wins Norway's 100th gold medal in the history of the Winter Games. Source.

And here's a story combining Norway, ice, and ... music.

A belated Valentine's Day card for all blues lovers:


Jeanne said...

Thank you for posting this! It's exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for right now in my research.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Jeanne! I clicked on your name which led me to your significant "rant" on biased generosity. You ask important questions.