Thursday, January 31, 2013

Left Behind

In my most recent post I talked about those who will be left behind as we make the transition from the way we have done charity to a new way that doesn't create dependency and the crushing impact of benevolent oppression. Now that you've had some time to decide if I'm heartless or not, let me explain what left behind looks like.

I used the example of the ministry in Kenya where the man in charge refused to come up with a plan that would move them toward sustainability and self-sufficiency. When we run into people at the leadership level who have been so irreparably damaged by our benevolent oppression that they cannot do anything but receive charitable gifts those must be left behind. We must seek out people in leadership or who are capable of leadership, that have an entrepreneurial spirit, are teachable and are eager to do for themselves all that they can.

There will always be those who will need transitional help. The children under the care of the man in Kenya should not be abandoned. They must get meals, have secure housing, get an education and have regular medical attention. At the same time it is important to find someone to lead that ministry who understands how crucially important it is to build a sustainable model for the long term viability of that ministry.

A few posts ago I talked about the two questions we need to ask. The first is, "How can I help you?" Based on experience the answer is almost always, "Give us money." That's why I have the second question ready, "If I'm not going to give you money, how can I help you?"

The ones who get left behind are those who have no other answer, regardless of the question, but to say "Give me money." Those are the people we need to stop giving money. They are the ones who will be left behind in this very difficult transition. They are the ones who will be angry with us and may even try to stop us. They don't realize they are living under the oppression of our charity. And we may never be able to help them understand.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Hardest Part

It's time to talk about where the rubber meets the road. Changing how we do charity and reversing benevolent oppression will be very hard. Not because we can't agree that it's necessary, but because many will not be able to actually follow through. Truly helping people can often be very painful. Both for the one helping and the one being helped.

On one of my visits to Kenya I was having a conversation with a man whose entire ministry depends on donations. He was concerned about the future because donors were reducing the size of their gifts or had ceased giving all together. He had not paid his staff in months and it was uncertain month to month if he would have enough money to buy food for the children in his care.

I challenged him to consider ways in which his ministry could become self-sustaining. I told him that depending on donors was not a good long term strategy. We discussed some of his dreams for creating a revenue producing enterprise. But they were just that; dreams. There were no solid plans. He couldn't even settle on one thing to pursue. I urged him to pick a single project, create a realistic business plan that included estimates on how much it would take to start and how long before the venture was turning a profit.

Over the course of the next year a generous donor was ready to support the launch of a sustainable business for this man and his ministry. He resisted all efforts to get a plan. He pushed back against offers to help build the facilities necessary to start a business. He missed an opportunity to get on the road to sustainable self-sufficiency. He did not get a single dollar from the donor who had money to give. And in this case it wasn't even a loan, but a gift.

While I'm heartbroken that the staff and children at this ministry will suffer, choosing to keep them wholly dependent on donations for their survival is not the right thing to do. Changing how we do charity means some will be left behind. And that simple sentence just divided those who have what it takes to reverse benevolent oppression and those who don't. If you are incensed at the idea that some will be left behind in the transition then you may not have the strength to make it happen.

More on what the pain of transition might look like in the next post.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Accountability - The Secret Ingredient

Many of us were taught growing up in the church that charity with strings attached is no charity at all. That one simple idea is a key contributor to the rotten foundation upon which our charity has been built. When I give money to a person or an entity or a government, for that matter, and make no provision for accountability I have started down the road to unhealthy dependency. In addiction recovery we call it codependency. I sacrifice who I am and what I have so that you continue to get what you want. In the end you despise me because I can never give you enough and I despise you because you never stop asking for more.

The hurdle many in the charitable world are still struggling to get over is accountability. It's exactly this element that is making endeavors like the Acumen Fund and the Grameen Foundation so wildly successful, in my humble opinion. Instead of coming to people in need with wheelbarrows full of cash and handing it out indiscriminately, they are partnering with people. They are encouraging them to have a plan. They are asking them to seek a vision for a brighter future for themselves and their communities. Then they require that plan to be coherent, well developed and properly articulated.

Part of the plan must include accountability. Not just accountability for repayment of money loaned, but accountability in terms of who will hold them up through this process. Accountability must have as key components a structure for seeing that the plan is implemented. Agreements with suppliers, a network of support that keeps you on track, a set of deadlines and timelines that accurately mark your progress along the way, and a reasonable method of reporting collected in a timely fashion so that deficits in the plan can be caught and corrected.

When we give with no expectation the expectation is met on both sides. By that I mean they expect us to give them money and we expect them to take our money (or clothes, or food, or whatever). If those are the only expectations then as soon as we have given the transaction is complete. That means there is no interest in anything else we have to offer, like advice or encouragement or counsel. We give, they take, see you next month and you better have the next charitable gift in hand.

When I stop giving you money and I start loaning you money a whole set of expectations comes built in. You will repay me. You will tell me what you want to accomplish with the money. You will convince me that your plan is feasible, realistic, sustainable and profitable. You will agree to report progress, make regular payments and follow any other guidelines I set. I agree to be reasonable in my expectations, fair in my dealings with you, relentless in my follow through and consistent in my treatment of everyone with whom I do business. In short, I treat you like an adult who is capable of meeting high expectations. I operate from an assumption that, given the right tools, you can take care of yourself and help your community. And once I have given you this hand up I will not need to return month after month, year after year, with wheelbarrows full of cash.

Just in case you're one of those who still think poor people can't meet such high expectations, remember this. In the history of microfinance the loan repayment rate from poor people in developing nations is 97%.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Good News

While there is an enormous amount of work to be done to reverse the course of how we do charity, there is some good news. As I talk with people about this issue many are already aware of the problem and I have not met any who fundamentally disagree. Now, it could be they are just being polite or that I only hang out with like minded people. Because there are still a majority of Christians doing charity by checkbook.

There are also many Christians that are putting themselves into charitable work. There are many who are coming alongside people in need and helping them in real and sustainable ways. These are the efforts we need to seek out and celebrate. These are the charities we need to support. One that gets a lot of attention for doing it right but is not specifically Christian is the Acumen Fund. Started by Jacqueline Novogratz ten years ago the Acumen Fund is empowering people to care for themselves. They have accountability structures in place. They work within cultural contexts by actually working with, not for or in place of, the people in the culture. It's an awesome model and just one that needs to be emulated.

I am searching for models like the Acumen Fund and they are certainly out there. The granddaddy of all the microfinance ventures is the Grameen Foundation. Microfinance is a very effective tool for empowering people. And not because of the money, but because of the model that includes accountability, networking, partnerships and trust. If we are to have any hope of reversing benevolent oppression then we must first trust people to take initiative and stop treating them like they can't do anything for themselves. I will say more on how microfinance accomplishes this in my next post.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Challenge of Change

It's said that the only one's who like change are babies with a dirty diaper and in my experience even some of those babies seem quite content with a diaper full of poop. So it makes sense that after decades of lavishing money on people as our primary way being charitable that it will be difficult for those on both sides of the exchange. Let's start with the word charity and see how we use it. I say 'Charitable' and you say...
  • giving
  • donation
  • tax deduction
  • cause
When you get an envelope from a charity at the end of the year what are they asking for? So we have created an entire charitable industry based on the premise that you give them money and they give that money to people in need, to the tune of billions of dollars a year. The money that's been funneled into Haiti alone just since the 2010 earthquake comes to over $11,000,000,000 (that's billion with a 'b').

According to the U.K. Mail a year ago, on the second anniversary of the earthquake, a whopping total of 4,768 new homes had been built in Haiti and 13,578 had been repaired. If you do the math that comes out to about $600,000 per home built or repaired.

Yes, I know that not all that money went for construction. But I also know personally of charitable organizations that spent millions for construction equipment, homes and other projects with very little to show for it. The construction equipment has vanished, the homes are not fully occupied and the money is all gone. At this point I want to make the disclaimer that some good things are happening in Haiti, but I can't say that. If you read the U.K. Mail article it points out that poverty is worse in Haiti than it's ever been. Cholera has claimed the lives of thousands more people. Tens of thousands still live in squalid tent cities and the city of Port Au Prince is still in shambles three years and ELEVEN BILLION DOLLARS LATER! Here's a quote from the article...

 ‘Aid did some good and saved some lives early on but ultimately led to more division, more cynicism and made the mercantile class even richer,’ says Mark Schuller, a  U.S. anthropologist who teaches in Haiti. ‘In the end the way the aid was delivered, the lack of co-ordination and the lack of respect for the Haitian people (emphasis mine) did more harm than good. It would have been better if they had not come.’

There's no denying we have a monumental task in front of us if we are to reverse the devastating effects of our charity. There are two questions we have to ask of those in need and of ourselves. The first is one we've always asked and the second is what follows immediately after the answer we've conditioned the world, and ourselves, to give.

Question #1: How can I help you?
Question #2: If I'm not going to give you money, how can I help you?

The answer to question number two might be a long time in coming, but that answer is where we start afresh. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Shut Up and Listen

In my quest to reverse the effects of benevolent oppression I've learned something quite interesting. In his book 'Serving with Eyes Wide Open' Dr. David Livermore points out that when American pastors go to 'train' indigenous people in ministry they are greeted warmly and attentively. But after the Americans have gone home the participants will tell you that nothing that was 'taught' will work in their culture. When asked why they sat attentively and took notes the whole time they say it would be rude to do otherwise. The most telling part of the story is when asked what would've been more helpful they said, "If they had asked us to explain how we do ministry."

There is no nice way to say this, we Americans are arrogant. In our politics, our business practices and, unfortunately, in our charity we are very self-satisfied and convinced that we have figured it all out. I've seen this firsthand in teams I've taken to other countries. From men who demanded a seat on an airplane and had to be turned away by armed guards to my friend who insists that every country would be better off if they did things like we do in America, there is a swagger in us that most of us are blind to.

I've seen ministries where the leader literally carries pockets full of cash into needy places and goes around handing it out like candy! While this most certainly makes him feel good, it is rarely...I would say never...the right thing to do for the people he purports to be 'helping.'

Confessing that I am personally afflicted with being raised in America, I struggle with being quick to speak and slow to listen. But if we are to reverse the disastrous effects of our charity one simple thing we must do is shut up and listen. Hear the words of those indigenous pastors who longed for the Americans to ask what works in their culture and learn from them. If we are going to enter into meaningful partnerships with our brothers and sisters around the world we must honor their knowledge and understanding of the culture in which they live. We must ask them to teach us then, hard as it may be, shut up and listen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Step One - Avoid the Easy Road

When I was in Uganda a few years ago my hosts and I visited churches and schools in the rural countryside a couple of hours outside Kampala. Some of these places weren't easy to reach. There were times where we were on rutted paths with vegetation raking both sides of the vehicle as we drove through. Moses, the Pastor whose church was planting all these churches and schools, told me that when they first started they could only drive so far and then they had to walk for miles to reach the villages. Then they would begin building relationships. Eventually they would build simple mud huts for the schools and churches. Over time and as the people came to know Christ they would build better facilities. It was a long process filled with many challenges.

Built into the culture of Africa (at least the African nations where I've worked) there is a great capacity to move at a slow and deliberate pace. My friends talk of plans that might take decades to accomplish. They are committed to building relationships, taking the necessary time and overcoming any obstacle. In some cases those obstacles might delay a project for years.

When Americans show up in situations like this more often than not our first inclination is to accelerate the process by throwing money at it. In so doing we think we're being charitable and helping them accomplish their goals more quickly. Yes, money can accelerate a project. And if we have money why not use it to move things along? And that's just the way we in the West think. Bigger, faster, and newer are always better.


If we are to reverse benevolent oppression the first step is to resist the temptation to take what appears to be the easy road. Let's look again at Uganda. When you start by walking into a village and building relationships you're laying a foundation that will last. Over the course of years people capture the vision and engage in the process. Trust is built so that when the time comes to cut a road for better access they understand why. When you start in simple mud huts that look like the rest of the village you create a welcoming environment. When you spend years and years in the midst of people you are accepted and loved by them.

By the way, the work being done in Uganda was being done by Ugandan Christians. People who know and love God and have for generations. I was simply a visitor come to witness the wonderful ministry they were doing.

In contrast let's look at the typical American way. Identify the village where you want to 'bless' the people with a church and school. Hire a construction crew to bulldoze a road to the village to make it more accessible for workers. Bring in outside 'experts' to design a big, impressive facility (at least big and impressive by the standards of the village). Build that facility in a year or less with mostly foreign 'missionaries'.

Easy, right? By taking the easy road you have missed the opportunity to build relationships, engage the community, honor the skills and abilities of the people and taught them that Jesus is a thunderous lout who imposes himself on people. You have also started them on a path of serving money and waiting around for the next batch of it to show up.

The African way is hard for me. It's hard for most of us. The thought that the plans and visions God has given me might take thirty or forty or one hundred and fifty years to accomplish is just overwhelming. I won't be around that long. Certainly there's nothing wrong with accelerating that process by throwing money at it, is there?

Yes, there is something wrong with that. Something terribly wrong.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How A Free Car Nearly Ruined Me

My parents divorced before I was four years old. My mom remarried quickly and an agreement was made that my father would stay away for reasons I still don't fully understand. However, it set up a situation that kept me from ever meeting my real father until I was twenty years old. This post isn't about how all that came about but it is about what happened when I met my father.

He gave me a car.

He was a car dealer and had always dreamed of giving his children new cars when they turned 16. But because he had agreed to stay away and have no contact he didn't get that chance. So when the rules changed and he and I met he wanted to do something really nice for me. So he gave me a bright red 1972 Dodge Charger Special Edition. And it was sweet.

Inadvertently, however, he gave me something else with that car. He gave me a sense that I was owed something. Whether it was because he had been absent or because my stepfather and I didn't get along, the gift of that car gave birth to a sense of entitlement in me that took years to undo. I learned that if you're having a difficult time or need something someone will show up and give it to you. It was an unintended consequence of his generosity that nearly crippled me. Even though all he was doing was trying to demonstrate how much he loved me.

Unfortunately well meaning Christians have repeated this mistake over and over again for decades, if not centuries, in their attempt to share the love of Jesus Christ with people. It even has a name...benevolent oppression. Our desire to help the poor, the downtrodden and needy has often been reduced down to giving out money or clothing or food.

Now, please don't get me wrong. There are times when giving out these things might be the appropriate response. But those times are rare. Far more often it would be better to help people in ways that really help them and don't cripple them. I have personally met people who are otherwise capable, intelligent and able bodied who are literally sitting around waiting for the next donation of money, food or clothes. They have lost the capacity to even think of ways to care for themselves. They don't have any awareness of the resources God has blessed them with. All because loving, charitable Christians have given indiscriminately without thinking about the unintended consequences.

The time to correct this is long overdue. I am committed to helping the church see how foolish we have been in our charity and help set a new course that might some day reverse the damage that has been done to entire cultures around the world through our benevolent oppression!

Monday, January 21, 2013

I'm Back

Last weekend Arnold Schwarzenegger made his triumphant return to the screen as a the leading man in an action flick. I haven't seen it it yet, but I'm looking forward to catching 'The Last Stand' in a theater near me. Arnold has long been the king of one liners in movies with many of his lines becoming part of the pop culture lexicon. But this post isn't about Arnold, it's about comebacks. In particular it's about my comeback to the blogosphere and to this blog in particular.

For the past two years I've blogged a total of about three times. That coincided with me taking a new job that I thought would be awesome but turned out to be awful. I'm sure some of my experience over the past two years will come out in this forum, but I'm cautious not to be that guy who whines about a bad experience as if he were a victim. That happens to us Christians. We strive to be faithful to God and look for His blessings but as soon as things go a little sideways for us we have a tendency to waggle our finger at God and claim he dropped the ball somehow.

It's yet another of my concerns about the church that those within it so easily vacillate between being 'sold out' for Jesus to being fraught with doubt over God's will and presence in our lives. However, even a cursory look at scripture tells us that it is in the trials of this life where God builds perseverance. In fact in the book of James we're encouraged to 'Count it all joy...when you meet trials of various kinds...'

It's a challenge to find joy in trials, but I'm committed to doing just that. This latest trial has taught me much about myself and I continue to uncover more work that needs to be done. God is awesome. I remain passionate about helping the church be better in all aspects so that the whole world might know how awesome God is. So I'm back with plans to resume my honest assessment of where the church could do better and what it's doing well in my humble opinion. I'd love to hear from you, too!