When Helping Hurts – by John Antoine
So the concept was hard for me to swallow at first, or maybe I had just never thought of it before. Can helping hurt? Or more specifically, can I make those who I am trying to help worse off? The quick answer is yes. Before clicking away from this nonsensical idea or dismissing the content because you may have already seen this before think through the following….
Over 1 trillion dollars have been transferred to Africa alone in the last 50 years in development related aid. Maybe that is not as surprising to you as it was to me. But, has more than 1 trillion dollars in aid made African people better off. The quick answer to that one is no. Africa’s average per capita income is less than it was in the 1970’s and the local economies continue to struggle.
Let’s take an example of clothing being sent to a nation through an aid program. This is usually used or never sold items donated to an organization to be sent to a country in need through a church or non-profit. It does make sense on the outside, right? We have extra clothes, and there is a need somewhere else. What’s the worst that could happen? What happens is exactly what you would expect to happen, the clothes are disbursed for free or at very low costs by local vendors. However, what also happens is the local garment shops can no longer compete with the unlimited supply of free clothing. They eventually have to close doors, along with the related textile industries that depend on their business. This leaves the communities in complete reliance on the second hand clothing. Not what we really intended. It has also destroyed some extremely valuable jobs and industries that did exist while simultaneously developing a huge barrier to entry for any new garment business. This very situation of free clothing destroying local markets has actually happened in many African nations.
Unfortunately, this is not the only scenario when helping hurts. It is not just donating clothes or other items that can hurt communities. When we take the role of supplying the needs of individuals, we take that opportunity away from the community. The chance for the community to step in and become stronger, to generate its own answers and markets is gone.
What the real question to ask is, are we addressing the symptoms of poverty or are we addressing the cause? The needs that low income communities have are un-mistakenly material. However, is that the cause of poverty? Can poverty be eliminated by sending a check? When Helping Hurts borrows the definition of poverty from a famous economist who wrote “poverty is the lack of freedom to make meaningful choices – to have an ability to affect one’s situation – that is the distinguishing feature of poverty”.
How we view poverty is important because it changes how we view the solution to poverty. Bono has great intentions and has donated millions (plus the Joshua Tree is a great album, really timeless), but the answer to helping the poor is not simply more money. It is empowering communities to affect change within their home culture. It entails developing a lasting community impact…….
That’s why I smile when I think about a guy named Nicholas
One of my favorite memories of my trip to Uganda was my relationship with Nicolas. Nicholas is about 17, quiet, and rarely smiles (picture included). Nicholas comes from a poor family. Not poor by American standards, like I can’t afford that new road bike I really want, or even, I’m going to eat ramen noodles to save on cash (been there). Nicholas comes from a poor family in a poor region of a poor country in a poor continent. He was not able to consistently go to school due to taking care of younger family members and most of all, paying for school fees. What all this really means for Nicholas is that his options for the future were quite limited. However, Children’s Hope Chest, was able to fund school fees and Nicolas was enrolled in a local vocational school studying carpentry.
I had the opportunity to visit Nicholas’s school on my last trip to Uganda, which happened to be the 12th school that day. So the thrill of visiting African schools had tapered a little. When I walked into a long room of the school, where the hairstylist and carpentry students were setup (makes sense right?), Nicholas spotted me. He brought me over to show off his projects. After I expressed how impressed I was, let him know that my friend, Ryan, was actually his sponsor. Ryan owns a local landscaping company which builds decks, patios, and pergolas. When he heard that his sponsor also built with wood and made living that way, a smile came on his face that didn’t leave all day. Nicolas will have a skill that will allow him to be able to provide for his family. Also, he already has some assets built up, namely the chairs and table you see the picture.
Children’s Hope Chest’s goal and mission statement is empowering orphans to survive, thrive, and succeed within their home culture. Part of that process is providing daily meals for hungry children and ensuring that families have a place to sleep at night. Part of the process is also to empower individuals with the skills and abilities necessary to succeed in their community. The vision for these communities is not constant dependence on sponsorship dollars. It is to ensure sustainable care for the community. It is see the community not only survive, but to thrive and succeed. It is to see the next generation of leaders grow and take pride in their skills, abilities, and community while becoming self sufficient.
I have had the awesome opportunity to see this process take shape. I was able to see the communities that were fighting for survival, turn the corner and begin to thrive and succeed. Ogoloi and Bukedea are great examples of this. Ogoloi now has a number of exciting developments happening in the community. They are currently raising chickens, some for profit and others for food. On our last trip down they had around 800 chickens. They are also beginning to make clay cooking ovens to use and sell.
I was even invited to the weekly finance meeting. Some of the community members in Ogoloi, about 65, have started their own savings club. This group meets once a week and each member contributes to a communal fund. This money is available to any of the members as they have need. They are able to take a loan against the communal fund and then pay interest. This interest goes back into the fund so as to keep the fund growing. We heard awesome stories of people being able to buy more seed to plant crops, pay school fees, and provide for emergency expenses with these funds. Members of the community now have a social safety net to provide for local needs as well as access to loans. The other important aspect is the pride of being able to supply for the communities own needs while saving for resources for the future. This has been totally funded by the community.
As Christians, it is our mission to help those in need. Many of you may already be donating your time, money, or talents. But let’s examine the tools we have and ensure we are helping and not hurting. As Peter Parker’s father said “with great power, comes great responsibility”.