Yesterday I referred to some articles on short-term missions. One of those articles pointed to an outstanding article by Steve Saint (whose story is told in The End of the Spear; he’s also the developer of a successful flying car).
The article is titled “Projecting Poverty Where It Doesn’t Exist.” Saint expresses his frustration at the way people describe the “poverty” of the tribe he lives with in Ecuador. He states:
When people visit the Waodani, they look around and think, “Wow, these people have nothing!” People from the outside think the Waodani are poor because they don’t have three-bedroom ramblers with wall-to-wall carpeting, double garages so full of stuff the cars never fit and, I guess, because they never take vacations to exotic places like Disney World.
So, on speaking tours I began describing these jungle dwellers as “People who all have water front property, multiple houses and spend most of their time hunting and fishing.” The most common response I have gotten when describing the Waodani this way is, “Wow, would I ever like to live like that!” I agree completely.
Saint says that as the standard of living in the U.S. has risen, our perception of poverty has changed. We take our standards and apply them to the rest of the world. The article goes on to say
Consider how our definition of an orphan is different from most other cultures. In the U.S., you are an orphan if your mother and father have died. In South America (where I grew up), as in other contexts where extended family structures are intact, you are not really considered an orphan as long as you have a living grandparent, uncle, aunt or older brother or sister who is capable of helping take care of you. So when North Americans build an orphanage in South America, we “create” orphans by tempting family members to take advantage of our well-intentioned largess. This is seldom in the best interest of those children who are “orphaned” by our desire to meet what we perceive as their need.
Saint concludes his article with words that I find powerful:
Giving handouts creates more problems than it solves. It is like casting out demons with long leases. Break the lease or they will come back and bring more roommates (Lk 11:24–26). Where the Church is being established among people that perceive themselves as powerless, there is a great need for deep discipleship, wrestling with the roots of poverty at the community level rather than concentrating on the individual.
Financial help that does not develop sustainable, local, financial self-sufficiency is much more likely to create poverty than it is to meet real needs. Until we realize that we can’t overcome poverty with handouts, we will never be much help in completing Christ’s Great Commission.
As followers of Christ we must fight poverty through discipleship rather than covering it with spiritual frosting. Either we do God’s will God’s way or we aren’t doing His will at all. Discipleship means teaching others what we have learned so they can teach others to care for their community’s physical, economic, emotional and spiritual needs on a sustainable basis! (2 Tim 2:2, Mt 28:19–20)
Providing the kind of help that really helps isn’t easy. Especially for someone coming from outside. It takes much more time, effort and planning than merely giving in a way that salves our conscience. But I think it important that we be good stewards of what God has given us. Let’s be generous, in a way that really helps.