Monday, March 16, 2009

relief vs. transformation in africa

In doing research for my Peru vacation this spring* and stumbling across the blog of a former missionary to Peru, I discovered an excellent article written a couple of years ago about how to really help Africa. Great stuff, and quite an indictment of how we in the West tend to view and try to solve not only poverty in other nations but in our own.

Somehow, despite overwhelming proof to the contrary just in the past few decades here at home, we Americans have subscribed to the theory that if you throw enough money and "aid" at a problem** it will eventually just go away. Not only is this blatantly false, it actually results in a vicious cycle of dependency and, ultimately, more damage being done to the recipients of such gestures. Thankfully, many Africans realize this and are asking foreigners to stop their sending. A quote in the article sums it up well:
"Africa won't be "saved" by aid, but by the ingenuity and determination of its own people."
You know what they say about teaching a man to fish. The same applies to Africa. Continuing to send aid without building the infrastructure and internal wealth that would eventually allow Africans to cease their dependency on outside aid will only compound the problem and discourage the natives from developing their own solutions. And so the cycle is prolonged. Again, a quote from the article:
"Their message of hope is one that seems to deny Africans a role as agents of their own transformation. We can save Darfur. We can save Africans from disease. We can even save Africans from themselves. Africa can be saved if we just try hard enough."
Another subject the article really sheds some light on is how other nations view Africa and the impact their efforts have had. In particular, China is actually doing great work:
"While Americans are pestering their leaders to Save Darfur–an unlikely prospect absent full-scale military intervention–the Chinese are busy building roads and hydroelectric power dams. China believes Africa is a huge economic opportunity and deals with Africa like a business partner. The Chinese see Africans the way many would like to see themselves."
That last sentence captures it well. Instead of simply throwing resources and money from afar, the Chinese are helping Africa build itself up. No wonder we often hear about close relationships between China and African countries that the Western world often seems to think are more in need of a U.N. peacekeeping force than of ground-floor investment in a better future. Where we see victims, the Chinese see potential allies and traders. I think the Chinese, if not totally right on this one, are a heck of a lot closer to the mark than us Westerners are. Who knows what the motives are, but the results are hard to argue with.

What I like most, though, is the idea of relief vs. transformation that the article brings out. I kinda remember this idea--at least enough to borrow from it for the title of this post--from Tim Keller's book Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, perhaps the best book on missions and mercy ministry I've read (other than THE Book, but you know what I mean). I can't do it justice here, but he expands on this whole idea of when relief is needed and when it actually does more harm than good. Still, I'll throw in some of what I remember and hopefully not stray too far off-course in the process.

In general, relief can only bring a people back to where they were before. So it works great for filling the gap of short-term needs, especially after a disaster. It works well for war-torn areas (post-WWII Germany and Japan), it alleviates suffering due to famines (Ireland, as Bono himself mentioned), it gets people back on their feet after natural disasters (hurricanes, floods), and so on. But what it doesn't do well is create infrastructure where none previously existed. It doesn't transform societies. And because of that, relief in the wrong situations will beget nothing more than continued dependency on relief.

It's in those situations that real investment is needed--time, labor, infrastructure, the sorts of things that are harder to give--to meet deeper needs than just a temporal lack of necessities. Sure, relief may be needed, but it shouldn't be given apart from a thrust at the roots of the problem. If the roots aren't temporal but are instead inherent in the societal system itself, then effort needs to be focused on changing the system. Without that effort, whether from outsiders or from within, the society simply isn't going to move beyond the causes of its own problems. And unless that happens, lasting change and decreasing dependency will remain out of reach.

I'll close with the last bit of the article:
"Here's a radical idea: if we really want to help, why not ask Africans, not their governments, how they perceive the challenges before them, the dreams they have for the future, and the resources they think they need to realize them?

Instead, we let a well-intentioned Irish rock star, a Jewish-American economist, and their Hollywood cohort become the voice and face of Africa.

And in the process, the story of the other Africa, the Africa that is dynamic, creative, and wants to work as a partner and the leader of its own future, is being drowned out by the clarion cry of the anti-poverty glitterati–and our own appetites for gripping, salacious headlines of war, poverty, and grief."
All of it is worth reading, so don't deprive yourself of such great material. Go read the rest! And I've been known to plug Keller's book before and I'll do it again. I suggest adding it to the reading list if you haven't yet read it. It's had quite an impact on how I view the world (but don't hold that against it!), as evidenced by its title and ideas finding their way into blog posts every so often. Trust me, you won't regret it.


* On a side note, said vacation is, unfortunately, on the fritz big-time. For the second time in three years, my travel partner seems to have backed out--and it's getting very late to try to throw together some last-minute arrangements. Who knows, maybe God just doesn't want me down there or something. Or, I may be able to get down to the Cusco area later this summer on a construction trip with Wycliffe, and if so I'd hope to do the Machu Picchu thing afterward. But that remains to be seen, and when it comes to missions I'm actually not a huge fan of short-term construction trips anyway because they run the risk of depriving the natives of opportunities to do the work and invest in their own culture (for a much lower cost I might add). Ah, the joy of cobbling together last-minute excursions. Seems I don't travel any other way.

** I use "problem" here to mean something that offends the sensibilities of a particular group and so, in the eyes of the offended, needs to be fixed--usually by being brought into alignment with the offended group's way of life.


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