Chapter Two: The Problem With Good Intentions

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(Note: Spoiler Alert. This post is writing commentary on the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book is being discussed on April 11 by the Avondale United Methodist Book Club. Those who want to read the book before forming opinions are advised to read this column after reading the book. For the rest of you, consider this a long-winded review and commentary on the book, and please comment your thoughts.)

In this chapter Lupton delves into the area of unintended consequences. He begins with an example from his own church working with a Honduran village.

Their plan was to build a long-term relationship with the village. So they sent an initial visit team to do a survey. The most obvious need was water. Women in the village carried water from a source miles away, devouring hours of each day in the heat. The church had money and contacts with well drillers – so they drilled the well. Everyone in the village rejoiced when the water started flowing. Lives had been changed.

But the next year they returned to find women carrying water again. The pump was broken. So the church fixed the pump. Each year they returned and found a broken pump to repair. The village always waited for their benefactors to fix their well.

In contrast, another village, in Nicaragua, had a different mission partner. Opportunity International, a Chicago-based micro-lending organization, sent a developer to help the villagers create a plan for the well. The villagers put together a budget and business plan. They got a loan conditional upon investment of a small amount of their own money as well. Then they hired a local engineer to help dig the well. Finally they set up a water commission to set fees, collect bills, and generally run the utility.

The village provided the labor. When the water flowed, so did pride in the village. They had so much water they soon started selling to a local school and adjacent village. They were now owners and managers of a money-making asset.

After reading the entire book, I would say the comparison of these two plans and results puts the whole book in microcosm. Both situations showed good intentions, but the one created dependency, and the other created empowerment.

One of the features of today’s “compassion industry” is the short-term service trip. An entire system has evolved to help people go overseas, or travel to “premier” destinations within the United States, so they can have “meaningful” mission experiences. Many of these trips end up being make-work. For example, one church got painted six times in the same summer, while another church was built but never used because the community didn’t need it.

So how does our motivation to invest in the lives of others get distorted? Perhaps it is because we view it through the needs of the giving organization instead of the interests of those to be served. Breaking this out, Lupton created a couple of bullet lists, one for expectations, and one for reality:

Most mission trips do not:

  • Empower those being served
  • Engender healthy cross-cultural relationships
  • Improve local quality of life
  • Relieve poverty
  • Change the lives of participants
  • Increase support for long-term mission work

Most mission trips do:

  • Weaken those being served
  • Foster dishonest relationships
  • Erode recipients’ work ethic
  • Deepen dependency

We need to listen to those being served by these trips. For example, the president of a seminary in Cuba felt conflicted about the Americans who came to lay tile in a new dormitory.  It took time from her people to serve the Americans, cook them food they would eat, and then redo the crooked tiles – since none of them had experience laying tile. In the meantime, experienced tile layers waited outside her gates, hoping for work. The $30,000 the trip cost the Americans could have done much more for her. But she didn’t dare speak up, for fear of losing the smaller supporting donations the church gave that was essential to the college’s continuing work.

The interesting thing is how a business person, as a business person, would easily see the low Return on Investment for these projects, but the minute he gets involved in service work, he seems to lose that common sense and defaults to the traditional charity model.

So what is the alternative? Lupton gives examples of what he calls “Ministry Entrepreneurs”.

Opportunity International is a good example. It gives microloans to people in underdeveloped countries to help them grow local businesses. They encourage individual saving and initiative among the people they provide loans to.

So, how well do micro-lending and traditional church charity go together? Lupton asked an Opportunity International representative that question. The answer: churches with church partners “destroy the initiative of my people.” Anywhere a church had a church partner, micro-lending was non-existent. People saw no reason to borrow and work when the church would simply give it to them. People learn to wait for the next mission group rather than do the work themselves.

Closer to home, Lupton mentions a community development corporation set up to help a section of Atlanta.  They listened to the locals, and then brought in resources to do it the way they wanted.  But they were still concerned that all those high powered people from the CDC might steamroll over the locals. So they decided to subordinate the CDC to the neighborhood association. In the mention of goodwill, they also failed to provide guarantees and contingencies to cover the loans and investments. And things still worked, until one attorney got upset at another attorney for stealing a contract, and tore the goodwill of everyone apart.

The lesson: Unselfish self-investment can be free, but it should:

  • Never be mindless
  • Never be irresponsible
  • Always calculate the cost
  • Always consider the cost
  • Always be a partnership
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