The Affero Blog
Adapted from Mandate eNewsletter written by Steve Corbett and Dr. Brian Fikkert from The Chalmers Center
Do you remember the major earthquake has devastated China, leaving millions without food, adequate clothing, or shelter? Have you followed the trend of the growing number of homeless men in our cities? Men who are also without food, adequate clothing, or shelter. At first glance the appropriate responses to each of these crises would seem to be very similar. After all, the people in both situations all need food, clothing, and housing, and providing these things to both groups seems to be the obvious solution.
The material needs of these people may be similar. Yet these people face different crises in very different situations. As is explained in with in one webinar I recently watched, applying the same remedy to each situation might very well do harm. As in all situations, truly loving the poor requires careful analysis in order to design the appropriate response.
A helpful first step in thinking about working with the poor in any context is to discern whether the appropriate approach is to use relief, development, or some combination of the two. “Relief” can be defined as the urgent and temporary provision of resources to reduce immediate suffering from natural or man-made disasters. Relief is the first response that comes to most people’s minds when they see the suffering of others. “Development” can be defined as a process of ongoing change in which people are moved closer towards being in right relationship with God, with themselves, with others, and with creation. As people develop, amongst other things, they are better able to support themselves through their own work.
Both relief and development can be appropriate interventions. But if we do relief when we should do development, we can actually hurt the very people we are trying to help. For example, giving food to an able-bodied person who persistently refuses to take advantage of opportunities to work will simply enable them to continue to live irresponsibly, thereby hindering their “development” of better relationships with God, with themselves, with others, and with creation. In such a situation, not providing this person with relief would be the loving thing to do. But that doesn’t mean that our responsibilities towards them end. On the contrary, our neighbor in this instance needs “development,” which will be far more time-consuming for us, as we seek to walk alongside of this person and help them to develop better work habits.
Diagnosing the Situation. How can you discern whether relief or development is the appropriate approach? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula, but there are some principles you can use.
A good rule of thumb outlined in the When Helping Hurts self study course is that you should not habitually do for somebody what they can do for themselves, for if you do so you will undermine their development as stewards of their own gifts and abilities. Many well-meaning ministries routinely violate this principle, thereby doing serious harm to the development of the very people they are trying to help. For example, years ago one of the authors of this article helped to mobilize his church to volunteer at a homeless shelter. The church members graciously bought food, prepared a meal, served it to the residents of the shelter, and cleaned up afterwards. The homeless men were never asked to lift a finger in the entire process, thereby confirming their perspective that they were incapable of taking charge of their lives. A more developmental approach—and a more time-consuming one—would have involved the homeless men in every stage of the process, from planning the meal, to shopping for the food, to helping with serving and clean-up.
Providing Relief Effectively. If you determine that relief is the appropriate response, there are some principles that can help to make your efforts more effective.
First, relief needs to be immediate. If a person is in the midst of suffering from a crisis and cannot help themselves, a timely response is crucial. For example, when a large-scale, natural disaster hits, the victims cannot wait weeks while churches or organizations try to think of what they should do. Neither can they wait while organizations and churches try to secure funding. What is true for large-scale disasters is true for the battered woman who has bravely come to the church office seeking safe shelter. Sending her back home to wait while the church tries to find her some alternative shelter is not a good relief response.
In order to provide timely relief it is important to engage in disaster preparedness. This means simply looking ahead and forecasting the types of relief situations that the church or organization may encounter. Financial, material, and human resources can be identified and secured to be ready to be put into play at the right time. We can obtain or create a directory of services that are available in the community to address relief needs. We can organize ourselves by identifying who would be ready to give of themselves to help someone who is in the midst of a crisis. Such help could include opening their home for a few nights, providing transportation to an agency or taking a person out to eat.
Relief is temporary, provided only during the time that people are unable to help themselves. Determining when to stop relief is never easy. On the one hand, we can make the mistake of ending our assistance too early. An uninsured family facing ongoing medical bills due to an unforeseen health emergency may need more than a single gift of $100. On the other hand, if relief is given for too long, it can do harm. Because the primary relationship in relief work is that of provider and receiver, prolonged help can move beyond appropriate alleviation of suffering to the creation of unhealthy dependency. Again, do not habitually do for people what they can do for themselves.
Doing Development Successfully. The majority of poverty in the world does not stem from some temporary crisis such as an earthquake in China. Hence, providing temporary relief is unlikely to solve most of global poverty. A longer approach that gets at deeper issues will be needed.
What are those deeper issues? What is the cause of poverty?
Engaging in development work must understand its long-term nature. Development is a slow, ongoing process of change. It involves addressing large, foundational problems that are not quickly or easily fixed. Often we are addressing decades or even centuries of brokenness on both the personal and structural levels. Bringing reversal or renewal can also take such lengths of time.
Second, everyone is living in poverty at some level, and thus everyone is in need of development. While many of us are not economically poor, we are all poor in the sense that we are all suffering from the effects of the fall. Embracing this truth is crucial if we are to have the humility of heart and mind that is necessary in order to help the economically poor. Such an attitude helps combat feelings of superiority as well as the god-complex that leads us to believe that we need to “save” the poor. Both of these mindsets can create paternalistic actions and programs that communicate to the economically poor that they are inferior to us. What is needed are people who are broken and ready to have their own lives changed even as they seek to be agents of change in the lives of others.
Third, development needs to be done at the individual as well as at the societal level. Thus, housing development can be the rehab of a single home of someone in your community, or it can be a major housing renewal throughout the neighborhood. Development can be tutoring a child after school, or it can be the creation of a quality school in the community.
Fourth, it can also be said that development is a process carried out through the vehicle of “products.” For example, wells for clean drinking water, improved crops, rehabilitated housing, more small businesses, and new schools are all products. They are easy to photograph and document. But the process used to create these products is at the heart of development. Did the low-income people participate in the process in such a way as to increase their knowledge, attitudes, skills, and power so as to better provide for their families and to create stronger, safer, and healthier communities? Did the well-to-do enter into the development process with the economically poor, or did they try to do development to the poor? If it was toinstead of with, then it is unlikely that real development occurred.
Indeed, one of the central factors in the quality and thus impact of the development process is the type and degree of participation of the poor in their own development. The more the poor are at the planning table, the more they are fully engaged in implementation of these plans, and the more they have a voice in the evaluation process (i.e. measuring success), the more effective the development process will be. The role of the worker in such participatory development is to be an encourager, a catalyst, a facilitator, and a networker.