Giving charity without destroying the dignity

There has been a reawakening in American churches to the command of Jesus to help the poor. Best-selling books have shined the light of truth on the darkness of our materialism and self-indulgence. We have been reminded that God’s heart hurts for the poor. We have been reminded that we have a responsibility to share the good news of redemption in Jesus with all the world.  For that I am grateful.

In our eagerness to be obedient to Jesus, we have not always acted with wisdom. Throughout Africa, as in most third-world countries, western Christians and aid groups have responded to poverty and its debilitating consequences with open-hearted generosity. But because of the way we have often responded, there have been very serious unintended consequences. For decades now we have conditioned people in the third world to expect handouts from missionaries and aid groups. The popularity of short-term mission trips has created a revolving door of reinforcement of these unintended negative consequences.

Unintended Consequences

  1. When aid is constantly handed out for free, the initiative is stifled. We recognize that with our own children and in our own society. It’s also true of people in third-world countries. We make it very difficult for them to take initiative to meet their own needs or better their own situations when we keep handing them free goods.
  2. Local economies are weakened. Local merchants, manufacturers, and farmers are put out of business when free aid is made available in a local area. There are many stories that need to be told from Haiti, Africa, and other places of small family businesses being ruined because they cannot compete with free goods.
  3. Christians cannot be taught to trust God to meet their needs and at the same time to know that the “rich” American missionaries will meet their needs. It is too common in the churches here, when asked what their needs are, to be told they need bicycles, grinding mills, Bibles, preachers’ salaries, motorcycles, and other material things. They have been trained by experience to expect American missionaries to pay for those things. In the meantime, they have the money (many times) for cell phones and other things that have a high priority to them.
  4. Dignity is destroyed. Over the past 40 years, the west has replaced colonialism with patronage. The result is the same. The dignity and self-respect of local people are weakened. We often talk about “partnering” with a third-world church or community. Partnership is a good thing, but true partnership is not possible between two vastly unequal parties. It will always be a partnership of patronage.
  5. A relationship of dependency is created. Once created, dependency is hard to stop. But it can be done through God’s help with sensitivity, wisdom, and patience.
  6. Emotional ownership is stifled. This message has been conveyed many times – “your church (or school) has a leak in the roof. When are you going to come to fix it?” Emotional ownership belongs to the one who plans, builds, finances and controls a project. Emotional ownership is a large part of the answer to restoring dignity and ending dependency. We must take the slow, messy road of allowing local people to assess their own needs, inventory their assets, plan their own solutions, and finance and control the operations. They will then “own” the undertaking emotionally, and that’s essential for long-term advancement.

Thoughts on Poverty

  1. Poverty is relative. Our American (western) mindset informs us that if they do not live up to our standard, they are poor. Many times they do not know they are poor until we start giving them things.
  2. Poverty does not mean they are ignorant or inferior. Our unspoken assumption is often that if they were as smart as we are they wouldn’t be so poor.
  3. Poverty is not the root of the problem. Spiritual darkness is the problem. Witchcraft, ancestor worship, and idolatry of all sorts plunge people into spiritual darkness and lead to physical suffering and poverty. In reality, the dichotomy of earth life into spiritual and physical is a western notion – not a Biblical distinction. The promise of God is that if we live lives focused on Him and His kingdom, He will supply our needs.

There are times when we in the west need to respond. Natural disasters and wars often create crisis situations that need our immediate and generous help. But even then, we need to tread carefully, working as a support resource behind local leadership.

There is also a place for subsidizing Bibles and such. But even Bibles should not be given away for free, as a rule. In all cultures, things that are free have no value. It feels wonderful to give Bibles away free to poor people, but in the long term, we do them a favor by teaching them to place value on owning a Bible. Our dollars are better spent subsidizing the cost of the Bibles so that the price is within reach.

I am not proposing that it is never appropriate to help the poor in third-world countries. I am not saying that Americans should just stay home and not try to help. I am saying that we need to look hard at proposed projects and mission trips to try to avoid unintended consequences. We need to learn better how to do short-term missions without doing long-term damage. We need to take the time to read good books that explore problems and solutions in detail.

Further Reading

There are many books on the subjects of charity and missions and the problems of dignity and dependency.   Below are a few good ones:  

  1. When Charity Destroys Dignity – Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement by Glenn J Schwartz, World Mission Associates, 600-C Eden Road, Lancaster, PA 17601, ISBN: 978-0-9669735- 4-9.
  2. Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions by Dr. Robert Reese, William Carey Library, ISBN 9780878080137
  3. When helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, by Brian Fikkert, Steve Corbett and John Perkins, Moody Publishers, ISBN 978-0802457059
  4. End of the Spear, by Steve Saint, SaltRiver, ISBN 978-0842384889

For a good example of a project that fights poverty while building dignity and self-reliance, see my blog post for November 3, Hope in Struggle Against Dependency.

Pray for wisdom in how to be generous, and God will direct you. Does any man lack wisdom? Let him ask God, who gives to all men generously.


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