Often in our Missions/Humanitarian efforts in developing countries (as well as domestically!) we have approached the issue of poverty by offering charity. We have been taught that if we freely give to those in need, we have done our part in assisting them and in giving them a chance at a better life. We know the value of giving. We know that Christ expects us to be generous and to be filled with compassion when faced with the suffering of others. We have become extremely charitable, which is one of the most beautiful aspects of the Christian Church. Around the globe, Christian communities are immensely generous and freely give to the needs of others through aid and charity. We follow the way of Christ, knowing that we serve Him by serving others and that what we do for “the least of these” we do for Him. (Matthew 25). But sometimes our charity isn’t enough.
When faced with extreme poverty (whether it be financial, physical, emotional, or spiritual), we cannot be content with offering charity alone. Don’t misunderstand me, I believe charity is immensely important. Taking the time to provide a meal, offer financial assistance, or pausing to pray for someone, is always the right cause of action. We should daily look for opportunities to serve the needs of other’s, however, after several years of living and working in Kenya, I believe that charity alone can’t be our only approach to social justice ministry.
In the book, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, Noble Peace Prize recipient, Muhammad Yunas, states, “When we want to help the poor, we usually offer them charity….But charity is no solution to poverty. Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor.” These are sharp and poignant words, but there is truth within. Charity, on it’s own, can perpetuate poverty by taking the initiative away from the people that we intend to help. Charity can also create a self-absorbed and inaccurate lens through which we see ourselves as heroes and those we are helping as incapable and dependent upon us. So, how should we approach charity and foreign (and domestic) aid?
There is a well-known Chinese Proverb that says, Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. There is great value in empowering people to provide for themselves; in essence, teaching them to fish. Through micro-finance programs and investment in income-generating projects, we can offer people the opportunity to, not only meet the needs of today, but to also be prepared to face the needs of tomorrow. I would like, however, to stretch the analogy a bit further. In our experiences in Kenya we quickly learned that no one needs us to ‘teach them to fish’. Most of the people we work with are far better “fisherman” than we are. They are creative, intelligent, hard-working, and prayerful men and women capable and willing to provide for themselves, far better than we could. What they do need are partners, partners that will assist them in purchasing the boat, the fishing nets, and be willing to join them in the boat.
Ok, enough of the fishing analogy (unless you are actually investing in a literal fishing business!). What does this approach to “charity” look like? For individuals, it can come in the form of micro-loans, which are small amounts of money that allow them to start businesses (such as buying a cow/goat to sale milk, buying chickens to sale eggs, planting crops, starting a sewing project; etc..there are dozens of possibilities). When these individuals began to make a profit, they are required to repay the loan (at no interest….though many that offer these programs do charge interest). In repaying the loans, the fund grows, allowing others to apply. This creates a network of partners that are funding one another. The entire community can benefit as they invest in one another. For ministries such as orphanages, schools, feeding programs and medical clinics, this can come in the form of investing in income-generating projects. Larger scale chicken farms, dairy farms, bee-keeping, greenhouse gardening, Aquaponics, handcrafts, etc., are all examples of income generating projects….the possibilities are endless. This type of sustainable aid requires a more humble, trusting, and organized approach, but it can bring about the long-term change that simple charity cannot. The greatest benefit of this type of “charity” is that it provides the opportunity for the receiver to eliminate the need for our charity tomorrow. C.S. Lewis said it best when he wrote: “The proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift.” (Four Loves) After all, isn’t that the goal?
For more reading on micro-finance and/or changing the nature of foreign Aid:
Yunus, Muhammed. Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty; Public Affairs, 2003
Smith, Phillip & Thurman, Eric. Billion Bootstraps: Microcredit, Barefoot Banking, and The Business Solution for Ending Poverty; McGraw Hill Professional, 2007
Moyo, Dambisa. Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009