Check out my previous blog for some context… This is part two.
As the HUD Secretary, the context of Carson’s position focused on government’s role in domestic poverty. He said that he believes that government can provide a "helping hand" to people looking to climb out of poverty. But he warned against programs that are "sustaining them in a position of poverty. That’s not helpful", he claims.
I agree, of course. That’s probably not a surprise to anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes talking to me about 410’s development model. The government should help. Safety nets are needed, helpful, and a good thing. But it shouldn’t create programs that keep people from thriving on their own. It shouldn’t create systems that promote passivity and disempower people.
But that got me thinking…
Shouldn’t non-profits be held to the same standard? Shouldn’t non-profits, especially faith-based organizations, resist programs and activities that perpetuate poverty?
Here are a couple experiences I’ve had to illustrate the point.
I was invited to meet with a faith-based organization who, allegedly, wanted to change their approach to helping the poor. This wasn’t entirely accurate. Nonetheless, I was told that they wanted to learn more about the 410 Bridge community development model and I was more than willing to share what we do. They’d been working in the same area of the same country for over 30 years.
I met with one of their senior guys (let’s call him Frank) and representatives from a partner church. We chatted for a while and I learned a little more about their organization. They maintain an in-country operations center that US teams visit regularly. The operations center is the hub of their effort to help the people in the area.
Frank was especially excited to talk about the impact their organization was having on US short-term teams. He said, “Kurt, we both know that the transformation that happens on US teams is amazing. But left to their own devices, US teams will just mess it up. I’m sure you’d agree that we have to control what teams do and when they do it.”
At that point, one of the church reps chimed in. “Yeah, but you never allow us to build relationships with the people. We’re always in the compound. We never get to interact with the community.”
I asked Frank to explain what teams do when they visit.
“The first morning, teams sort donated clothing and shoes. In the afternoon, people from the community come to our compound and the teams distribute the clothes & shoes. The second day, the teams create nutritional meal packets from food we ship in from the US. In the afternoon, people come to the compound to receive the meals. The third day, the teams distribute baby formula…”
I stopped him there and asked if anyone could simply come to their facility and receive clothes, shoes, or food. Frank laughed and said, “Of course not. We work through the local church. If people need something, they go to their local church. The church notifies us, and our staff gives the person or family a ticket that they can exchange for an item of clothing, shoes, or a meal. They come to the compound with their ticket, give it to a team member and receive what they need. We do the same thing with baby formula, by the way…”
At that point, I interrupted and asked if I could ask a clarifying question. Before I did, I tried to soften the blow by confessing that I’m known for being a direct guy. I explained that people usually say something like, “That’s OK, Kurt. Feel free to be direct.” Until I am.
I asked Frank the following question…. “You talk about the transformation that occurs within US teams because of their visit. It seems that this transformation comes at the expense of the people you serve. At what point does your organization recognize that the cost to the people you serve outweighs the benefit of the transformation to the US team members?”
“What do you mean?” He asked.
“I mean that transformation comes at a cost to the people your organization serves. When is that cost too great to justify the impact on the team?”
Frank missed my point. He was quick to point out that the clothing, meals, etc. didn’t cost the people anything. Everything was free.
“I understand,” I said. “But this supposed ‘transformation’ comes at the expense of the poor. You’re doing more to perpetuate the problem than solve it. And, equally as bad, you’re illustrating a broken and unhealthy model to the US teams. Your visitors think that this is an effective way to address poverty and it perpetuates their broken perspective.”
The point is this… I’m guessing that Frank’s organization has read all the books – When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, etc. – and would probably say that they agree. They quote principals like involving local leaders, working through the local church, not pushing our ideas on the people we serve, etc. But yet, in practice those principals go by the wayside. Why is that?
Another quick example…
I’m on a large WhatsApp group of 150+ relief & development folks working in Haiti. The purpose of the group is to share critical safety and security communications in light of the civil unrest that Haiti experienced in recent months. The group is helpful and a good thing.
Because of the unrest, the State Department raised its travel advisory in January to Level-4 (Do Not Travel). As a result, many organizations, including The 410 Bridge, postponed or cancelled short-term teams. As conditions normalized and people began to travel again, some of the WhatsApp messages turned from safety & security to, well… something else.
Several members of the group started inquiring about how to get ‘stuff’ into Haiti without it being detected by customs and/or subject to import duty or confiscation. From what I could tell, it was a variety of ‘stuff’ from electronics, to clothes, to toothbrushes. Trunks and suitcases full of ‘stuff’. And the advice came quickly. All sorts of recommendations used by other orgs to get ‘stuff’ into Haiti undetected or without risk of confiscation or import duty.
Thankfully, one member of the group had the courage to challenge an organization looking to ‘smuggle’ (sarcasm) some toothbrushes into the country. He countered that they consider purchasing the toothbrushes in-country since there were plenty of people selling toothbrushes as part of their businesses. The response was fascinating… Essentially, the well-intentioned toothbrush smuggler said that the price of toothbrushes in-country was too expensive and therefore it was bad stewardship of the donor’s dollars to buy them locally.
And herein lies the problem. Dozens (maybe hundreds) of toothbrushes were ‘smuggled’ into Haiti, making it impossible for the businesses selling toothbrushes to do so, and the issue becomes stewardship; as if their actions were noble in some way. The same holds true for all the ‘stuff’ dumped in-country thinking that it’s actually helping. The majority of it does more to undermine an already struggling economy than actually help solve the poverty problem. A business owner can’t compete with free.
Like so many people and organizations looking to address poverty, the two I described above see it through the lens of materiality. When you define poverty as a material problem, material ‘stuff’ becomes the solution.
To me, the question is “when are we going to stop?” When will the people claiming to care about the poor – especially the faith-based community – stop stripping them of their dignity?
When are we finally going to move from simply agreeing that good intentions are not good enough, to a place where our actions actually reflect our Christian worldview?
I’ll tell you when… and I can only speak to the faith-based community here. When we begin to think differently about our perspectives of the people we serve. We’ll stop when we start seeing the poor as the solution, not a set of problems to be fixed. We’ll stop when we, once and for all, separate what we give and how we give it from our desire to feel good about ourselves.
It appears to me that the approach of many (too many) faith-based Christian organizations resembles more of a secular approach to poverty than a Christian worldview approach.
The people we serve have been wonderfully made by their Creator. Let’s help them restore their dignity, not disempower them by doing for them what they have the capacity to do for themselves.
Kurt Kandler is the founder and Executive Director of The 410 Bridge. He is passionate not only about breaking the cycle of poverty in communities where The 410 Bridge works, but but also for changing the paradigm of mission for the Western church and how it engages the poor.