I had another opportunity to test Course 1 of the curriculum I'm writing called Helping Without Hurting in Africa. This time I was able to teach it with one of my coauthors, Jonny Kabiswa, who is married to one of our World Renew colleagues. Jonny is a Ugandan but living in Kenya right now. Because I have contacts with missionaries and Kenyan leaders in Nakuru, we were able to lead a two day training there. People had requested it over a year ago while I was still living in Kenya, but we had not yet completed the writing, but better late than never. Sara came as well and was a big help, taking care of the registration and many of the logistics. Joel, a missionary friend in Nakuru, set up the church venue and organized all the food.
Our numbers were small (22 people came) but that only made for really powerful discussion and everyone had a chance to talk. We had several foreign missionaries and their Kenyan colleagues, people who do prison ministry, people who work with orphans and widows, a couple development staff from Anglican Development Services (one of World Renew's partners), and a few church leaders. It was a diverse group so we could all learn a lot from each other's ideas and experiences. Most of the people there had far more years of experience than I in caring for the poor, so I felt a bit intimidated. But the curriculum is using principles that I did not invent myself, principles that are tried and tested by other Christians, and it is those principles which make the big impact. It is only a gift and a privilege that I find myself as part of this project.
Here is Jonny teaching:
Below is a photo from a drama/exercise that Jonny led. The other participants were volunteers and received no preparation. They are supposed to pretend to be Jonny's relatives from whom Jonny is asking for financial help. Through asking good questions they needed to try hard to listen well and really diagnose what is causing Jonny's poverty, before they determine the best way to help him. It's a difficult exercise, showing that it takes practice and patience to do this well in real life.
One missionary asked what I personally do about all the people who ask for money. He asked, "is it ever okay just to give even if we cannot diagnose what is causing their poverty?" I answered that it's better to err on the side of generosity and we should listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so sometimes we could give without diagnosing the cause. But I explained that my rule of thumb is to say "no" to most of the random people who ask for help. But then with the money that I am able to give away, I will give to a few people and organizations. This way, instead of trying to help many, I help a few, but in an effective way, over a long period of time, building the relationship, and making sure that my money is making a good impact. If we simply give money to most people that ask, we might be only helping half of them, and leaving the rest in shame or dependency or sinful habits.
Throughout the training, it's easy for all the participants, as well as us facilitators, to start feeling overwhelmed by the complicated topic of poverty, and paralyzed by how easy it is to make mistakes, and how hard it is to help people in a wise way. Jonny and I both shared stories of times we have tried to help people, thinking we were being very wise, only to find out later how many mistakes we made. Yet we always encourage participants to not give up, not to feel paralyzed, but to do even more with the poor, and be even more generous in our giving. We know we will not solve the problem of poverty completely, yet we can have hope that the Holy Spirit has the power to use us even right now to make real concrete change in the lives of individuals and communities.
One of the interesting discussions that we had was about how to stop Kenyan fraudsters and corrupt organizations. This was not in the curriculum directly but it was a question that was raised. I'm not sure we came up with many good answers. I know from discussions with other missionaries in Uganda and Kenya that if Americans are giving money to individual Africans that they know, or giving money to organizations working in Africa, they often do not want to listen when a missionary tells them that things are not all as they seem. If the American trusts the Kenyan pastor they are supporting 100%, then they will refuse to believe even an American missionary, or another Kenyan pastor, when they explain that this pastor has not supported the children you gave him money to support. When missionaries tell friends and churches back in the USA, that organization x and organization y are actually causing more harm than good in certain communities, people don't want to listen. I haven't had too much of a problem with this myself, but I've heard from other missionaries that this has happened to them.
I know this is a natural tendency we have, to want to trust organizations we care about and support - for example, it would be hard for me if I heard criticism about World Renew. We want to trust people and organizations. And it is really really tough to face the possibility that our money we gave generously might be causing harm and dependency in communities or ending up in the hands of corrupt individuals. But we need to be open minded about the possibility that this could happen. I've seen this issue talked about in online discussion groups for missionaries, that a number of missionaries can testify about a local Ugandan organization, that in reality is doing absolutely nothing, but American donors don't listen and keep sending money, filling the corrupt pockets.
I don't know the solution. But I guess the general rule I would give is this - "If you don't live in Africa yourself, but give money to organizations or individuals in Africa, please be willing to listen to people who are there on the ground." Africans can be paid to share stories that Americans want to hear, statistics can be inflated to make problems sound more dire than they are, and photos can be manipulated.
Another rule might be - "Be willing to ask hard questions of the organizations that you support financially." Questions like these below. Answering these questions is hard, even for me to do about my own work. And hearing answers from organizations will not necessarily give you an easy decision on what organizations to support. But these questions can at least help to steer us in the right directions.
1. What is the community contributing to this project in terms of money and resources? (They should contribute at least something, even if 1% of the total cost. Everyone can do something, everyone has something, and everyone can contribute something).
2. Are your development workers doing anything for people that the people could do for themselves?
3. Are you giving people relief when really they need development?
4. Are you listening to the ideas of the people in the community? Is this project really the project they want, or is it just that donor money was available for the projects you are doing?
5. Do you do monitoring and evaluation and audits of the people and projects who are doing this development work to make sure there is effective work being done and no corruption?
6. Is the community really taking ownership of this project, or do they feel like it is organization x's project?
7. Are you paying people to come to trainings, for their time, their food, their transport, their accommodation, etc., or do they actually desire to learn and are willing to pay something for it?
8. What do other people in the community, region, and country say about the work of the organization?
9. Is the Church being built up in country x through your work?
10. If the organization pulled its money right now, would the project completely fall apart, or would the local people feel ownership of it and try to keep it going?
11. Is the work of your organization hindering the stewardship, responsibility, and generosity of the local people?
12. Is this project really the vision of the community and church there?
One Kenyan leader shared that Kenyans learn quickly that they should never share their true vision with a mzungu (white foreigner). Instead, they should let the mzungu speak first. When the mzungu shares their vision, then the Kenyan should say, "ah yes, that is exactly what I had in mind! It seems that God brought you here and connected us because our vision is exactly the same. Just as you have a vision to care for orphans, that has always been my calling as well." He said you never turn away money or projects from a mzungu or organization, even if you know that is not what you are interested in or what your community really needs. Obviously, when looking at this issue, there is change needed both on the side of foreigners and of Kenyans, so that we are more honest with each other and really listening to each other.
We also discussed how there are some regions in Kenya, as well as Uganda, that seem to be stuck in cycles of relief and dependency. Yes, our curriculum teaches that relief aid should be given when a community is in a famine. But what do you do if that famine comes every 2-3 years, regularly, like clockwork, but the community refuses to change any of its practices in order to prepare for it, but would rather depend on the aid that keeps coming very reliably? What do you if an African government refuses to ever change their policies or fulfill their commitments to the local people in a hurting region because they can rely on foreign organizations and governments to feed their starving people and build them wells, and give them medical clinics? We didn't come up with a good answer, but agreed that these are important questions for aid organizations to keep asking.
We had another brief drama to illustrate the problem of "paternalism" which we should try to avoid when helping the poor. We want to treat people with dignity as people made in the image of God, and not treat them as helpless, dependent children. So we should avoid routinely doing things for people that they can do themselves, and avoid routinely giving people things that they are able to purchase for themselves. These two missionaries agreed to do the drama we had planned, and they did a wonderful job showing the foolishness of paternalism! It is demeaning to have people feed you, dress you, and brush your teeth for you when you have the ability to do it yourself!
We also talked about the feelings of inferiority that many people have in Africa, and participants admitted that some of them and other Kenyans do still feel inferior compared to foreigners, because of the issue of economic differences, but also because of the history of colonialism and being made to feel inferior due to their cultures and skin color. There is so much still to do to overcome this.
A missionary shared her experience that she tried to simply walk alongside a group of women, instead of being a leader or telling them what to do, or giving them handouts. Yet the dynamics of being a foreigner in Africa are so complicated. Her very presence in the group, even when she tried not to speak, altered the whole mood of the group. They still looked to her to make all the decisions and guide the group. It took a really long time of her resisting this for the group to finally learn to walk alongside her instead of relying on her completely for guidance and money.
Through testing this curriculum, we found errors we need to fix within it, and also realized we have too much content and need to shorten some of the lessons. We are grateful for other people who are testing the material around Africa, who will give us even more helpful feedback.