Helen and I have felt that our time here has been very worthwhile both for us and for some of the people we’ve come into contact with. We’ve been able to use our training and experience much more widely than we could in New Zealand or Dubai. We would both love to come back to Uganda in the future. But I must say, as we prepare to leave I still have some unanswered questions about the value of people from the developed world traveling to developing countries in order to try to help them out of poverty. Here are some of my conflicting thoughts.
In Matthew 22 Jesus classifies the commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself” as being one of the two most important. My favourite artist Bono has challenged the Christian church to understand that in this age our neighbour can no longer be limited to those who live in our neighbourhood. He suggests that by ignoring the plight of those in the developing world we are also disobeying this commandment.
In Isaiah and James the Bible clearly explains that if we are to be religious about anything we should show God’s love to those in need.
James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Isaiah 58: 6-7 “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked to clothe him and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
However, when you get down to specifics the issue quickly becomes more complicated. How exactly are we to help people in need? Some of the most common methods are these:
• Donate money
• Agitate for political change in developed nations
• Short term work
• Long term work
While these are very broad categories there are some generalizations that can be made about them.
• Donating money is a start. It shows concern and support for less fortunate people. If carefully thought out and if used wisely money can help to alleviate poverty. This step also follows some advice Jesus gave to a rich man. Matthew 19: 21: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.” However, billions of dollars of aid have already been thrown at Africa and many African countries are in a worse position now than they were when they first gained independence. Money by itself achieves very little in long term sustainable development. It can lead to dependency on foreign aid and can be a cause of corruption.
• Agitation for political change can have a large scale impact on the development of poorer nations. The removal of trade barriers and the cancellation of national debt are important issues that could positively affect the lives of many. These steps can do something to address the injustice that has happened in the past and could help to break the poverty cycle. However, political agitation is a limited attempt to help. It may take a very long time to create change if any occurs. It does little to alleviate immediate suffering.
• Short term work is an important step that can lead to life change (often for the volunteer). It can lead to a longer term commitment and inform about where donated money is going and what affect it is having. Some of the work done has lasting benefits. For example the building of buildings, medical work and skills taught to locals can be very helpful for developing nations. Many people in developed nations have better education and training than those from developed nations. It is important to share this resource as well as material resources. However, short term workers are sometimes uninformed of the culture and face language barriers. It is difficult for them to build meaningful, lasting relationships. It can promote dependency on foreign expertise. The amount of change that can be achieved in a short term visit is limited. The cost of travel and living expenses of a short term trip are very high and this money could maybe be used more effectively in other ways.
• Long term work allows lasting, meaningful relationships to be developed. Skills and knowledge can be passed on much more effectively than in the case of short term visits. Language and cultural barriers can be overcome. It is more than tokenism. It is a serious attempt to address the massive international imbalances that exist. However, it can also promote dependency. Missionary and NGO organizations are often run according to western values and ideals. They may not address the issues that the locals would like to have addressed. It is also expensive for a westerner to travel to and work in poorer countries.
It is easy to pick apart every attempt to help the poor. However, despite all these real problems with aid work the Bible is very clear on the topic of poverty. It tells us many times that God wants Christians to do something for poor people. Perhaps some of the benefit of this work will be felt by the workers. Isaiah 58:8 continues on from the topic of helping those in need to say:
“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.”
If we make the decision to get involved in the business of helping the poor we may as well put serious thought into what we do to avoid some of the very real problems that aid work can create.