The Merits and Demerits of Aid

Back in 2011 I took a trip to Uganda. While there I was again confronted with examples of well-intentioned charity that, at the least, did little to address the issues facing Africa and at worst only exacerbated the issues of poverty. Of course, I also witness effective and innovative ways of dealing with these same issues.  I have had similar experiences while visiting Rwanda and Guatemala as well. Upon return, I read a book called Dead Aid, which discussed the limitations and even harm of celebrity campaigns to help Africa and the ineffectiveness of foreign aid in general. One quote in particular was telling:

This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa.  One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied.  As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.

That last line was, of course, a subtle dig at the well-intentioned efforts from the likes of USA for Africa to Bob Geldof to Bono. Now Bono is one of my favorite artists and it is always tricky to criticize the charitable efforts of others.  So it was refreshing that in a recent interview Bono acknowledged how much he has learned about tackling issues of aid and poverty, and how charity comes in many different forms:

“Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”

Bono further reveals lessons learned such as the dangers of political corruption in the flow of aid and the role of entrepreneurs in tackling issues of poverty in Africa.  It’s refreshing to see someone of Bono’s celebrity status willing to grow and learn in regards to his philanthropic efforts.

As I have stated before, these are the same lessons I hope the church can also learn as it tackles the social issues of the day.  Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes.  We must be wise as serpents, being willing to learn from all perspectives as we grapple with these issues both at home and abroad.

What I’m Reading: Sailing Acts

I ran across a review of this book in an old magazine and thought it would be an interesting read for a couple of reasons.  First, my next project has to do with Paul’s letters in the New Testament.  Second, I hope to travel to Turkey in the near future.  So when I read about a professor who bought a boat and retraced Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean, my interest was peaked!

To be honest, when I began reading Sailing Acts, it wasn’t fully what I expected.  I was looking forward to the many cultural insights the author, Linford Stutzman, might have extracted from visiting sites like Corinth, Ephesus, Miletus, Malta, and Crete.  A couple of chapters into the book Stutzman was still trying to purchase his boat and bring together all the details of his trip.  But what the book lacked in detailed scriptural commentary, it made up for in drawing the reader into he and his wife’s year and a half adventure on the Mediterranean.

Stutzman does infer some interesting insight from his travels and succeeds in drawing the reader a little more into the outlook of the Apostle Paul.  He writes often how the experience changed him personally and notes that the Paul that arrived back in Jerusalem had to have been quite different from the Paul who set off several years earlier.  It was an interesting observation that in Italy, so much revolved around the person of Peter, while Paul’s legacy was celebrated in Greece.  Sadly, most in modern-day Turkey – the land where Paul arguably focused much of his attention – know little, if anything, of the Apostle Paul.

Stutzman only scratched the surface at what I believe are a plethora of cultural layers present in Paul’s letters, yet he affirms my belief that those layers are there waiting to be uncovered.  I’ll conclude with one of Stutzman’s own observations regarding Paul’s message and methods:

I began to recognize a pattern of communication for Paul as he traveled throughout the pagan world.  He spent very little time condemning the brutality and debauchery of paganism, or the oppression and injustice of the Roman system.  Instead, recognizing the inadequacies of religion and empire, Paul offered an attractive message of hope, morality, and life – the good news of the abundant and eternal life of the living Jesus.

Good words, even for today!  Paul may have been on to something.

What I’m Reading: Dead Aid

While in Uganda, I noticed something that I wanted to look further into.  In one of the more avant garde bookstores in Kampala, I saw a number of books by Africans questioning the value of all the international aid pouring into the continent every year.  It was an intriguing idea: the recipients of so much aid were beginning to ask difficult questions as to the effectiveness of it all.  As mentioned in a follow-up post, on my way back to the States passing through the Amsterdam airport, I saw a book that summarized this restlessness and ordered it upon arriving home.

In her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, Dambisa Moyo, who is from Zambia and a former consultant for the World Bank, tackles these questions head on.  The implications of her conclusions are controversial; for some they are a breath of fresh air, while for others they are outright rejected.  But the facts cannot be avoided.  Consider just a few:

  • Since 1970, sub-Saharan Africa has received over $300 billion in development assistance, yet remains the poorest region in the world.
  • The poverty rate in Africa has actually risen during the periods of peak aid flows.
  • A World Bank study found that as much as 85 percent of aid flows were used for purposes other than that for which they were initially intended.
  • Many of the civil wars and conflicts on the African continent in recent decades can be tied to who controls the large aid disbursements made to African countries.

This only scratches the surface of the problems associated with the large amount of aid flowing to Africa on an ongoing basis.  However, one of Moyo’s biggest points that jumped out at me has little to do with quantifiable data.  It has to do with the voices behind the cries for even more aid:

This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa.  One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied.  As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.

We are so busy figuring out how to help Africa that we forgot to include Africans in on the conversation!  Much more could be said, but rather than go through the entire book, I’ll simply encourage you to read it – or something similar – on your own.

While most of us will not find ourselves on the front line of shaping aid policy, we are faced with choices everyday regarding charity, whether donating time to a cause, serving on a church missions board, or sparing some change for the guy on the corner.  Regardless of scope, a key issue is that of intentions versus outcomes.  Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes.  There is a line of thinking that I have seen in the church, which essentially holds that good intentions are what God wants from us; leave the outcome in God’s hands.  While this may sound spiritual, I believe God wants wise stewardship as well.  Are the causes we are promoting actually solving problems or might they actually be contributing to the problem?  After my time in Uganda and reading this book, I continue to wrestle through this issue.  I believe we are in need of fresh theology on the subject of missions and social action.  Maybe I’ll be bold enough one day to collect my thoughts on the subject and post them!

My Thoughts On Uganda

Since arriving back from my trip to Uganda about two weeks ago, I have been unpacking, wading through pictures, and reliving experiences.  It was a wonderful trip.  I have found processing the trip difficult, however.  I am having the same difficulty putting my observations into words as I did when my brother, Mark, asked each of us for our thoughts over pizza on the shores of Lake Victoria the last night of our trip.  I think one reason is that the trip had so many paradoxical aspects to it: it was part missions, part family vacation, part remote villages, part safari lodges, part observation, and part rolling up the sleeves.  Missions trips usually involve a lot of work; fact-finding trips necessitate many meetings; vacations require simply having fun.  This trip was a bit of all three.  So if my thoughts seem somewhat incongruous, the trip was as well.  Let me share three pictures with you.

Picture #1: Each morning at Good Shepherds Fold, I got up early, made some coffee and sat out on a porch overlooking the orphanage.  My brother, J.R., and my mom often joined me in conversation before the day got started.  Each morning I was repeatedly struck both by the unspoiled beauty of the landscape, as well as the poor economic conditions of the countryside.  I would watch people “slash” grass or plant and weed fields by hand for hours.  Children were busy playing or going to school, yet they called Good Shepherd’s Fold their home because their family could not afford to take care of them or treat things such as HIV and malaria.  Sometimes the electricity worked, sometimes it didn’t.  I marveled at the bounty of the gardens yielding mangos, tomatoes, squash, and papaya.  We counted more species of birds each morning than you would normally see in a month.  And all this from the back porch.

The back porch at GSF

There was a constant tension between the natural beauty and bounty of the land, and the socioeconomic conditions that prevented the people from utilizing those resources to better themselves.  My brother and I frequently noted how often good intentions, preconceived notions, and even tangible donations would fail to address the real issues of a place like Uganda.  We did a lot of brainstorming about what might actually address some core issues and make a difference.  I was reminded about my trip to Rwanda in 2007, where we heard aid organizations tell us, “People think that the problem in Africa is a lack of food and water.  It is actually a lack of ways to preserve the food they grow and means to capture and store the water during the rainy season.  Africa does not need more food.”  I was also fascinated by a small but increasingly vocal sentiment that aid from the West is actually doing more harm than good.  I came home and ordered the book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa.  There is a desperate need to be smarter with our good intentions!

Picture #2: On Good Friday, the local village church held a Good Friday service.  I confess that I was not exactly pumped to sit through a worship service that was sometimes difficult to follow and understand.  But the church is closely tied to the orphanage, and it would be another chance to play with the kids, as well as remember the events of Good Friday.  Local villagers made their way to the church. The service was filled with singing, some dancing, and testimonies.  Being the guests, kids often climbed on your lap or wanted your attention.  This was followed by the Easter Sunday service and a meal complete with roasted pig and goat.  The meal was delicious!  It was our last day at Good Shepherd’s Fold before going on safari, so we used lunch as an opportunity to say our goodbyes and get pictures with the kids we had gotten to know during the week.

Good Friday at GSF

I had a moment in that Good Friday service, listening to the singing and watching the locals, where I thought, “Here I am celebrating Good Friday in a small church in a village in Uganda.”  And then the thought struck me, “This place is not out of God’s way.”  I may have had to travel 9,000 miles via airplanes, busy streets, and bumpy dirt roads, but it was no effort for God to be present in that church at that moment.  In fact, God was just as present there as he was in any American church celebrating Good Friday.  Then my mind took it one step further, “I wonder which service Jesus would rather attend?”  I reflected back on some of the big, slick Easter productions that would be taking place in churches everywhere back in the States.  I won’t presume to answer that question for Jesus, but I can tell you that I was quite content worshipping in that little remote village church that evening.  It was a perfect way to celebrate Easter!

Picture #3: The last five days of our trip were spend on safari in Murchison National Park, taking in some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife you will ever see – early morning game tracks, brilliant sunsets, elephants, rhinos, lions, giraffe, and cape buffalo, just to name a few.  Each day presented us with more than we could possibly take in.  We took an evening hike through part of the park – guided of course, because the park is full of wildlife.  We witnessed a lion with a kill, a hyena making a kill, and giraffes fighting.  Murchison Falls is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world.  I could go on and on.

Murchison National Park

I have been on a one-day safari before in Rwanda, and I remember a similar feeling of just being in awe.  I will share some of what I wrote in my journal after that experience because it sums this experience up nicely: “I think I understand being in God’s creation a little better now.  I am part of the animals’ world; unlike zoos, I am the one on display; I am confined to a truck on a dirt road traveling through their world.  It reminded me that all I can do is travel through creation taking one moment at a time, never being certain what is around the next corner.  There is no sense of being in control here – it is dangerous.  Living life from God’s perspective would be to live that same way: knowing that I am in God’s world, that I am not in control, traveling with a sense of awe and exhilaration, always anticipating what God has for me around the corner.”

Uganda 2011

This next week I have the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in Uganda, Africa.  People ask me if it is a missions trip, and the answer is … sort of.  You see, my brother and his family work at an orphanage in Jinja, Uganda and a couple of us from the family are going over to visit.  You can learn more about the orphanage here.  So while in Uganda, we will have the opportunity to work on projects around the orphanage and bring supplies for the kids.  Additionally, I have the opportunity to teach in a couple local churches.  We will also be going on safari and, of course, spending time with family.  It’s going to be a great trip!

So while this may not be a “missions” trip (though shouldn’t every trip be seen as an opportunity to be “missional”?), there are some things I have learned from from previous experiences in places like Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Rwanda.

  • A chance to unplug from the Matrix.  Trips such as these are an opportunity to step away from our tech-driven culture of iPods, laptops, smart phones, video games, cable TV, and other gadgets.  Ok, so I’m taking my iPod.  But when I am forced to unplug from my world, I find I am much more engaged in the real world around me.  I have come to believe that our tech-saavy minds crave distraction.  When we pull the plug on the constant noise, we begin to engage at a deeper level.
  • Wrestling with my own lack of contentment.  I am often struck by the level of joy and contentment I see amidst a lack of material possessions and sometimes, outright poverty.  Certainly, when we encounter places of poverty, there are thing we can do to meet tangible needs.  We should strive to clear economic hurdles and bring more opportunity to these places.  But I contrast this with the glut of possessions and opportunities most of us live with, which is often accompanied by a lack of contentment and an absence of joy.  I feel the restlessness in my own spirit and wonder how it can be so prevalent when I have been given so much.
  • Good intentions gone bad.  It isn’t fun to talk about in church, but I have also, at times, seen the best of intentions cause more harm than good in the name of missions.  A 200-machine computer lab in a remote village school comes to mind, of which only one or two computers were actually operational.  Once the group that funded and set up the project went home, there was no one around to service the simplest of technical problems.  I remember speaking to a man waiting for his home to be built.  All the supplies were gathered and the village was more than capable of constructing the house, but the project was put on hold several months so that a youth group had something to do on their missions trip.  These stories and more remind me to test my motivations, making sure that real needs are being met as opposed to engaging in activities that make me feel good, but offer little tangible help for those who need it.
  • An opportunity to serve … and be served.  Of one thing I am confident, that I am served and ministered to by the people I meet on these trips far more than I serve or minister to them.  I usually enter into these opportunities focused on ways I can help or the supplies I can bring; I usually leave feeling like I was given far more than I gave.

If you remember, please pray for us over the next couple of weeks.  I’ll write about the trip when I get back!