Why I won’t be tipping cold water over my head

August 22, 2014 in Mark, Culture, Justice, Mission

Anyone who has been on social media in North America or Europe over the past few days cannot help but have seen the phenomenon that involves people filming themselves tipping ice-cold water over their heads, apparently to raise awareness and/or money for charity. Although the details vary, the first step is generally that someone is challenged by a friend, to either give $100 to charity, or to tip a bucket of ice-cold water over their head to be released from the obligation to donate (or in some cases to give a lesser amount). This person then challenges several more people, and the cycle continues…

While the idea has become hugely popular (as my Facebook and Twitter feeds testify), and apparently successful in terms of raising money (with this report suggesting $41 million has been raised for A.L.S. research up until August 21st), I have to say it makes me feel uncomfortable. Read the rest of this entry →

The importance of listening before doing

February 21, 2012 in Wycliffe, Mark, Africa, Front, Mission

There is a huge amount of thought, energy and money that goes into development work in Africa and other places around the world, but every now and then one comes across efforts for which the best that can be said is that they were born from good intentions. This morning on twitter I came across a post of the 7 worst international aid ideas.

These bad ideas range from sending a million t-shirts, or thousands of pairs of shoes, to Africa (thus putting local traders out of business), to restricting the use of aid to achieve certain apparently unrelated business or political goals, to even taking up arms to rescue abducted children. (You can read more about these 7 ideas, and why each is so bad, in the original post). Read the rest of this entry →

Three Cups of Tea: Is life really that simple?

April 19, 2011 in Mark, Mission

There has been a lot of controversy over the last few days about the book Three Cups of Tea, an account of an American man who spent time in Pakistan, founded schools, wrote a book about his experiences and formed a charity to continue to promote education in Pakistan. The problem is that certain aspects of the book would apparently fit better on the fiction shelf of a bookshop…

Over the last few days there have been a large number of blog posts written on the subject, claiming multiple failings and bad practice on the part of the charity. While I don’t know enough about the situation to comment on the specific claims, I was particularly struck by a post from Saundra on her excellent blog Good Intentions are not enough about her biggest concern.

Whether it’s TOMS A Day Without Shoes or CAI’s Pennies for Peace, schools and teachers are using what are essentially commercials for a charitable product to teach children about the larger world and philanthropy. As is the case with most commercials, these “awareness raising activities” often distort or over-simplify the problems faced in ways that benefit their own organization.

This is extremely worrying as the children brought up on these myths and misconceptions are going to turn into businessmen, philanthropists, and law makers. How will the decisions they make be impacted by a distorted view of what the world is like and how to really help? (see The Live Aid Legacy)

Following the success of A Day Without Dignity, there was interest in creating a Smart Aid curriculum for use by schools and service learning clubs. This scandal brings that need into even greater relief. We need to start providing very real information to students so that they don’t get swept up in hero worship the next time a feel-good story and easy solution is presented to them. Read more

Unfortunately Western culture likes things to be simple and straightforward. When people give to charity they like to feel that they have done something significant, so when an organisation promises that your small donation can help to build a school, or give a mosquito net and save a life, this is very attractive. But this simplistic approach to fundraising, awareness raising and volunteer recruitment causes multiple problems:

  • It is demeaning to the people who are being “helped”. If we really think that things are so bad and the solutions are so simple, then people and their governments must be pretty helpless, or ignorant, or bad, not to do anything. Are we really so superior to these ignorant people that a well-intentioned unskilled worker from the West can go and help these governments to solve their problems?
  • It perpetuates bad practice in aid and development. It is easy to build schools, but who will teach in them? Who will train the teachers? What language will the children be taught in? If it is in a minority language, who will develop the curriculum? It is easy to send mosquito nets or t-shirts to Africa, but what about the local traders who will be put out of business when the market is swamped? Where will people buy mosquito nets from in 5 years when you have lost interest and there are no local suppliers any more?
  • It takes away funding from organisations that are doing good work. Most people when faced with the choice of apparently saving a life, or feeding a family on the one hand, or providing specific expertise to a government wanting to develop an education curriculum in minority languages on the other, would choose the first. It seems to make more of an impact. It seems to be more “bang for your buck”. But what is the real situation, and which will give more benefit in the long-term?
  • It makes the giver feel good and hero-izes the individual charity but ignores the many partnerships that are necessary in order to make real and lasting progress in development work. The next generation in the West grow up wanting to give to and work for charities that achieve apparently remarkable things on their own, not realising that time-consuming and often frustrating partnerships are an integral part of the very long and slow process of addressing complex problems.

As we and our colleagues try to raise funds for our charity and development work these are questions that we need to be continually asking ourselves. Do we present things simplistically? Do we demean the people we are trying to help, by emphasising our role and caricaturing them and their situation? Or are we honest about how we play just a small part, coming alongside local people to contribute our skills to theirs, trying to take small steps together to address what are often very complex issues?

Working together

It’s not about you!

January 11, 2011 in Mark, Bible translation, Mission, Theology

Our human tendency is often to think about ourselves a lot more than we think about other people. Unfortunately this can be true in international development (of which the work of language development and Bible translation that we support is a part) just as much as (or more than) in other parts of life.

Crystal Hayling at the Center for Effective Philanthropy tells the story of a family who traveled to Cambodia to work in a rural village, which the parents hoped would help their children to understand poverty and their responsibility to help others in difficult situations.

When planning the trip, she explained, her kids had immediately dismissed Habitat for Humanity and other “traditional” groups because they wanted an authentic, personal experience. Prior to the trip, they’d gone online and researched places they could go and things they could do.  They’d found a small village that was building a library and some houses and that needed materials and books. “Perfect,” she thought. Emails were exchanged, arrangements were made.

But, she then went on to explain, the trip had all but been ruined by the fact that when they arrived the locals took the books and materials they’d brought and proceeded to build the structures themselves. Her kids, who had planned what they wanted to do and how they would direct the building process, were sidelined by locals who took over and did all the work themselves. Her kids were invited to participate, but they weren’t allowed to lead “their” projects. The goal of the trip, she complained, had been for her kids to feel how they could make a difference and this experience hadn’t provided that at all. “Overall, it left a bad taste in their mouths for future volunteer work,” she concluded. Read more

Crystal then wants to shout “It’s not about you!”

Unfortunately when we’re consciously trying to help others, maybe even more so than when we’re not, there is always a temptation to want to feel that “I have made a difference”. When the emphasis should be on “making a difference”, all too often it is on “I”. Rather than being glad to see progress being made, and privileged to have played a small part in it, we become frustrated that our plans haven’t worked, or that we didn’t play the key role that we (and our donors) expected.

Jesus called his disciples to leave their homes, families and livelihoods to follow him, but then after giving up so much…

…his disciples began arguing about which of them was the greatest. But Jesus knew their thoughts, so he brought a little child to his side. Then he said to them, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.” Luke 9:46-48

I think this is a vital reminder for all of us that however “good” and “important” the work that we’re doing, and however much we think we’re helping people, it really shouldn’t be about us. As soon as we start thinking about ourselves, what we’ve achieved, or how important and needed we are, our contribution is really no more than a patronising facade.

May we be content to be the least, so that we can genuinely serve those we’re supposed to be helping.

Lyndsey, Jayne and children in Burkina Faso

Lyndsey, Jayne and three children on our Wycliffe Engage trip to Burkina Faso last year. I should point out that they and the rest of the team were excellent examples of servant-hearted mission as they spent time with our hosts.