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).
Some of these examples of bad aid are simply a veneer of “helping” when the real motivation is selfish gain. But the majority are people who have very good intentions, but just get things majorly and seriously wrong.
Why does this happen?
I also read an apparently unrelated post this morning from Skye Jethani about how Jesus teaches that Christians should be discerning, but not judge people. He concludes that
Judgment causes us to see the other not as a person, but as a thing – as less human and therefore less valuable. And once we do that to a person, or a group of people, it opens the door to all kinds of terrible evil – segregation, injustice, abuse, even genocide. Jesus is warning us about excluding anyone, or seeing ourselves or our group as inherently better than any other. We may disagree and discern another person or group to be wrong – but when that discernment causes us to value another person or group less, then we’ve crossed the line into judgment, condemnation, and exclusion.
I wonder if that is what is happening in these examples of bad aid. Are we judging others, deciding that they are helpless and needy, and concluding that therefore we should just do whatever we can? Are we judging that they have no relevant opinions, or worse, that their opinions are not worth listening to? Do we judge ourselves to be better than others – because we are wealthy, have a certain type of education, or live in a certain political system – and then conclude that we have the answers to their problems? The irony is that many of our “solutions” are things that we would never dream of allowing in our own country (providing free meals for impoverished British school-children only if someone “likes” a Facebook page? Importing hundreds of thousands of free foreign-made cars for all the poor Americans who can’t afford ones made in America?) but apparently it’s ok for “those poor people”.
As Laura and I work with minority language communities we need to be very careful that we are not judging people. We need to bear in mind cultural distinctives and generalities, but also be very aware that each person and each community has unique and valid views of the world, and that they are inevitably much more knowledgeable about their own unique situation than we are!
We have come to Tanzania with certain skills, and with an organisation that has certain areas of expertise. While we are convinced of the value of certain things like mother-tongue education, and of churches having the Bible available in local languages, we cannot assume that we therefore know the best way to achieve these things in a particular situation, or even that these things are a priority for a community at this particular moment in time. We need to listen to communities, to their desires, to their ideas, contributing out perspectives and working out together whether our skills and expertise will be able to benefit them in any way. If so, then we need to work closely with them to determine what might be the best way forward. If not, we need to respect their desires and move on.
I think that it’s very easy for us to judge other people, and to sub-consciously regard them as inferior to ourselves. And I think this is particularly easy when we have good intentions of helping others. My challenge for today is to see myself and others as we really are, and to humbly listen to those who are very different to myself.