“Forty-five years after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty, the poverty rate in America stubbornly hovers around 12%, decade after decade, year after year.” – When Helping Hurts.

Why?  Why can’t we find a blueprint for poverty alleviation?  There has to be a secret recipe floating around somewhere right?   Could it be looking for a blueprint is the WRONG answer?  Maybe there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution to ending poverty.  Surely sending more money to destitute countries will help.  Maybe not.  Could we be overlooking a serious issue by not examining our solutions to see if we have the wrong perspective?

We tend to see the answer to everything through our own lenses.  In this book, there is a story of an elephant and a mouse.  It is as follows:

“Elephant and mouse were best friends.  One day Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!” Animals gathered from far and near.  They ate, drank, sang, and danced.  Nobody celebrated more and danced harder than Elephant.  After the party was over, Elephant exclaimed, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party?  What a blast!”  But Mouse did not answer.  “Mouse, where are you?” Elephant called.  He looked around for his friend, and then shrank back in horror.  There at Elephant’s feet lay Mouse.  His little body was ground into the dirt.  He had been smashed by the big feet of his exuberant friend, Elephant.

This story was told by and African storyteller who then remarked, “Sometimes, that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans.  It is like dancing with an elephant.”

What a powerful conviction.

The next two chapters of the book tackled two different issue.  The first focused on participation of the materially poor.  Here are some key take-aways:

  • All around the world, you can find donated equipment that is rusting away, latrines that have never been used, community association that have disbanded, and projects that disintegrated soon after the nonprofit organization left town.
  • Despite an estimated $2.3 trillion in foreign aid dispersed from Western nations during the post-WWII area, more than 2.5 billion people, approximately 40 percent of the world’s population, still live on less than two dollars per day.
  • Inadequate participation of poor people is partly responsible for the slow process of poverty alleviation.
  • Although a blueprint approach appears to be very efficient, it often fails because it imposes solutions on poor communities that are inconsistent with local culture, that are not embraced and “owned” by the community members, or that cannot work in that particular setting.
  • A learning process approach to development, an  approach that seeks to facilitate an action-reflection cycle  in which poor people participate in all aspects of the project: proposing the best course of action, implementing the chosen strategy, evaluating how well things are working, and determining the appropriate modifications.
  • The role of the outsider in this approach is not to do something to or for  the economically poor individual or community but to seek solutions together with them.
  • Like all human beings, poor people are more likely to have a sense of enthusiasm for and ownership of a project if they have been full participants in it from the very beginning.
  • Poor individuals and communities are highly complex and not well understood by the materially non-poor.
  • Participation is not just the means to an end but rather a legitimate end in its own right.
  • The goal is not just that the equipment gets used and the rice output goes up, but rather that poor people are empowered to make decisions about the best way to far, to act upon their decisions, to evaluate the results of their decisions, and then to start the decision-making process all over again.
  • A participatory approach asks the poor at each step in the process, “What do you think?” and actually values the answers that are given.
  • It is vital to give a “voice to the voiceless” by looking for ways to make it safe for those on the margins to express their views throughout the process.

The next chapter focuses on how we can improve the impact of Short Term Missions (STM).  Here are the key take aways:

  • Cultures around the world exhibit contrasting view of how time operates.
  • Monochronics view time as a limited and valuable resource.
  • Polychronic cultures view time as a somewhat unlimited resource.
  • While fewer goods and services might get produced in a polychronic culture, people in such cultures often have a deeper sense of community and belonging.
  • Different cultures also differ in their understanding of the role of the individual and the group in shaping life.
  • People in individualistic cultures are taught to strive to be “all they can be” in terms of personal achievement.
  • Collectivist cultures minimize individual identity and focus on the well-being of the group.
  • It is crucial that North American STM teams move beyond ethnocentric thinking that either minimizes the cultural differences or that immediately assumes that middle-to-upper-class North American cultural norms are always superior to those of other cultures.
  • The core problem with STMs to poor communities is that the STMs tend to reflect the perspective  of “poverty as deficit”,  the idea that poverty is due to the poor lacking something.
  • Very few STM trips are done in situations in which relief is the appropriate intervention.
  • Most contexts require development – not relief or rehabilitation – in light of the cultural differences.
  • Development is a lifelong process, not a two-week product.
  • North Americans often think it is easy to develop one-on-one, deep, personal relationships simply by hanging out with an individual for a week.
  • STM teams are generally in “needs-based” mode, bringing their knowledge, skills, and material resources to poor communities in order to accomplish a task as fast as possible.
  • Paternalism rears its ugly head and we undermine local assets and increase poverties of being, community, and stewardship.
  • The individualistic cultural value of STM teams can undermine local knowledge in a collectivist context.
  • The principle of participation implies that the community, church, or organization that receives the STM team needs to be the primary entity deciding what should be done, as wall as how it should be done.
  • The presence of indigenous ministries raises some significant stewardship issues for North American STMs.  The total annual cost  to support an evangelist in Africa is around $1,600 for a year.
  • The average STM team costs about $35,000 and the trip only lasts two weeks.

I tend to view things from a business perspective so I immediately as the question, “What is the best ROI?”  Those numbers are staggering!  You mean to tell me the money raised to send about 12 people to do mission work for 2 weeks could be used to fund nearly 22 indigenous evangelists for a whole year?  That’s a no-brainer!

I think it may be time for the North American church to seriously reconsider WHY we are doing STM trips and if that money could be better used by locals.

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