Here’s the hard truth about a lot of aid and “good work” we do: it’s toxic.  It often times hurts the very people we’re trying to help.  This was the theme of a cool event we went to last night, put on by the amazing folks of CreatePossible: When does a Charity become a detriment to the people we want to help?  It was one of those sessions where Brad and I were constantly nodding all throughout.

[quote]In this Latin American culture that values and embraces hard work and skill development, the one skill we have taught the local people is how to be better beggars.[/quote]

We heard a story of a pastor in Latin America, who explained that there are whole regions of his country where microfinance and commerce is impossible.  Why?  Because well-intentioned Americans have been dumping aid there for years.  Why should the locals build a school if the Americans come in and build it for them?  Why start a local business with a microloan if at any time, container full of stuff is dumped onto their street?  In this Latin American culture that values and embraces hard work and skill development, the one skill we have taught the local people is how to be better beggars.

One of the stories shared by Robert Lupton (who just wrote an eye-opening book called Toxic Charity) was about the all-too-often “short-term youth missions trip” to “help save the world.”  In one example, the American missions team came in, laid the floor tile, had a great experience, took a lot of pictures, and went back home to America to share with their friends and church.  Little did they know how much work had to be stopped and prepared before they even got on a plane, so the Americans could have a significant experience complete with photo ops.  They hardly even noticed the unemployed tile-layers hanging around outside the school every day.  Ironically, those workers did come in the next week to rip all the tile up and then re-lay it down correctly and safely.  Why do they agree to this nonsense?  “We have to give the Americans a ‘life-changing experience’ so they’ll put us in their missions budget.”  Skye Jethani told us of a friend who provides a great visual for this do-gooder missionary. We are “pigeonaries.” We fly in, poop on everything, and fly away feeling pretty good.

So much aid and good work we do is really just a “feel good”, not real good.  Lupton even used the word “co-dependent” – we are co-dependent to the poor staying poor so we can keep getting the funds from the rich.  Is that too harsh?

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of aid that’s working.  And there’s plenty of short-term aid that is absolutely needed in times of emergencies and life-and-death situations.  There’s also a part of me that is hesitant to bring these things up for fear that passionate, good-hearted people will be discouraged and stop being involved all together.  Hopefully this isn’t seen as negativity thrown on a lot of good, hard, well-intentioned work.

But we’re entering a new stage of development.  We can’t keep sweeping these truths under the rug.  If we really want to make a lasting impact on the world and keep getting better at it, we have to ask the tough questions.

Listening to the speakers coupled with our own long conversations, here are 7 questions that need to be asked if we really want to “help:”

  1. What’s the long-term strategy? Are we taking a long-term holistic approach?  I believe we are coming to an age where more and more organizations’ missions should be to work itself out of a job – to solve the problem so effectively that the charity is no longer needed.
  2. Should we partner or build? If someone else or another organization is doing this better, shouldn’t we partner with them instead of trying to build it ourselves?   Too often we’re more concerned about our organization or our brand getting the credit.
  3. Do we really know them?  Are we taking the time to develop relationships with the people we’re trying to help?  The best organizations are also the most sensitive, active listeners to the people they’re trying to help.  It’s amazing how many assumptions we can make – so much is taken for granted from living in a bubble.
  4. Do they have skin in the game?  Do they get a chance to work side-by-side with us on these initiatives (Habit for Humanity is a genius with this one)?  If the people want a well in their village, ask them to be the first donor, and we can cover the rest.  When it’s their money, you will see exactly what they truly think is needed.
  5. Are they becoming workers/thinkers or beggars? Yes, this is the whole teach-a-man-to-fish thing. There is such dignity and joy in work that I as a Westerner so easily forget.
  6. How do we measure success on the ground?  Not slideshows.  Not the obligatory posed smiling picture with the natives.  Not how much money was given.   What are the hard metrics? It an obvious, but common mistake – activity does not equate to impact.  Our hearts feel such compassion for the people. Let’s match that with our minds applied to sharper thinking on metrics.
  7. Is this all about me, actually?  The hardest question is intensely personal and is often hidden: what are my motives for doing this?  To achieve significance, to soothe some latent guilt inside, to “save the world”, or something else?

The bottom line is that sustainable world change is hard.  It takes time and commitment.   It takes long-term relationship-building.  It takes an incredible focus on cold, hard facts.  And most of all,  it takes a courageous person willing to do battle with just “feeling good” to focus on the real good.