I recently had a conversation with a friend who is passionate about helping needy kids in our community. My friend began to explain that the kids he is helping often come from families that have been in need for generations. Some of these families are homeless and the need seems insurmountable.
In reflection about how best to help these families, he reflected that many of the adults seemed to not want to get themselves out of poverty. It was easier to work the government handout and charitable systems and they show no willingness to improve their situation.
I tried to engage my friend with questions that were geared toward seeing poverty and need as more complicated than simply an unwillingness to pull one’s self up.
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In Chris Marlow’s book: Doing Good is Simple, he explains how the well meaning Americans who purchased food from US farms to give out to the needy in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake had the unintended consequence of harming the food system already in place in Haiti. Farmers could not sell there food while it was being distributed for free. US industry profited off well meaning charitable donors while hurting Haitian farmers.
Tom’s Shoes is a famous shoe company that provides shoes to needy people in African countries. Every shoe bought is matched by the company and given to kids in need. Critics of Tom’s Shoes argue that the ‘buy one, give one’ model harms local communities that have the capacity to produce their own goods and services while making large profit margins off the charitable instincts of well meaning people.
“[The ramifications of giving free shoes] takes away the agency of the community to be self sustaining” TMS Teddy Ruge, founder of Rain Tree Farms.
Giving to those in need without reflecting on what capacities people have to contribute will result in a perpetual system of need and charity. Existing capacities will remain unused so long as misdirected external charity fills the need.
What if we rethink charity as a effort to build community?
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Maslows Law of Instrument
I could be accused of treating all problems with a community development solution. My wife can attest that I have been known to say such things as:
- “Policing would be more effective if they were better community developers”
- “Pastors would be better if they were community developers rather than social commentators or CEOs”
- “Civic leaders would be more responsive if they were community developers rather than fundraisers”
- “Businesses should be locally based and rooted in the community”
Even though I know that community development is my hammer for almost all problems, I have not found it to be fallacious. I agree with Peter Block:
“How do you reduce suffering in the world? We say you do it by building community” – Peter Block
What if we stopped defining the “needy” person in our community by their need, but rather as a person in my community who has skills, gifts and capacities to share, teach or market? They might become my neighbor who has value. They would become someone I want to invite into community. They are someone for whom I can have mutual care for our well-being. Caring for one another in a community development context is inviting people to use their capacities and skills for the common good. Looking at people through a lens of a deficiency category I assign to them (poor, homeless, lazy, unwilling to work, disabled), I can feel good about donating to them when I feel able, but I distance myself enough from them to assuage my guilt when I look past them in my haste to get to where I am going. They become objects to look down upon in pity rather than people. Could it be that our view of charity may be stealing the humanity away from people?
The harm I create is not only on the objectified person I have created but on myself as well. There is a degree of safety and pride that I am afforded in an individualistic culture. That pride comes with the consequence of isolation and scarcity. I cannot benefit from the gifts that others can contribute when I am self-sufficient.
My hope is that we can find ways to help people that empower them to use their gifts, skills and capacities for the good of their communities. Charity could be the vehicle by which we work with our neighbor to dream about alternative futures and remove barriers from being fully engaged in community.