We’ve all seen the horrible images coming from Haiti of the unbelievable devastation caused by the January 12th earthquake and more recently, with aftershocks. The website I use to link to news described the destruction as having “biblical proportions”—and that was before Pat Robertson described the earthquakes as “divine judgement”. This made me wonder what Bible stories that editor had on his mind (Noah’s flood?, Pharaoh’s plagues?) and if there’s enough Biblical literacy today to even appreciate the reference or is it only the image of a “wrathful God” that sticks in most people’s minds.
This blog, however, tries to deal with a “missions perspective” on its subjects, so let me get to my real topic of discussion: how should the Church help the people of Haiti AFTER relief efforts? Now is the time for immediate relief as there are people that are homeless, jobless, orphaned, hurt and wounded and who have been greatly traumatized by the earthquake and the related fallout. Thankfully we have Reformed Church World Services, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Church World Services and many other faith-based agencies who are on the ground or are making plans to help relieve the suffering and despair in Haiti.
We should do what we can to help those now in their current distress and I’m grateful that there are women and men who have been called to perform these “ministries of mercy” in very difficult situations. It takes a very special person to jump into these disaster zones, make sense of the catastrophic and confusing realities and then organize and deliver compassion and aid. Don’t kid yourself that anyone can do this well: it is a calling along with those of teacher, preacher, missionary, evangelist, etc.
My background, training and current responsibilities are in development, which is much different than relief. We aim for long-term changes and we like to think that because of our work, relief efforts will become less needed in the future as people become more self-sufficient and are better equipped to deal with local problems. While that is less true for natural disasters such as earthquakes, it could be true for famines, which often mix political, technical and natural factors. As you’ve probably read and heard, Haiti has been a long-term failure in development terms, consistently listed as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, some are starting to argue that misguided development efforts have actually made Haiti’s poor people MORE VULNERABLE to widespread misery. (See Bret Stephens: To Help Haiti, End Foreign Aid .
I think we in the Church need to have a similar discussion on what is “good” aid and what is possibly “bad” aid when looking at missions and relief in poor countries such as Haiti. Recently in the missiology literature we’re starting to see more writing being done on “dependency”, which is the concept that our church missions are not always strengthening and preparing local people for ministry, but are, in too many cases, keeping them weak and dependent on outside resources. Working in the world’s least developed country, Niger, I’ve seen some cases where kind-hearted Western charity, whether from churches, governments or NGOs, likely did more harm than good to the local community, by inadvertently creating a “fight” over who gets to control these “gifts” given by foreigners, which are far too often converted to personal gain (sometimes in political ways if not in outright consumption).
After Haitians’ immediate needs are taken care of through relief efforts, perhaps in a year or so, you or your church may be asked to go to Haiti and help people and institutions recover from this devastation or you may be presented with a proposal to fund that will help in the rebuilding. What might be some criteria to consider when responding? Well, first of all, pray for God’s guidance when deciding how to help. After that, let me propose the following things to consider:
IMMEDIATE RESPONSE (after a disaster)
1. I would urge you to support well-known relief agencies with a history of disaster relief activities. This usually means sending cash to their emergency assistance funds. A surprising number of agencies and ministries will announce that they are accepting donations to help the victims of a disaster, although they really don’t have the expertise to do so. This doesn’t always mean ill-intent. In some cases, they are simply continuing their regular activities in the affected country, as their operations may have been adversely affected by the event. In other cases, they are sending the money to their local partners to respond to the crisis as they best see fit and you just need to have trust that the local partner knows what they’re doing. But sometimes, a disaster is just too good of a fundraising opportunity to pass up, so they’re just trying to get their share of the money that is now flowing and perhaps only a small part will go for relief.
2. I would be reluctant to give to individuals and groups who plan on going to the disaster area themselves unless you can confirm that they really have specific expertise and knowledge that is crucial to the recovery efforts. Chances are that they would get in the way of the professionals who are organizing relief activities. If an individual from the disaster area contacts you or your church directly for help, try to verify with independent disaster workers that their request is real and necessary before considering their help. Sadly, there are “Christian” ministries all over the world that may try to profit from the catastrophe, as they use the resulting confusion to try to pull a fast one on unsuspecting believers.
SHORT-AND-MID TERM RESPONSE (3 months-3 years after)
1. When looking for ways to help those affected in disaster areas, again ask respected relief agencies to help you to identify needs and projects where your support would be best utilized. Doing so should mean that you are being directed to projects that have been screened by knowledgeable aid workers, so you know the recipients are truly deserving. Otherwise, you may simply be contributing to the phenomenon where “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and the project you help is the one where its promoter cried the loudest and got your attention. Maybe it’s a God thing, but maybe you just got suckered.
2. Choose to support projects where you are protecting and promoting the dignity of the recipient both for today and for the future. Will your project help restore people to independence or will it simply address immediate needs which will still exist once your contributions are finished?
3. Paul urged churches to look after widows and orphans and there’s a biblical basis for choosing to help those who are the most vulnerable. These categories are somewhat of an exception to #2 above and they are worthy of your consideration and support. My only advice here would be to identify local believers in the disaster area who have already proven their commitment to these groups and to walk alongside of them in their ministry.
LONG-TERM DEVELOPMENT (More than 3 years)
1. Long term development efforts need to be about equipping people to solve their own problems. This may involve micro-loans, gifts of tools, livestock and equipment as well as education and training. Ideally these projects should be derived from local people’s aspiration for their futures and not from outsider initiatives.
2. Avoid providing charity for things that people could do themselves if they really wanted to. I’m a firm believer in “priming the pump” and providing the first installment of a project’s funds/equipment that will serve to motivate local people to finish the task themselves. However, you need to be firm that future support is contingent on local efforts and follow-through on the project. Otherwise, too many folks have been conditioned to plead helplessness, knowing that the foreigner will often foot the whole bill if they see nothing is happening or are convinced that these poor people can't do anything by themselves.
3. Work for justice in the poor society. While some might argue that this means Christians should lobby against capitalism or globalization or global warming, I believe the truth is much more fundamental: a prophetic ministry against sin and particularly the sin of corruption as described in Isaiah 10:1-2 and elsewhere in the Bible In too many poor countries of the world, the problem is that governments respect neither human nor legal rights and the poor are at the mercy of the rich and powerful. If the leaders don’t fear God, why would they be concerned about exploiting or ignoring their poor? The Bible teaches we are all equal before our Creator, who respects not human title or human wealth. Proclaiming God’s truths can indeed be the basis for changing the world!
I’d welcome your thoughts and comments to what I’ve written about helping others in foreign lands, whether after natural disasters, like in Haiti, or simply out of a loving Christian witness and desire to improve their lives.