Working with the materially poor is really tricky. We want to help, but it’s not always easy to determine what is helping and what is hurting. How are we supposed to fulfill our biblical mandate to care for the materially poor without creating dependencies?
Puerto Peñasco is a small city just an hour south of the Arizona-Mexico border. Almost every weekend, well-intentioned Americans drive here and hand out countless suitcases of old clothes. The recipients are incredibly happy, sometimes even moved to tears. Neither the giver, nor the receiver, has ever stopped to ask why so many people are without clothes in the first place.
I work for an organization called 1MISSION and we employ a few locals who work full-time in the barrios of Peñasco. They go from house to house training people in Community Health Education (CHE). I asked them to research this clothing conundrum, as they spend a lot of time with the very people who receive these clothes on a regular basis. They quickly had an insight I had missed. Many houses they visit have numerous piles of dirty clothes behind it. The clothes are everywhere you look. In one case, we observed a young family paving a sandy road with old clothes so their small car could pass through. According to the trainers, it is not a supply problem, but a stewardship problem. One trainer put it this way, “They don’t need clothes, they need to learn how to take care of their clothes and make them last.”
The Americans thought giving away clothes was fulfilling the biblical mandate to clothe the naked. The reality is, actually clothing the naked in Peñasco requires us to respect the poor as stewards of resources, not helpless victims of circumstance. The problem is bigger than a lack of stuff, so should our solutions be bigger than handing out stuff.
You see, God didn’t ask us to take pictures of ourselves caring for the poor, he asked told us to actually care for the poor. Relief, done without development, will hold a community back. Relief has a place; there are cold people that just need a jacket, there are hungry people who just need some rice. Not to mention, the Bible makes it pretty clear what’s expected of us. The problem is when relief is detached from long-term development. Without development, the outcomes of relief are temporary and usually do more harm than good. As international do-gooders, we have to focus on long-term solutions that will last beyond our presence. If you were to leave right now, what part of your work would last beyond your presence?
Giving “free handouts” has unfortunately become the rule rather than the exception. This has left many communities and lives worse off than before. Free has huge costs.
How about you, where have you seen good intentions fall short?
Dustin Patrick served as the Field Director for 1MISSION in Northern Mexico. After three years, he handed off all operations to the local team he recruited and trained. He now lives in Phoenix and leads all the creative endeavors for the same organization. He blogs about development work and more at GoodMud.wordpress.com.