Upside Down Dependency

Humanitarians often talk about the issue of dependency and how to avoid creating it. The whole: teach a person to fish scenario.

What if the conversation is backward?

What if the person at risk of developing the dependency is the humanitarian?

Humanitarians need the local person to be needy. We need a job, we need to feel useful, we need to feel value, we need to produce. We need gripping photos for fundraising attempts. On a more heart level, we need to feel powerful, in charge, and heroic.

The needier the local person and the longer they remain in that state, the more secure we are in our position.

The effective aid worker must be willing and able to clearly evaluate their impact and step away when they are no longer necessary. Isn’t that the whole point? If not, it should be.

Becoming no longer necessary needs to be one of our primary goals. If it isn’t, the program or project being implemented needs to be reevaluated and adjusted accordingly.

A true effort to avoid creating dependency is to make sure that effort goes both ways.

A successful aid program will mean those who implement it will one day become superfluous. This requires great humility and imagination, especially for the Westerner.

Me, no longer needed?! Me, step aside for a local to take over?!

Yes.

If that isn’t the goal, something is wrong. The aid worker has become dependent.

Teach the community to fish and what does the teacher do once the students have learned? Many either keep on staying or simply never, truly, teach the community to fish without the foreigner providing worms, instructions, the market in which to sell the fish, or motivation.

It is still the outsider, bringing in outside information that is not indigenous. It is not the outsider looking at what the local community is already doing and coming alongside to improve and expand it.

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In an incredible On Being podcast interview with Anand Giridharadas, he says, “It’s language like the “win-win,” which sounds great, but in some deep way is actually about rich people saying, the only acceptable forms of social change are the forms of social change that also kick something back upstairs — language like “doing well by doing good,” which, again, is like, “The only conditions under which I’m willing to do good is under which I would also do well.”

Maybe that doing well is economic, maybe it is emotional. Still, the ego of the humanitarian is dependent on the need of the local.

Ouch.

Sometimes I wonder if the people inside the projects established by Western aid agencies and faith-based organizations talk about how dependent that machinery is on them? I wonder if they say something like, “Take a fish from a Westerner and he’ll stick around for a day. Let him teach you to fish and he’ll stick around for a lifetime. (while eating a lot more fish than you will ever catch).”

The aid machine needs humanitarian crises. It needs war and refugees and massive camps and epidemics. The more dire the situation, the more money pours in and the longer people have job security. The more dangerous the situation, the higher the hazard pay.

That is on a large scale. But what about in your own work?

Is your job security dependent on perpetuating a certain level of need?

Is your identity dependent on feeling useful?

Is your sense of value dependent on maintaining a status quo of you being provider, instructor, leader, instigator?

Is your purpose dependent on another’s weakness?

Is your funding structure dependent on persistent need in the local community?

Or have you worked to develop a true, authentic sense of community and partnership? Have you come in as a humble servant, willingly placing yourself beneath local authority structures and adjusting to local systems?

Who is at risk of dependency in your work?

Resources to help guide your evaluation:

When Helping Hurts

Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa

Toxic Charity

Subversive Jesus and all things things Craig Greenfield writes

13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about Stuff You Give Poor Kids (by yours truly)

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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: https://amzn.to/2P3BWiK Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter http://www.djiboutijones.com/contact/

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