When Helping Actually Helps

Maybe you’ve heard about the book or read an article on the concept of “When Helping Hurts.” There’s no doubt this is a real phenomenon.  Basically, picture this:  A natural disaster happens such as the earthquake in Haiti a few years back and people start sending in donations.  USAID uses the money donated to buy millions of pounds of rice to send to Haiti.  People were starving so this seemed like a good idea. It obviously takes a while to rebuild so distributions centers were set up all over the island.  People can just wait in line and get a bag of rice for free to feed their family.  Obviously this is a blessing, so how does it “hurt?”  Well, in this particular case it put the rice farmers out of business.  Why would you buy a bag of rice in the market for a dollar when you can get a bag of rice for free at the USAID office?  So now the once independent business owner is going to be added to the food lines.  This happens in church ministry too.  American churches come, build a church, donate everything necessary to get it rolling, and the American missionary in the area preaches at the church for its first few years of existence.  So what did you get for all that time, money, and effort? A church that will probably be eternally dependent on American churchgoers generosity.  It’s hard to wean yourself off that American dollar.

So what’s the solution?  How do we prevent our helping from becoming devastating to the economy and from retarding the growth of the local church?  Some people’s solutions are to only support local businesses and only give money to indigenous missionaries.  They are not wrong.  These are the most helpful.  But honestly, I think if we cut off American giving and serving to the wide variety of ministries and organizations the funding might just dry up.  Let me give an example.  Hunting has brought the rhino within a few hundred animals of extinction.  So how do we have more rhinos today then we did 20 years ago? Hunting.  African governments made legal hunting very expensive.  They tagged the animal they were allowed to hunt (done having children, old, aggressive, etc) and now they have tons of money to help conserve the other rhinos and pay the locals to turn in illegal poaching.  Likewise, people can hate on SeaWorld but there is more Orca in the ocean today then when SeaWorld began because when people see these animals in real life they care about what happens to these animals in the wild.

I do think World Missions has a similar function (although I feel awkward writing that).  If people don’t see people hurting and feel like they could do something small to help, then they will just be “out of sight, out of mind” as they had been generations before.  Giving to foreign, Gospel-oriented missions is still heartbreakingly low in comparison to other giving efforts, so I don’t want to do anything that slows that giving down.  I want more people to engage in such missions.  So how to we help in a way that helps instead of hurts?  You can see that even on a small scale, to give someone a meal causes them to not buy from a local vendor for that night.  The same goes for shoes, clothes, etc.  But if someone is not going to eat that night, isn’t giving them food better? And if their parents just can’t afford shoes, isn’t it better that they have shoes?  So what are we to do?

Well, I have 4 ways to make sure your helping helps:

1) Work with On-the-Ground Ministries

People who work year-round in the country will have a better concept of what’s needed than people who just show up or an organization that just visits seasonally.  The on-the-ground ministries are connected with churches and other orgs that can only make the services they provide more effective.

2) Focus on Perpetuating Ministries

These will be ministries that have continued benefits long after you leave and can be shared with others that you never met.  For instance, a meal last only a few hours, and an article of clothing can only be used by one person at a time.  But education for instance lasts a lifetime and can be shared in a new classroom. The Gospel creates a new believer but then can turn that new believer into an evangelist.  Likewise what they learn in church can be used to disciple hundreds of other people in future years.  In a secular sense we call this “teaching a man to fish.” It’s one thing to give someone a shirt, and another to build them a textile mill.  Turn all ministry into textile mills.  Build-up Christian schools, indigenous-run churches, and the like.

3) Giving Should be Conditional

Love should be unconditional, but non-renewable resources like our time and money should be conditional to some degree.  Give a meal if it will help them get seeds to plant a garden.  Give clothes if it helps them get a new job. But we can give those items as part of a bigger plan, for instance: “these clothes were provided by such-and-such church down the road, they’d love for you to visit this Sunday.” Or, “this meal is a gift from such-and-such school in your neighborhood.  They have an open-house next Thursday to talk about the importance and affordability of your child’s education.”  Giving for a bigger purpose can help consolidate and clarify ministry endeavors.

4) Train Them to Do What You Do

Ultimately, if there’s a ministry that requires an American to be involved in perpetuity for it’s success; it is by definition a temporary ministry and not a permanent fixture of the community.  A huge emphasis of mission teams should be to teach the locals how to do what you do.  Don’t just build a house.  Teach the locals how to do it (honestly they’ll probably show you how to do it, so it’ll just be more fun together.)  Teach a local English teacher some tricks and tips on teaching English as a second language.  Equipping teachers, pastors, and other local servant leaders how to do some simple things you’ve been trained to do over years of ministry will allow your ministry to continue years after you’ve left.

Helping can help. Many mission trips just need to adjust their preparations and efforts just a few degrees to see infinite more fruit from their week of ministry.  So as someone that take people on trips regularly, keep going.  And just do your research and preparation to make sure your time is profitable and not a detriment.  God bless.

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