Four Steps to Effective Charity | by Patrick Oetting

Effective Charity

When it comes to disaster relief, too often we fall prey to Bob Geldof’s “we just need to do something” attitude. But, is this a sustainable approach to charity and relief? Does it meet the need, or exacerbate it?

Last Friday CBS News released an article titled, “When Disaster Relief Brings Anything but Relief.” In it, Juanita Rilling, the Director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington D.C., brings forward many examples of the unintended consequences of our relief efforts that left me quite shocked. And you might guess, we here at PovertyCure aren’t exactly strangers to relief horror stories.

Please indulge me as I share a couple of poignant examples.

In 1998 a tremendous earthquake shook Honduras.  The seismic event left 11,000 dead and countless others without shelter, food or sanitary water. In the midst of this genuine crisis, a supply plane full of desperately needed survival goods was unable to land, and thus save lives, because donated winter coats had been left on the runway. Yes you read that correctly – winter coats… in Honduras!  Funny as that sounds, people were imperiled because well-meaning givers clogged an already weak infrastructure with garments no one in the entire country needed.

In 2012 a gunman killed 20 students and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. In what was surely intended as a kind-hearted response, people sent tens of thousands of teddy bears to Sandy Hook.  The outpouring prompted a school administrator to comment, “I think a lot of the stuff that came into the warehouse was more for the people that sent it, than it was for the people in Newtown.”

I’m reminded of Michael Fairbanks profound statement in the documentary film, Poverty, Inc., “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard, having a mind for the poor – that’s the challenge.”

When we see others in pain or in need, our natural reaction is to help in any way possible. And when that person or group is a neighbor, we are able to better discern the type of charity we need to dispense.  But, when we send relief from a far-away place, without local knowledge of what is needed, our aid can be detrimental to the community development that we intended.

You might be asking, “Are you saying we shouldn’t help those who are suffering from a natural disaster?”

I’m not – we absolutely should.  But the examples above show that charity is complicated.  With that in mind, I offer that there are four things we MUST do before we dispense aid to a community outside our own – whether in the U.S. or international.

First, we need to stop, take a deep breath and think about the situation. We may, after all, have no idea what is truly going on.  A little humility could avoid the useless expenditure of our scarce resources.  Such as, distributing winter coats to Honduras, used tea bags to Rwanda or old breast milk to Haiti – yes, all three of these are real examples.  Just reading them here, I’m confident that you see how silly unconsidered aid can be.  Still, as you read above, this silliness can turn serious in a heartbeat and cause actual harm to those who most need our help.

Second, we need to research charity and aid organizations before we pledge our time, money or encourage others to give. It is not enough that we send a text message donating $10 because a celebrity prompts us to during a concert.  It may be cool to blindly promote a new initiative on social media because it is popular. But is it effective? If we want to ensure our resources create the impact we intend, it is eminently important that we know how they are being used.

Third, we need to hold the organizations that we choose to support accountable. All too often individuals donate to initiatives and never follow-up. We get caught up in our daily routines or we move on to the newer, more urgent relief effort and then forget to check in with the organization we previously tasked with a complex objective. If, relief organizations know what their donors expect, and follow up on results, they will dispense our scarce resources in a more thoughtful manner.

Fourth (and most importantly), we need to get on our knees and pray. Actually, you don’t have to pray on your knees. I do. But, I’m tall. My broader point is that much too often we rely on our human insights and resources to take care of astoundingly complex problems. Poverty is a labyrinthine – far too big of a problem for human minds, no matter how gifted, to solve alone. Oftentimes, the most compassionate act we can do for those suffering is to ask divine intervention, forgiveness, mercy and relief. I can guarantee this act of surrender is much more effective than sending winter coats to Honduras.

Relief is absolutely needed. That’s why it is imperative that we take steps in advance, get to know who is doing effective, ethical and considered aid work before the next catastrophe strikes.  We are called to act and to do so with humility, thoughtfulness, accountability and God’s supernatural guidance and grace.   If we don’t, we will continue to waste our resources and quite possibly cause even more harm to those we most want to help. But, if we do, there’s no limit to the life-giving change we can bring to countless communities around the world.

Patrick Oetting

Patrick Oetting is the Strategy and Engagement Manager of PovertyCure, an Acton Institute Initiative.  

Poverty, Inc.: The Global Poverty Industry |By Russ Debenport

The room was packed, occupied by some of the most inspiring Christian leaders I’ve met from across the continent of Africa. I began my afternoon presentation in Ethiopia with a movie trailer for a new documentary, Poverty, Inc., that seeks to reveal some of the pitfalls of the global aid system.

At one point in the movie trailer, an entrepreneur in Haiti states, “No one wants to be a beggar for life.” The room immediately erupted in applause! I knew at that moment this documentary would be important in the dialogue of how we partner with the church for children in poverty.

  Poverty, Inc. is a projectinc by PovertyCure and Acton Institute, and was directed and produced by Michael Matheson Miller.

In early 2015, Compassion invited Miller and his colleagues Jonathan Moody, Managing Director of PovertyCure, and Simon Scionka, director of photography for Poverty, Inc., to provide an early screening of the movie and to engage Compassion in a conversation about what they’ve learned and what it means for Compassion.

The film provides a critique of the system of aid that began as a response to the global needs following World War II,  and     shows how those same financial solutions are often misapplied to a wide variety of holistic problems facing the evolving global economy.

 Poverty, Inc. asks the probing question, “Could I be part of the problem?”

The documentary cites the impact of food tariffs and subsidies between USA-based rice producers and Haiti that have undermined local food production and ruined aspects of the Haitian economy. Subsidized rice from the USA has become so cheap that it now dominates the diet and has supplanted other indigenous foods.

Other examples of aid that can do more harm than good include: mass clothing donations to Africa, one-for-one giving models that are not locally sourced, and solar power hardware donations.

Poverty, Inc. labels this system of aid “the global poverty industry,” and it distributed over $134 billion (USD) in official development assistance in 2013 alone.

The main players in this industry, according to the documentary, include the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. From these organizations, foreign aid flows directly between countries and is also routed through a complex web of grants to NGOs, consultants, and multi-national corporations.

So what’s the film’s answer to this powerful system that continues to promote solutions that seem to be keeping people in poverty instead of releasing them from it?

The solution it promotes is a local market-driven approach that honors the God-given potential in each of us to be agents of human flourishing for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

As I’ve heard my friends in Africa often say, “The future is trade, not aid.”

A key element of this approach is the importance of access to markets so people can work for themselves, earn a living for their family, and produce value. One of the documentary’s featured local business owners puts it this way, “The people here are not stupid. They are just disconnected from global trade.”

At the heart of the film’s solution to the global poverty industry is a historically Christian social principle called “subsidiarity.”

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that states social problems should be solved at the most immediate local levels possible without interference from centralized authority.

This belief undergirds many of the statements that Christians make about the role of the church in solving local problems as opposed to the role of the state.

As I watched Poverty, Inc. I continually asked myself two questions:

  1. How does Compassion measure up to these ideas?
  2. What can Compassion learn from this documentary?

First off, I have viewed this documentary multiple times and have engaged with other Acton Institute content. Every time I do, I’m really glad to be part of Compassion.

Compassion has practiced effective local child development approaches for a long time. Recent academic research like the study by Dr. Bruce Wydick from the University of San Francisco proves the impact of Compassion’s holistic child development programs.

Compassion’s effectiveness is based on a highly relational development model that connects people, instead of governments. It is focused on releasing the potential of children so they can contribute to local solutions, economies, and families.

And Compassion doesn’t receive a single dollar of government aid.

Secondly, after watching Poverty Inc. I’m reminded that we still have a lot to learn. The documentary reveals a system of aid that often undermines the very people it’s intended to help. At Compassion, we want to continually learn how to better impact children in poverty in partnership with local churches.

As the film states so well, “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard. Having a mind for the poor… that’s the challenge.”

Russ Debenport is the Director of Global Advocacy Strategy at Compassion International. This piece was originally written for the Compassion International Blog.