Thursday, October 13, 2016

When "when helping hurts" hurts

Who’s ready for a can of worms?

For the past year and a half, I’ve been surrounded by NGOs, charities, and mission organizations that have come to “save Africa” with Western solutions that are often unsustainable and not even appropriate solutions to the problem.  Yes, they arrive with good intentions, we all do, but many charities and volunteer organizations are incredibly inefficient and create a culture of dependency where locals either get stuck in the system or become too complacent to find work on their own and help themselves.  

I try to apply three rules when getting involved with charitable organizations:

1. Make sure the project/purpose is sustainable.  Are they going to run out of money in the middle of a project?  What happens when the brand new donated water tank gets pierced by a jealous neighboring village a week after it gets set up and no one bothers to report it (true story)?  If things break or are mismanaged after the volunteers leave or the organization pulls out, will they sit around being broken until the next charitable group comes along?  Have the locals been empowered enough to know how to report/solve/prevent issues like this?

2. Don’t do things locals can do for themselves.  Don’t build buildings, paint schools, teach kids, or hold babies; Africans are perfectly capable of doing these things themselves (the question is: are they willing to if Western groups will come along and do it for them for free?).  A lot of African-run charitable organizations need help with management & technology skills or resource networking.  Sometimes what locals really need isn’t actually what they’re asking for.  It’s not as Instagram-worthy as volunteering at an orphanage and it sometimes takes more time and yields less instantaneous warm-fuzzies for the volunteers & workers, much like contributing to my 401k.

3. Don’t give anything away for free.  Ask any white-skinned person that’s lived or traveled in Africa: all it takes is one mzungu giving out money or sweets to kids, and they assume all wazungu are there for the same purpose.  If we continually donate no strings attached money or supplies or volunteers to impoverished communities, what does that teach them about the value of their own work?  What does it teach them about us?  You don't give your kids allowance without them completing chores and keeping up grades, why is it okay to do that to other adults?  Yes, they're poor, but they're also smart, competent and strong human beings that can be held accountable and get shit done when they need to.

As you can probably guess, with these guidelines I’ve given myself, I inevitably turn my nose up at almost every NGO I run across here.  I’m not involved in any charities in Jinja, and I don’t even tithe at the church we attend.  I don’t volunteer anymore, and I sure as hell don’t hand out money or candy to kids that ask for it.  In fact, I tend to get a little nasty at them when the words “Give me…” escapes their mouths.  But in a culture where most communication between adults and children is comprised of yelling, I’m the one that walks away more shaken than the kids whenever this happens.

We joke that my version of “saving Africa” is paying the local boda drivers in our village a really good price to zip me around whenever I need to go to town.  Or by over-tipping the underpaid, lethargic, extremely unenthusiastic local waiters and waitresses.  Or by testing out the, count 'em, four different types of boxed cake mix available in Jinja in our tiny toaster oven and handing out the results to the neighbors (if you ever want to see an African move fast, hand out cake. I thought Josh’s sister-in-law would trip over herself and accidentally stab one of her kids with the gigantic butcher knife she was clutching as she sprinted toward the tray in my outstretched hand).  

There have been other things I’ve done, but I can count on one hand the number of people who know about them, and it feels crass to publicly pat myself on the back.  Even by mentioning it here, I feel like I’m devaluing both my intention and their need.  So these things remain private, forever immortalized in the Catch-22 of this paragraph in this post on this blog...


God calls us to serve & help, but He didn’t give us conditions & guidelines.  When I encounter an African that sees my skin and starts trying to manipulate me for money, pulling out Bible verses left & right to back up why I should donate this and fund that, I hold my ground and think about casting pearls before swine.  But when I encounter all the NGO workers here that work tirelessly despite cultural setbacks and little to show for it, I feel a deep sense of guilt that I’m not doing more.  They’re better people than I am.  They’re better Christians than I am.

Although I have to waltz across dust, naked kids, and goat droppings every time I need to go use the pit latrine, I’m starting to realize how emotionally and spiritually selfish this period in my life is right now.  My money and my time are my pearls and I don’t just hand them out to whoever asks for them.  I’ve worked hard for them and they are some damn fine pearls.  The thing is, though, they’re not mine.  They never were mine and they never will be.  They’re all God’s.  Just because I can’t find a charity “worthy” enough for my money doesn’t mean I should withhold all service.  It’s like the parable of the guy who buried the coin in the ground to protect it until his master got back (do you see why I always get beat in Biblical knowledge by these verse-toting Africans? I’m literally sitting at a computer right now and can’t even be bothered to look up the parable online to get the details right).

Needless to say, it’s complicated.  I could go on and on and on and on and talk about this for hours.  I can see the light slowly leave people’s faces when they ask “How’s Africa?” and this uncontrollable stream of cynicism comes out of my mouth.  It’s a real struggle (but not as much of a struggle as actually living in poverty, am I right? Ha, Africa jokes, elbow jab) and I have zero idea how to even approach thinking about a solution, especially since my own mindset is a huge part of the problem.

That’s kind of it.  There’s no neat wrap-up or lesson to be learned or witty sign-off.  It’s just this huge looming cloud that follows me around all the time.  Like my 401k.


If you're interested in Hollis-approved non-profits, check these out:
Compassion International **I HIGHLY recommend this one; the kids lose their sponsorships if they don't keep their grades up in school or if they drop out completely. And the monthly contributions don't break the bank. Stay tuned next time to hear about when I visited my sponsor child in Rwanda and had to eat a huge steaming pile of my own cynicism.

There are lots of ideas floating around along this same vein like this one from Relevant Magazine.

And if you're in the mood for a little satire, Barbie Savior never fails to satiate. Make sure to follow them on Instagram.

Lastly, behold: SNL really nailed it here.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Hollis! Such an important topic and Im glad you brought it up.
    P.s. one of my Contribution goals for this year is "Donate to a Hollis-approved charity" no joke, ha, so thanks for the list!