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Posts By: Brian Howell

Why I Won’t Be Filling a Shoebox this Christmas

Dec. 2, 2013By: Brian Howell

Christmas starts the annual season of Christians wrestling with materialism and inner-conflicts of shopping vs. worshipping.

At the same time, gift giving has its place. Remembering the gift of God through His son, and thinking of others through gifts under the tree is, for many, a deeply spiritual act. Many will be looking for ways to help their children, nephews, or kids in their churches to think of others and not simply what they’ll be getting.

Packing a Shoe Box

For this, Operation Christmas Child (OCC) seems ideal.

This project, a part of Samaritan’s Purse, encourages churches and schools to pack crayons and toys and toothbrushes, along with $7 for shipping, into a brightly colored shoebox for a boy or girl somewhere else in the world. We are given a tangible way to bless a child in another country, perhaps even starting a relationship through a letter and photo the giver is encouraged to put into the box.

Call me a Grinch, but I won’t be filling a box this year.

Why Helping in this Way Hurts

This is certainly not about whether Samaritans Purse is a good or bad organization. They do many good, long-term projects.  My point is that this kind of giving - like Tom's shoes, or food give-aways to deal with chronic hunger - is always a bad idea, no matter how it is done. Except in response to emergencies, to give this way suppresses local markets, creates feelings (if not the actuality) of dependency, and does nothing to address systemic problems nor empower local leadership.

The Tom’s Shoes give-away, used clothing distributions, and even some parts of the U.S. Food Program, have been collectively termed “bad-vocacy” or “bad advocacy.”  By bringing in resources from outside an economy, without supporting trade, industry and investment in the local context, no one is empowered, communities are not changed, and problems remain in place.

Of course, to say that a program doesn’t solve all the problems in the world doesn’t necessarily mean the program is bad.  Doesn’t OCC bless a child with a gift they wouldn’t have otherwise received? The child receiving the gift feels loved – their faces ‘light up’ when they receive their boxes - and you can teach a child in a wealthy country to be generous. What’s the problem with that?

First, consider the effect in the local context. The distribution of these gifts is guaranteed to be inequitable in a community (since each box is individually filled). This is guaranteed to create conflict via jealousy between those who receive the “best” goods (or any goods) and those who don't.  

Moreover, it leaves those selling these goods undercut by the freebies showing up.  It's easy to understand that handing out free rice grown in California will make it difficult for local farmers to sell their rice.  I can equally imagine that some of these poor parents who can't afford a toothbrush, doll or pencil for their children actually make their living by weaving among traffic or at a tiny market stall selling toothbrushes, dolls or pencils.

Second, imagine the feelings of the parents watching their children get these boxes.  I’ve heard, in anecdotes and promotional literature, about how the kids faces light up when they receive their box.  Of course the kids are happy. My kids would be happy too if the wealthy people in my local community (and there are people in my town who are MUCH wealthier than I am) gave them iPads and $100 tennis shoes; things they couldn’t (well, wouldn't) get from me. The joy on their faces would be indescribable. Sure, my children would feel loved, but not by me, their father. Instead it is the love of a wealthy benefactor somewhere else.

Finally, our children certainly learn a lesson through these give-away programs, but it’s the wrong one.  They learn that the problem of poverty is primarily a problem of “stuff.”  One person told me that by criticizing OCC, I was being “astonishingly cynical” about a program that does good by teaching our children to be generous.  She defended her view by saying:  “As a pastor I have found that the connections that are formed by doing things like this can be used to foster further participation in missions and outreach in all ages. For example, "Remember those kids you gave presents to? They also need...’”  But that’s just it. Through these kind of temporary give-aways, we’re teaching our children, and ourselves, that the real problems of poor countries is lack of resources and their ongoing, insatiable need.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The real problem of poverty is a problem of access and opportunity, not stuff.  Nobel Prize winning economist Amartra Sen called poverty the problem of lacking autonomy and freedom. Giving stuff to the poor each Christmas contributes to what Jayakumar Christian calls the "god complexes of the non-poor." Certainly, in some cases stuff is needed for opportunities and autonomy (shoes to go to school, for example), but while the hand-out is the fastest way to solve the problem, it’s a never-ending ‘solution’ that does nothing to expose the real problems.

We need to stop responding emotionally to these issues and consider policy and programs that do something. Why waste our money and time on OCC when there is real work that can be done?

A Way You Can Help This Christmas

I would love to see churches develop relationships with organizations that do development work in specific places where the church can develop connections with leaders in those places, and respond to the needs that will bring long-term change. (One cell phone for a farmer can do more to change a child's life than 100 boxes full of little toys.)  Organizations like World Vision and Heifer International provide the opportunity for you, and your children, to “buy” a goat or beehive or rabbit and “send” it to a local community. Local community groups use the donated money to buy the animal locally and decide who will receive it. And I love teaching my kids about giving when our family sponsoring bunny rabbits and bees through Heifer Int'l. They totally get it and we don't have to send cheap plastic toys halfway around the world.

Recent research has shown that child sponsorship is very effective at producing many positive, long-term results for poor children. Have your child help you choose a sponsoree from the photos that many well-run organizations will send.  Correspond with the child and bring the kids in your church into the process.

But can't we do all these? Do we need to stop doing Operation Christmas Child if we are also supporting these other things?

The Bible teaches us to be generous, and so we must be, but it also teaches up to be smart; and sending shoeboxes of little gifts is just not smart. I haven't even mentioned the carbon footprint necessary for shipping these things (sometimes back to the places in which they were made!), but climate change aside, if we could take the energy, enthusiasm and good will that goes into OCC and channel it into the other programs that Samaritan's Purse, and a hundred other organizations, do to make long-term change, we'd be doing a much better thing.

OCC works because of it's emotional appeal to us.  We imagine a little African child, opening his Christmas box, and finding the items we loving packed there. We imagine a connection as he has the Christmas our children have, and he feels loved and cared for in the name of Jesus.  In fact, his family does love and care for him. And after the box is opened he walks back to a life of hunger and lack of opportunity. His Christmas is not just like our child's middle-class American holiday, no matter what's in his box.

We need to release the emotional appeals of these Christmas appeals and focus on the work of the local NGOs trying to lobby their government to enforce land tenure rights for the local farmers, build accessible educational institutions, and reform legal systems, all the while sharing the hope that is in Christ. Now that's a gift worth giving.

Brian Howell is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College and the author of Short-Term Missions: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience. He blogs on occasion at The Soapbox

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