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Posts Tagged: Charity

Activism in an Age of Social Media

Oct. 14, 2014By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

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HT: Andrew Wilson

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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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Thoughts and Lessons on Kony 2012, Social Media and Western Charity

Mar. 9, 2012By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

I wish TLI could create so much dialogue with one 30-minute video.  In 5 days Invisible Children has raised the profile of Joseph Kony, the man now famous for turning children into soldiers, with a video that has 55 million views.  The video's aim is to bring Joseph Kony to justice by raising his profile amongst people, especially younger ones tied into social media.

It Worked

I suppose that if the goal of Invisible Children in this film was to raise awareness in the US about this evil man, then mission accomplished.  Last night on local news channels in MN, the video was the lead story.  Popular radio commentators talked about it today. While I wonder if everyone has even watched all 30 minutes, it seems most people at least know the gist. 

What Christians Can Learn

This is one example of how quickly new can spread through social media, and Christians would do well to take note.  There are many worthwhile causes in the world that deserve help from people with great talent creating short films.  Christians are known for being behind the times when it comes to anything artistic.  Organizations that do invest in websites, good graphic design, branding and video production have a much easier time explaining their mission and inviting people to partner with them. Just think of Desiring God, Resurgence and others.  

But What about the Finances

Of course, anything that gets this big is going to receive some criticism, and we would be wise to take note.  The Atlantic Wire posted a tongue in cheek article about the finances.  Yesterday's post by Jeff Atherstone also highlighted the problem.  There seems to be some strange things going on with Invisible Children’s 990 (that's the tax form all non-profits file every year).  While reports vary, the group's financial statement indicates that 32% of the money Invisible Children received last year actually went toward direct services (money to Uganda).  The rest was spent on the production of film, travel costs and staff salaries.   Charity Navigator gives them 3 out of 4 stars.  

The rub of course is whether you believe in what Invisible Children is selling.  If you want to give to a non-profit who sees itself as raising awareness in the US by making t-shirts, bracelets and movies, then this is your organization.  If you want to see your money going directly to children in Uganda, you should probably go somewhere else.

What Christians Can Learn

Thank God for the Evangelical Counsel of Financial Accountability.  Started by Billy Graham as a way of bringing financial accountability to Christian organizations, the ECFA logo on an organizations website is a sign that you can trust where your money is going.  To be part of the ECFA you must have your books checked by an independent accounting firm yearly and adhere to the practices set forth by them.  Not only that, but at any time the ECFA can audit their members books to ensure people are following the rules.  The ECFA also has a lot of free resources, including compensation data to help churches and non-profits determine salaries for their employees.  If you are supporting an organization that is not part of the ECFA, call and ask them why!

Another take away is that we must be careful to clearly explain where the money goes, and it should not just be on our tax returns.  For example, TLI's books are open.  We can tell you the salaries of our employees, the cost of training pastors and the administrative fee (10%) that we take for all of our activities.  

But What about the Truthfulness of the Video

Here is where some criticism is justified.  Let me again say - Kony is an evil man.  There are many men like him in the world.  He does need to be dealt with.  But let's look at some facts:

  • A 2011 story accused Invisible Children of exaggerating the scope of LRA (Lord Resistance Army) abductions and murders and the use of children soldiers.  That does not mean what Kony has done is not evil.  It just means that Invisible Children expands the facts.
  • Joseph Kony has not been in Uganda in six years.  Not only that, we are not even sure he is alive!  This of course is a huge problem. Maybe the makers of the film are just unaware.
  • The LRA's numbers are now in the 100's and most of their crimes were 15-20 years ago.  That of course does not lessen what they have done.  The video is just 15 years late.
  • The Ugandan security forces are not exactly the kind of group you want to get behind!  As a matter of fact, they have been accused of similar crimes against humanity.

What Christians Can Learn

I have heard wonderful and glowing testimonies from short-term trips of how 1000's of people have come to Christ because of the trip that was taken.  I have read wonderful and glowing reports of how villages have been saved, sickness has been thwarted and churches have had their physical needs met, all from a group of 10 people who stayed somewhere for 10 days.

We are prone to exaggerate or imagine that our service has created bigger results than we think.

This is a problem.  It is so easy to exaggerate numbers.  I have caught myself doing it, almost as if it were natural.  Let's all try not to exaggerate how much we do and even relay the truth to supporters when things do not go as planned.  This leads to a great deal of transparency.

Western Charity - Toxic or Helpful?

I do not doubt the intentions of the filmmakers or those who are reposting this video all over Facebook. However, when the dust settles, what actually is going to be accomplished?  I offer some guidance here.

First, I would encourage you to read Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts.  These two books might open your eyes to the complexity of giving to charity and the often harmful things we as Western Christians cause through our generousity.  $1 trillion dollars in aid has been given to Africa in the last 50 years and they are worse off because of it!  It's good to think through why this is.  I am so thankful that people in the United States desire to help people in desperate need.  We just need to be more careful!

Second, read what Ugandans have to say.  Read the thoughts of a principal of a Christian University.  Read what a survivor of the LRA's attacks, whose life has been transformed by Christ says about this video.  Read what some Ugandans are saying.

Third, think about supporting gospel centered organizations that are restoring the broken lives of those who have been oppressed by the LRA.  Support ARCC, who is the only school I know of that has a degree in Child Development as well as an emphasis on disability ministry.  If you know anything about Africa, you know that this type of education is important.

Lastly, don't just repost a cool video until you know the facts.  Helping is just not that simple.

 

 

  

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Economics 101 – Donating Clothing

Apr. 7, 2011By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

If you ever drive through Westlands just outside of downtown Nairobi you will notice hundreds of street vendors selling clothing.  As I road along in the car with my friend who serves with Church Army Africa in Kenya, I asked him where the clothes came from.  His response was shocking.

A number of years ago Kenya had a strong clothing/fabric line that employed a significant amount of Kenyans.  However, the West began donating clothes in droves, flooding the market.  Hundreds of Kenyans lost their jobs as clothes were given out for free.  What was the cause of employment?  In this case, charity.  

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