by Dan Haseltine
I have had a long-standing recurring dream. I am in a small room with a single lamp positioned to shine down on a drafting table. There is a man furiously scribbling and drawing while I look over his shoulder and suggest silly phrases in a particular rhyme scheme. We are collaborating on a new Dr. Seuss book called, “Oh, the Assumptions You’ll Make!”
I think this dream is a hazard of the work that I currently do, having taken a hiatus from the touring musician life, to work in the non-profit sector. Some could argue the artist’s role in the music industry is also a non-profit endeavor, and so my leap from one career path to the other was not so dramatic. But I digress. I am easily blindsided by people’s assumptions about the poor, the sick and the foreign.
It certainly is not just a phenomenon of the non-profit kingdom. People make all kinds of assumptions about musicians, the least of them being that because a person has a guitar in their hands and can play a few songs that they are an expert in describing and solving societal issues. The irony of the musician on the stage is that it took thousands of hours in isolation, shrugging off the frivolity of social settings in order to master the craft so as to be comfortable enough to perform. That kind of commitment to playing comes at a cost. It is usually a lack of practiced social skills and development of leadership. And the first thing we do is give that musician a platform and a microphone and abdicate the power to teach, instruct, mobilize, mold and shape our culture to them. Even as the successful front man of a band, I wondered why it took, in most cases, possibly the least qualified person in the discussion, to wield enough gravitas for people to acknowledge and take action in the shadow of some social injustice or humanitarian breakdown.
A scientist with all the diplomas and credentials earned through decades long commitment to environmental change can wave the flag of Global Warming and society at large won’t bat an eye. However, that one actor who played that one character in that movie that won the Oscar makes a comment during her one minute acceptance speech, and the movement explodes and the letter writing begins, and the marches grow. We are a strange and wonderful people. Why do we assign that kind of influence to entertainers? And then, once we have given them the impossible role of knowing everything about everything, and then they don’t, we rip them from the stage and relish in their decent into obscurity. But again, I digress.
The thing I most want to write about is a recent conversation I had about Blood:Water. I was describing how we partner with small grassroots African organizations that were founded in African communities, and led by local African people. I was describing how we provide grants for water, sanitation, hygiene and HIV/AIDS programs designed and implemented with a local context by local experts. And that is when the confusion started. I could tell that the concept I was describing had hit a mental obstacle of some kind. I paused for a second to give time for any questions that needed to be asked. “Do Africans have organizations?” “I didn’t think Africans could build functioning businesses on their own.” Aren’t all businesses and organizations started and managed by people from the U.S.?” In that moment I understood the mental obstacle. If my friend operated out of the assumption that all Africans were ill-equipped, undernourished, mentally insufficient, helpless rural village dwellers needing a western hero to fix their problems, then there was a lot to unravel before she would be able to see the value of an organization that builds the strength of small local organizations in the business of solving their own problems. It made me wonder how many people living in the west shared my friend’s assumptions about Africans.
For the first time, I fully grasped why people with really good intentions and big hearts continue to support organizations and initiatives that make westerners the hero of the story. In the alternate universe where Africans are helpless and incapable, accepting the responsibility to be a western hero is an appropriate, if not noble form of action.
Who doesn’t like being the hero? Most of our western humanitarian aid programs are built to make donors and advocates the heroes of the story. It isn’t a bad thing to acknowledge generosity and a courageous act of selflessness. If an organization is designed to function based on making donors the hero, then wouldn’t that mean that the recipient must always function in the role of the helpless victim? Isn’t that why organizations share pictures of dirty children with distended bellies? They need to make the recipient as helpless, as tragic, as victimized and incapable as possible so that the hero can be, by contrast, as empowered and helpful as possible?
What if our assumptions of people in developing countries, fed by the messaging tactics of humanitarian organizations that keep to a narrative that poor people are incapable people, have influenced us to keep supporting initiatives and campaigns that hurt and discredit the very people we thought we were helping?
I have a hunch that Marvel’s next blockbuster hit won’t tell the story of out of work super heroes who can’t find jobs because the people in the city are empowered and capable of solving the challenges they face.
How do my assumptions inform the way I invest in making the world a better place? Could I get excited about a story that made someone else the hero when I did a generous and courageous act? Does your philanthropy support the investing in works that fuel capable people overcoming their challenges, or works that keep you firmly centered as the hero for helpless incapable people?
If we must work off of our assumptions, perhaps we can start by making the assumption that there truly are no helpless and incapable people in the world. How might that change the role we desire to play in the stories of people we desire to serve?
One of the go-to resources for learning about the pitfalls and best practices of charitable giving and missional effectiveness is the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
Poverty is much more than simply a lack of material resources, and it takes much more than donations and handouts to solve it. When Helping Hurts shows how some alleviation efforts, failing to consider the complexities of poverty, have actually (and unintentionally) done more harm than good.
But it looks ahead. It encourages us to see the dignity in everyone, to empower the materially poor, and to know that we are all uniquely needy—and that God in the gospel is reconciling all things to himself.
Focusing on both North American and Majority World contexts, When Helping Hurts provides proven strategies for effective poverty alleviation, catalyzing the idea that sustainable change comes not from the outside in, but from the inside out.
When Helping Hurts
by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert