Thinking beyond the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality
I walked into Mary’s home and the first thing I saw were shoes drying in the sun. There had been a lot of rain in Kenya over the past few days, so at first it didn’t faze me. But then I took a closer look.
My first thought was, Wow. A company I support and I get to see it in action. Then I remembered all I had learned about charity, aid, and empowerment over the last year and realized my initial thought was wrong.
Just one week before, I was sitting outside of Kaihura Primary School in Uganda.
“Which building is newer?” Kenneth, our community guide, asked.
We all responded that the building on the left was newer. It appeared to be built better, had a straight roof and clean lines, while the building to the right seemed to be falling down.
“The building on the right is newer,” Kenneth said, to our surprise. “The difference is, we built the building on the left as a community. We were empowered to do it and are proud of it. The building on the right was built by a missions team in a week, who came in and thought they knew how to do everything.”
I’ve seen a lot through my time spent with the Daraja Children’s Choir, a sister organization to the holistic community development organization The 410 Bridge. A man being beaten by the side of the road, the only version of justice he would ever see, because he stole something. A group of children getting dirty water out of a puddle because it is their only option. A three-year-old girl named Emma carrying water in her jerrycan back to her house. Tiny shacks with dirt floors that house five people.
Something needs to change and it’s how we do charity.
The conversation when it comes to poverty is, and always has been, one full of “us” versus “them” terms. We have what they need. I am the solution to their problem. I am rich. They are poor.
When these terms are used in the discussion, it creates a divide where we assume we (the “civilized” West) have the answer to all of the problems. We take missions trips to “help” when we, in fact, may be causing more of a problem.
I can picture how building the newer school building went. “Wow. Isn’t it so cool how this community needs a new building and we can come in and give them a building.” “Of course we can build something, it doesn’t matter that we aren’t trained or know nothing about the climate. They need it so we will build it.”
As a western culture, we love to enforce our ideals on other nations. Haiti, for example, is a beautiful country, which happens to be incredibly poor.
Haiti became flooded with U.S. aid after the earthquake when they needed the help. However, we overloaded their market and just kept giving instead of helping them get back on their feet. According to an article on “Feeding Dependency” in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the influx of donations caused locally grown produce prices to drop drastically due to the increase of free food options. This caused many Haitian people to become dependent on the aid and forced many local businesses to shut down.
Another example of dependency is when Toms brings shoes into areas where they “cannot afford to buy shoes.” The interesting thing about Mary’s home is that the Toms were scattered among many other pairs of shoes. Mary and her family were clearly able to afford shoes, yet they were still given the free shoes.
We feel good about purchasing Toms because we feel we are helping others while satisfying our desire for a new pair of shoes. However, the negative impact on a community is undeniable. When any market is flooded with a product, like Toms, it harms those in the community who are attempting to make and sell that same product. When Toms hands out free shoes, flooding the shoe market in that community, the people will be less likely to buy shoes from the local shoemaker. The shoemaker will then go out of business, maybe even move to a different community. As soon as Toms leaves or the shoes wear out, the community is left with a big hole. There is nowhere to get shoes and no one that knows how to make them.
Aid is, and should be, a temporary solution during a major crisis. The problem is, we have turned aid into a permanent solution; therefore, causing the problem we were so desperately attempting to solve to become even worse than it was to begin with.
When we come in and give handouts, we are not only undermining the local economy, we are creating a dependence that should not exist.
Empowerment. It’s an idea that has been ingrained in my head over the last year and one that I saw come to fruition while in Africa. When the people are empowered, when they believe they can do it on their own, true change occurs. When they believe that our “help” is unnecessary, when they are able to create their own businesses, build their own buildings, or run their own lives, the community begins to change. In turn, the country will change and, potentially, the world will follow.
So the next time you do missions, donate to charity, or help in some sort of relief effort, ask yourself, “Is what I am about to participate in going to empower people or am I just contributing to free handouts and dependency?”
“We will likely have to rebuild it in a few years,” Kenneth said. “It won’t last.”
— Alle Alexy, Opinion Editor