The UN’s Millenium Development Goals are widely acknowledged as an important pursuit for alleviating poverty on a world scale, and Christians have got behind this in a big way through Micah Challenge. But all of this involves a lot of outside investment. We can probably all agree that the goals are good and, if we think about it, we know that there’s more to life than just measurable progress. But what does it mean if a people’s fight with poverty is pretty much dependent on external help?
Many of us have begun promoting not only generosity but also ‘giving wisely’. But in chapter 3 of Vulnerable Mission, Jim Harries raises further questions. Even if we are adding knowledge to our generosity, money always comes with strings attached. Even if we aren’t overtly trying to control how our money is used, money can still be an extension of power and interest.
In this discussion about ‘helping without hurting’, Harries is not advocating for anyone to stop giving, but for a greater understanding of the hegemony of giving. Confronted with our own ignorance, we call for our giving to mean something, but we don’t recognise that our giving can mean more than we’d like it to mean. Harries writes, ‘We need to get away from the moral imperative to “give” at all costs.’
Is it possible that what is required might include giving less? And is it possible for Westerners to be something other than donors and benefactors?
Harries’ questions are especially pertinent to the place of missionaries and development workers.
The question of ‘giving’ continues, and even intensifies, when Westerners move outside the West. It’s a live issue for Tamie and I in Tanzania. Here, then, are some of the things we need to be asking ourselves.
Some say that the missionary with overseas backing can be a despised figure in communities of the Global South.
Q: Before you began your involvement as a donor or worker, how much did you know about how missionaries and mission activities are perceived by locals?
Because all Westerners in Africa are ‘giving to the poor’, warns Harries, their relationships tend to be built on money.
Q: Is it possible that our local friendships have been ‘bought?’
Q: What would it look like if not?
Because of money, ‘Westerners coming into poor communities are immediately in the position of being major power brokers.’
Q: How is all that stuff about humility/listening/sustainability/contextualisation — the stuff missionaries get taught — compatible with foreign backing?
Harries writes, ‘I personally… Have yet to find a Westerner who ministers amongst African people other than from the advantages they have arising either from their knowledge of European languages and/or access to resources from outside the continent.’
Q: Are you or your friends in a position to take a different approach?
Harries is calling for some Westerners — even just a handful — to walk a different path: as an overseas worker, confine your work to locally available resources. And if you feel convicted to share your wealth with those you live amongst, then do it anonymously, so as not to bind your reputation to money.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.