(A continuation in a series from When Helping Hurts. Click on the “When Helping Hurts” link under Categories in the side bar to see related posts.)
Too often our attitude in service “initiates the very dynamic that we need to avoid, a dynamic that confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them” (pg. 126). I would say that our first thought and most common question when we are going into a community to help is: ‘What are the greatest needs?’ While this question makes a lot of sense, in a way it is essentially asking those we are hoping to serve: ‘What is wrong with you?’ What if we turned that question around and asked ‘What is right with you?’ instead? I’ve grown to appreciate this approach, which is demonstrated by community development experts who practice Asset Based Community Developed (ABCD).
Especially for those of us who profess that every human being is made in God’s image and is blessed with their own gifts and talents, ABCD reaffirms the dignity of the materially poor. It “recognizes that poverty is rooted in the brokenness of the foundational relationships and [can be overcome by] restoring both low-income people and ourselves to living in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation” (pg. 127). Notice how the questions asked by Asset-Based Community Development could make someone feel more confident, respected, and hopeful:
- What gifts do you have?
- What assets and resources exist in the community?
- What has the community overcome in the past?
- How could you use your assets to address the needs and problems in your community?
- Identify and mobilize the capabilities, skills, and resources of the individual or community. See poor people and communities as full of possibilities, given to them by God.
- As much as possible, look for resources and solutions to come from within the individual or community, not from the outside.
- Seek to build and rebuild relationships among local individuals, associations, churches, businesses, schools, government, etc. God intended for the various individuals and institutions in communities to be interconnected and complementary.
- Only bring in outside resources when local resources are insufficient to solve pressing needs. Be careful about bringing in resources that are too much or too early. Do this in a manner that does not undermine local capacity or initiative. (pg. 128)
The book offers a good number of important guidelines for serving others effectively and respectfully. Among them, this one complements the philosophy of ABCD and is often overlooked: Those we are serving should be involved in the “assessment, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the assistance program” (pg. 111). In some cases, this may seem impossible, but in many situations it can make the key difference between success and failure, empowerment and paternalism, long-term community buy-in and lack of interest. Treating people as the responsible stewards that we want them to be and acknowledging that everyone can bring their own gifts to the table are important habits to practice in serving others.
I’ve been doing some grant writing for Haiti Foundation of Hope in my spare time and I think their “CHE” program (pronounced “chay”) provides a great example of empowerment. CHE stands for Community Health Evangelism and is a world-wide model for community-initiated development. Haiti Foundation of Hope originally trained 30 Haitian volunteers to work in community health, the most common use of CHE, and they are now about to start a CHE Microfinance training program. The following explanation comes from the Global CHE Network.
CHE starts with a two- or three-person training team—dedicated Christians who speak the language of the community and live close enough to visit frequently. As they start out in the community, they raise awareness and facilitate a process by which the community itself identifies solutions to their challenges and begins to work together in an organized way. The trainers assure that community leaders understand CHE as a way they can address their physical, social and spiritual needs themselves, not a program that offers them money. The key to CHE is the community’s willingness to take responsibility for addressing its own problems. Through a series of open meetings, the community decides whether or not to do CHE as a community. The community then selects people to serve as their local leadership committee, which is prepared for its work by the training team. The leadership committee selects other community members to be trained as volunteer CHEs (chays)—community health educators/evangelists. The work of these dedicated volunteers is crucial to achieving results.
In 2009, the village committees in Haiti decided on three major health issues to focus on: childhood diarrhea, maternal health and child nutrition. Through frequent trainings, CHEs are equipped to implement health-improving steps in their own homes, and they learn how to pass along what they are learning in home visits with other families. During the first year in Haiti, the community health volunteers were trained on water, sanitation and hygiene, and went house to house teaching families how to keep water clean and use simple methods for hand washing. They also coordinated the construction of several latrines in each of the three villages where they work. Thankfully, they were well prepared to respond to the cholera outbreak in 2010. Additionally, the community health workers have received training on maternal health and now visit every pregnant woman in each village to monitor their health, teach about danger signs to watch for during and after pregnancy, and coordinate emergency transportation for women in labor. (Learn more at the HFH website.)
Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts: Intro: Caring, Intro: God and Poverty, Context Is Critical, Hung Up On Material, What To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1), How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)