Back in August 2013, we were thrilled to be able to participate in Peace Corps’ Third Goal Summit in D.C. with the other winners of the Blog It Home contest. We gained a renewed motivation to use our blog for PC’s Third Goal: to promote a better understanding back home of this new country and culture we’re experiencing.
The Summit also sparked a whole lot of great ideas for Third Goal blogging and allowed us to collaborate with the other blog winners fromThailand,Ethiopia, andMexico as well as the Office of Third Goal.
We were learning so much from each other, we decided it would be worthwhile to put all our thoughts together and create a practical resource for Volunteers who want to use their blogs for the Third Goal.
This guide, created by volunteers, for volunteers, has already helped us become better bloggers and better Third Goal ambassadors. It is meant to be an ongoing and collaborative effort, so additional suggestions and contributions are encouraged. We hope Volunteers around the world will find it useful.
Even bloggers outside of Peace Corps will find this guide useful for sharing about cross-cultural experiences, service or mission trips, and travel.
To access the guide, start with the links below. You can also find the pages in our tabs above, under Peace Corps Info.
> Includes: An extensive list of ideas for Third Goal-related blog posts, with examples from recent PCV blogs, so you can keep your content fresh and interesting
Again, we’d love to include tips, ideas, and examples from other Volunteer bloggers around the world, so if that’s you, don’t hesitate to provide suggestions using the comment form at the bottom of each of those resource pages.
(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:
Imagine this scene: It’s two months following the catastrophe, in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. A small team of Americans are working eight hour days in the hot sun, clearing rubble from a local school two months after the earthquake. Meanwhile, Haitian neighbors sit idly by.
What does this bring to mind? Why do you think the Haitian people are not chipping in to help? Often when people see this, they assume that the people are lazy, however, there is likely much more going on than meets the eye. What about the Americans? At first glance, it would seem that they are doing a great service for the community, but again- it’s not that simple. The key question here is: are Haitian people being empowered in this situation?
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself recommends that we “respond when needs of an affected population are unmet by local people or organizations due to their inability or unwillingness to help” (pg. 112). In other words: Never do for others what they can do themselves. Never bring in outside help when it can be done locally. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking we tend to err on the wrong side of this important tenet.
After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the state of emergency was clear and disaster response professionals from the outside were absolutely necessary to attend to all the wounded. When the immediate danger passed and it came to clearing debris, however, the Haitians were perfectly capable of helping themselves. When North Americans do work “for” Haitians, it is a form of paternalism, undermining the Haitian’s ability to steward their own time and talents. It perpetuates a feeling of helplessness and inferiority in the community members. With the exception of those people who were still in a state of shock or mourning, the Haitian people were- and are- perfectly capable and willing to move debris. Often when North Americans- or others seen as “superiors”- are involved in a project, it is culturally inappropriate to challenge their authority. So even if local folks know there will be issues with our implementation of solutions, they may not feel comfortable bringing it up. Helping where we’re not needed also promotes dependency on Westerners.
I have witnessed a sharp contrast between volunteer sites in developing countries. In one site, groups of Americans often came through the community to tour the organization’s work and to volunteer with projects. When asked to share their bottle of water, snacks, toys, etc. by the children of the community, the Americans felt guilty and would sometimes leave their possessions with the child who asked it of them. Little did the Americans realize that when they left the community and other groups came to visit, the children developed a habit of begging because Americans were now seen as the source of free hand-outs. In another volunteer site with a different organization, this phenomenon of begging did not exist. True, in this second site, the community had seen fewer American visitors to begin with, but more importantly, the Americans there did not give hand-outs. If someone in the community had a need, both the community members and the American volunteers knew to approach the local leaders for assistance. Trusted community leaders were empowered to share the organization’s resources with their people in the manner, time, and amount that their own locally-earned wisdom guided them. In the first situation, the Americans were well-intentioned but their gifts did more to provide personal relief from guilt than to ensure long-term change or to empower the local people. In the second situation, Americans still assisted the community with some needed volunteer services as well as funding from abroad, but the local community and its leaders were empowered to manage their resources. If an American volunteer did want to give a donation to a particular child or community member, they approached the local community leader to discuss the situation, offered the donation to the organization through that leader, and then the local leader presented the donation to the person in need. This protocol helped to reinforce empowerment of local leadership and to avoid Americans being seen as the “saviors” or the Santa Clauses.
What examples have you seen of appropriate/inappropriate or successful/unsuccessful assistance to communities? How have you seen communities be empowered or unintentionally undermined?
My last post on this topic focused on the North American tendency to define poverty and the alleviation of poverty in materialistic terms when, in actuality, poverty encompasses much more. From a faith perspective, poverty is not being able to be all that God has intended us to be- glorifying Him through right relationship with God, ourselves, others, and creation. Having enough material things is just a small part of that equation.
Am I saying that giving material donations is bad? It is only appropriate in certain situations, and too often we North Americans over-emphasize materialism in trying to relieve poverty. In some cases, building someone a house, serving someone free food, or gifting money can do more (unintended) harm in the long run. Because poverty alleviation is not just about having enough, doing the “right thing” at the wrong time will negatively affect those core relationships the poor have with themselves, God, others, and creation. Are the poor better connected to their community, better stewards of their resources, or feeling capable and empowered if they have to stand by and watch Americans build them a house? To better understand what to do and when, the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself describes three phases of poverty alleviation that take the poor further down the path to “being the productive steward they were created to be. … One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make- by far- is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention” (pg. 105).
Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development
Relief: Emergency, temporary aid to reduce immediate suffering resulting from a natural or man-made crisis. Often materialistic and often over-diagnosed. Relief “stops the bleeding” for someone who cannot help themselves at the time. Rehabilitation: Restoration to pre-crisis state and minimizing future vulnerabilities. Immediately after the “bleeding stops,” outside help works with victims in their own recovery. Development: Process of ongoing change moving people closer to being in right relationship with themselves, others, God, and nature. Restoring individual identity and vocation, household, community institutions, and societal laws. Empowering local people. (pg. 104-5)
Who should be receiving relief and material aid? The book provides several guidelines for when it is appropriate to provide relief:
1) There are serious, negative consequences if you fail to provide immediate help. There is no time for the person or community to take action on their own behalf.
2) The person or community is in crisis through no fault of their own. (Our role is not to punish someone for their mistakes but to allow people to learn from them when necessary.)
3) The person or community has no way to help themselves (otherwise, their capacity to steward their own resources and abilities will be undermined by your help). (pg. 106)
People who require relief efforts are: “the severely disabled; some of the elderly; very young, orphaned children; the mentally ill homeless population; and victims of a natural disaster.” For everyone else for whom the “bleeding has stopped, and they are not destitute… rehabilitation or development- not relief- is the appropriate way of helping such people” (pg. 109).
I remember when we were preparing for our Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic- my first ever intentional trip to a developing country- and one of the college leaders of our church said, “You know, we’re not going on this trip to build the Dominicans new garages so they can keep more stuff in storage.” His point was that we’re not supposed to be making people from developing countries look more like those of us in the Western world. Of course, we’re not going to build a poor person a garage, I thought. But maybe we’ll build them a better house. Now, I’m not sure that’s the best idea either. I don’t think I realized how deeply the American culture of materialism affected my views about poverty.
According to the book When Helping Hurts, having a materialistic view of poverty leads us to come up with materialistic solutions. They asked people “What is Poverty?,” and found that those who are poor have different answers than those who are not. “While poor people mention having a lack of material things,… poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.”(pg. 53). The distinction affects whether we are just treating symptoms or getting at the root causes and whether we are accurately diagnosing those root causes and prescribing the appropriate solutions.
Here’s an alternative definition of poverty: “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable,” according to Bryant Miller in Walking with the Poor, pg. 86. The poor describe their poverty in psychological and social terms, in relational terms, not merely materialistic. Poverty is not just about what we do or do not have. Here’s where faith is at the center of the picture again. The When Helping Hurts book suggests that to be all that God created us to be, we need well-functioning relationships with:
Broken or dysfunctional relationships in one or a combination of these categories constitutes poverty. Therefore, true poverty alleviation is holistic and will work at restoring relationships with God (spiritual intimacy), self (humility, self-esteem), others (community), and creation (stewardship).
There is also the sense that in some of these relationships, someone we consider “poor” is likely much richer than we are- in relation to God or to others, for example. Too often we North Americans tend to serve with a “God Complex.” I don’t like to think that I’m better than someone or that I know everything there is to know, but I am motivated to help the poor in part because I want to feel worthwhile, accomplished, significant- isn’t that trying to be like God? The God Complex is considered a “poverty of being,” or an unhealthy relationship to yourself. “One of the many problems in many poverty alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich- their god-complexes- and the poverty of being of the economically poor- their feelings of inferiority and shame” (pg. 65).
Instead of making sure poor people have more material things, true poverty alleviation will empower people to earn sufficient material things on their own. “The goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness… to see people restored to being what God created them to be: people who understand that they are created in the image of God with the gifts, abilities, and capacity to make decisions and to effect change in the world around them; and people who steward their lives, communities, resources, and relationships in order to bring glory to God” (pg. 78, 81). What this means in practical terms for poverty relief will be the topic of upcoming posts.
This quote by a Haitian woman summarizes, for Haiti, was is true in any situation where we are trying to serve people and improve their situation. How many times have we tried to “help” someone before we truly get to know them? Imagine trying to explain a problem to someone, only to have them jump in and tell you a solution that you know would never really work? Their intentions are good but they just don’t know you or the situation well enough. Imagine trying to describe your symptoms to a doctor, only to have them diagnose you with a simple ailment before going in depth into your complex medical history. By not understanding the full context, the doctor may gloss over critical symptoms in your past or other related illnesses that, when taken all together, would cause the doctor to prescribe a completely different remedy. I believe that in many cases, if we understood the context or the background of the people we want to help, we’d find ourselves helping in very different and more effective, responsible, positive (i.e. helpful) ways.
What do I mean by “context?” When we want to create a solution to a problem like alleviating poverty, we have to look at the root causes. The story commonly used to illustrate this point is this: Imagine you are standing by a river and all of the sudden you notice a baby comes floating down the river in front of you. Obviously, you should go in and try to save the baby from drowning. But then you notice another baby coming floating down the river, and another, and another. You realize that it is not enough to keep saving these babies from drowning, someone must go up the river and find out who or what is causing all the babies to be thrown into the river. (Side note: the students I worked with last year depicted this in a skit and deemed the cause to be the “Evil Baby Baron,” complete with an old-fashioned mobster mustache. Anyway…) It’s important to understand that there are many complex factors that cause poverty in order to start diagnosing solutions. To better understand the causes of poverty that pervade our world, I highly recommend Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (see chapters 7 and 8).
A peoples’ history, politics, and policies also make up their context and affect poverty in unique ways. I first saw this most fully during an immersion trip to Nicaragua (see video post here) with Witness for Peace and was then inspired to learn more about the background story in Haiti. I always thought history was kind of boring and to this day have trouble getting historical dates and names to stick in my mind. However, it became much more interesting once I discovered how the history of a country like Haiti explains much of why it is in such a sad state today and also helps inform ways to make improvements. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the state of Haiti today is because Haitians have just never managed to get their act together and that they’ve been tragically unlucky to be hit by a series of hurricanes and earthquakes. But if you search deeper, you’ll find much more. For example, Haitians actually defeated Napoleon’s troops to become the first independent, black republic in the world. Despite this great accomplishment, Haiti was consistently bullied by various countries of the Western world, including being forced to pay retribution to France for “lost property” (i.e. slaves) and, more recently, having a popularly elected president forced out of office by none other than the U.S. government. The lack of success in Haiti is not for lack of effort or capability. Western countries have throughout history interfered in Haitian affairs in countless, harmful ways. (More on this in another post.)
There is also the cultural context that must be understood. One of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken was Cross-Cultural Communication where we learned how we all hold unspoken cultural norms, or rules, that we are often unaware of but that help us interpret our interactions with others. Each culture has their own particular version of what is polite and what is rude, what behaviors communicate friendship, what is acceptable to do in certain circumstances and what is just not done. Some cultures require an elaborate series of greetings and questions before engaging in a discussion with someone. Not doing so would come off as disrespectful. In some cultures it is better to act agreeably and then not follow through than to tell another person directly that something can’t or shouldn’t be done. For them, “saving face” always takes priority. Other cultures have taboos about which hand you use to eat, whether you cover your mouth when you yawn, or whether you should open a gift in front of the person who gave it. When taking that Cross-Cultural course, I came to realize that when it comes to cultural differences, oftentimes you don’t know what you don’t know. All the more reason to educate yourself as much as possible. Before going into a community to help, it’s important to understand these cultural norms in order to work effectively with people and also not offend them! Additionally, cultural differences can mean that solutions to problems may need to be adapted- or may not transfer at all- from one culture to the next. One community may hold different values or practice customs that would prevent a program from being as successful as it might be somewhere else.
Failing to understand the context where you are serving can be not only disrespectful, but your service can end up causing more harm than good. For mission trips abroad, this means doing your research on the history, current events, political ideologies, and cultural customs you will be encountering. It means listening to the opinions and wisdom of local people and approaching the community with humility. Our Cross-Cultural Communication class described it as “inhaling more than you exhale.” Be mindful that you “don’t know what you don’t know” and you must do a lot of learning before you can do any teaching. While you may have a certain kind of expertise you bring to your service, you must also recognize that the people who belong to the community have their own expertise built on years and years of experience in that place. (Also remember that the same people will be there for years and years to come, and you may not, so they must be integral to your service if it’s to be sustainable.)
A reminder: Please provide feedback, questions, and suggestions for this post. Thanks!
When I was about eleven years old or perhaps younger, I stumbled upon the notion of privilege. I say stumbled because the thoughts that I pieced together at the time seemed to be coming from somewhere other than my own, simple childhood brain- though it was less like stumbling and more like I was deliberately being led down a particular path of thought. Sitting in my room, surrounded by toys, a dresser full of clothes, a house full of nice things, and a beautiful view out my second story window, I realized that all these things had been given to me without even having to ask. Soon, the image of an African girl came to my mind. She was my age and she didn’t have any of the things in my room. She had experienced a childhood altogether different than my own, where safety, health, and basic necessities were never certain because she was born into a different house on another land. I wondered what she thought of me, if she was angry with me. It wasn’t fair, I decided. But other than feel guilty and try to be more grateful, I didn’t know what to do about it.
In high school and college, my understanding of the injustices around the world grew as I learned about historical and current events. I can still remember watching a video about Ghana during a youth group “30 Hour Famine” when I learned that children were forced to kill their own families with axes. Horrific. The sickening image was a wake up call as to the enormity of ugliness, brokenness, and evil in the world. I was so thankful everyone had their eyes closed in prayer as my face had become a mess of hot tears and snot- it was one of the first times I felt so deeply that our world is not as it should be.
The introduction of the book, When Helping Hurts, says:
North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world. … We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth. But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something about it. There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on.
I don’t consider myself to be an emotional person but from time to time, I have had experiences similar to the “30 Hour Famine” where I’ve been deeply moved to mourn for what is wrong in our world. Recently I had a break-down after watching Defiance (Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 other Jews) because it reminded me how inherently messed up and distorted the human condition is, and how desperately we need God. I recall my own shortcomings- how I want to be a better person yet I keep criticizing my husband, I don’t express love and appreciation enough in my relationships, I defend myself instead of taking correction, I take the self-serving path much too often… On a personal level, we all fall short no matter how we try. Our relationships with others are broken as well, evidenced by everything from divorce rates to road rage. Our neighborhoods and cities suffer from crime, inadequate education systems, isolation of the elderly… Our nations are plagued by income inequality, political slander, irresponsible corporations, apathy, war… The lists go on and on. I don’t mean to sound so pessimistic, but I think it’s important to realize the depth of our problems- that we are in over our heads and we can’t get ourselves out. Why? Because then we realize how we desperately need God. He is quite literally our only hope.
I know we are not meant to be in a state of mourning all the time- that would be depressing and, in turn, debilitating. But I think it is far healthier to let the weight of the world hit you profoundly from time to time than to feign ignorance and live as if nothing is wrong. This means allowing yourself to see the ugliness in the world, paying attention to current events and being aware of historical injustices. Look people on the streets in the eye, literally and metaphorically, acknowledging their existence, acknowledging that all is not right. Don’t let yourself become desensitized. When I accompanied a group of college students to Arizona (see video blog here), they asked an immigration lawyer working in Operation Streamline how she copes when her clients are continuously treated so unjustly. Her response was that she doesn’t cope and doesn’t want to. She cries- in court- because she refuses to be desensitized or to go on as if nothing was wrong.
Caring about people and the situations they’re in is the first step. The next step, taking action, goes hand in hand. And when we do take action, we must also desire to act in a way that is not only effective but also avoids any harm.
That leads me to our topic for the series which is to follow. I want to address one more thing before I really get into the concepts of serving others without harming them (or yourself). As you can already tell, I’m coming at this from a faith-based perspective, as does the book “When Helping Hurts.” Faith doesn’t just fit into the picture, it is central to it. More on that next.