Thursday, March 29, 2012

Equality of Resources or Equality of Responsibility?

A couple of years back, a book was written as a wake up to those doing short term missions called, "When Helping Hurts". The basic idea was that in many cases, our attempts to help others "less fortunate" than ourselves, often times leads to dependency and actually hurting those we originally intended good for.

More recently, Robert Lupton, in his book "Toxic Charity", says, "Doing for others what they can do for themselves is charity at its worse...We must come to deeply believe that every person, no matter how destitute or broken, has something worth to bring to the table."

The bottom line is that we are all created in the image of God and each one of us have a divine spark that allows us, to a large degree, to choose betterment or even development. True, not all of us are equal in terms of capacity or potential. I was born in a western, middle-class family with unlimited possibilities for life. Much different than a person my same age say born into a war-torn, famine ridden country in North Africa. Though not equal in opportunity, we are equal in responsibility of what we do with what we have been given...large or small.

When individuals or groups of the "haves" like myself, attempt to intervene with betterment ideas and programs into a group of the "have nots" like my counterpart in poverty in North Africa, we tend to do things for them such as give away programs or resource mobilization projects. Without realizing, we begin to do things for people that they could actually do for themselves thus robbing them of the dignity for self-determination and making them the objects and recipients of our pity thus reinforcing in our minds (and theirs) that we are superior and in some way they are defective. Lupton says, "When we do for others what they can do for themselves, we cripple them."

No doubt there are situations requiring immediate relief and mercy such as those things and events coming about due to acute happenings like earthquakes, tsunamis, war, famine, etc. However, I work for an international relief and development NGO and by far the largest problems we see and address are the chronic, long-term things such as poverty and hunger that really have no easy and quick fix.

A key then, that we can keep returning to, is the simple question: who is responsible for determining their course in life? No doubt there are many things that go into answering that question. It is simple yet complex in that there are many outside things that effect my choice as well as my counterpart's choice in another place, setting and set of circumstances. But when an individual or a community is given the chance and chooses to assume responsibility for their own development and destiny, we see a light of hope begin to emerge in even the darkest of circumstances. The move from self-pity and hopelessness to building or rebuilding a better life for themselves and their children to come.

As I close this post out today, I realize that it is easy to write about these things but not so easy to put them into practice. But one thing we should remember and Lupton makes it clear from his book is that, "...Both achiever and survivor share a common responsibility: to make the most of their unequal lots in life."


  1. Thoughtful insights Jeff thanks so much for sharing them. Tracy

  2. Development and dependency .. often times a fine line and a difficult distinction in the field, but no less important just because it is tricky to balance, let alone decipher in many circumstances. Dignity and responsibility are the best guidelines in virtually every circumstance it seems to me, with equal emphasis on the responsibility of the responder to make the best choices possible and do the least harm while trying in earnest to do the most good. A post well worth pondering and praying over ..