Saturday, September 11, 2010


I really hate it when I say something, and the minute the words leave my tongue I wish I could stuff them back inside my throat. I also hate it when I realize that I've done something wrong, something that has hurt someone else. That kind of stuff can bother me off-and-on for years (and I do mean on occasion; I'm not obsessive or anything). Often when I remember a recent act of stupidity, I feel like bashing my head into a wall. I never do, of course. Blood stains are a bugger to get out.

Whenever those things happen, it's because I wasn't thinking, not because I was trying to hurt someone. Seriously, I'm not a very malicious person. Thoughtless at times, yes. Not always careful of my words, guilty. But not malicious. Regardless of intent, thoughtless actions can have painful, long-term consequences.

I was talking with my dad tonight (surprise, surprise) about large-scale consequences. If I say something stupid I can hurt someone or make myself look like an idiot, but those are rather small-scale consequences. In the realm of missions, the consequences for thoughtlessness can be much, much worse.

Many wealthy Christians feel a burden for the poor of the world. They want to alleviate poverty, ensure justice, banish hunger. They want to save the world. These are all good, noble feelings, and we should be working to help the poor in other countries. BUT, problems come when these feelings outweigh clear thinking, and we try to come up with our own solutions that don't necessarily fit with the cultures we're trying to reach.

We need to ask ourselves what is best for the people in each country, in their individual contexts. We can't put our own standards on other countries. Just recently I've gotten a bit annoyed by people trying to explain a country's poverty by saying how many dollars a day they live on. You've heard that before, right? "Most of the world lives on two dollars a day" or whatever the amount is. I don't doubt that the people they're talking about are poor, but telling me an amount in US dollars doesn't give me any idea of their situation.

In Thailand, I could buy a nutritious meal (rice, meat, and a variety of vegetables) that was double the size of my stomach for about seventy US cents. So if I actually took my leftovers home, I probably could eat off of $1.50 a day. $2.00 easy. And that was in Bangkok, an expensive big city! Of course, that's just food. There are lots of other questions we should ask. How much does housing cost? Is their housing comfortable (not by US standards, of course) and safe? Do they have access to medical supplies? Do they have a tribe or family group that would take care of them if they're in need? There's a ton of questions that need to be asked, not just how much money they earn. I know, I know, they simplify it for the masses. But can't we ask for more?

Ok, I'll trot back down the rabbit trail to the main path. Consequences.

When we lived in Florida, Dad worked in Haiti setting up a rug factory. He and some church people wanted to set up a business to provide jobs for Haitians. With jobs comes dignity. True, giving is important, but can a culture sustain itself on handouts? Anyway, he ran into all sorts of people, both business owners and missionaries. Unfortunately, he learned a lot about negative consequences from some of them.

He said that a lot of missionaries (Tony Campolo types) would give him all sorts of trouble because his company only paid their workers $5.50 a day. To us, that sounds like slave labor. In Haiti, it was the highest amount they could pay without ruining the workers' lives.

In Haiti, status is related to how much money you make, and your status dictates what kind of work you can and cannot do. Another example. As is culturally necessary in Haiti, one of Dad's friends had a Haitian maid that he paid $45 a month. She had a lot of kids at home and an unemployed husband, so the guy decided he would up her salary to $75 a month. He figured that she could get better food for the kids, more clothes, whatever. She was glad to take it, but in a week they began running into some problems. They would ask her to do something like washing the windows, and she would refuse to do it. They would have to be constantly on her to do chores that she used to do all the time. Although they asked her why, she never answered. After a long time of going back and forth, they had to let her go and get a maid that would actually work. She went to another of their friends, and they hoped that it was just something with them. Unfortunately, the same thing happened, and her list of un-doables was even bigger. She tried two different jobs, but she wanted more and more money for less and less work. Basically, she didn't want to be a maid anymore.

This is Haitian culture. Dad's friend unwittingly changed the maid's status so that she would never feel like she could work as a maid again. But what else could she do? Her skill-set had't really changed, but she wouldn't do what she could to make a living. She still had a big family but was job-less. What could she do?

So that's a small example. Here's a bigger, more horrendous one. There was a basket company in Haiti that employed around 10,000 people who worked out of their homes. They would get paid around fifty cents a basket, and the baskets would get sold to places like Pier 1 Imports. A church group came in, saying that it was exploitation to pay so little for the baskets, so they set up their own company and started paying $1.50 a basket.

Of course, the people wanted to get paid a dollar more, so they stopped working for the original company and went over to the church company. The basket industry has pretty stiff competition worldwide, so the original company quickly went out of business after failing to complete a couple contracts. The church company was getting on ok for a little while, but they didn't have near the connections that the first company did. Besides that, most places that buy baskets don't care if something is "Fair Trade" or not; they want the cheaper basket. Without a widely marketable product, the church company went out of business in three years, leaving more than 10,000 Haitians unemployed. There were no other jobs, the people had no other way of making money. They lost it all.

What scares me about these stories is that these people had good intentions. Dad's friend just wanted to help out his maid. The church company wanted to raise the standard of living for their workers. But good intentions don't get far. As Dad says, "The law of unintended consequences is alive and well."

Even if we mean well, we can do horrific damage to people by our thoughtlessness. Just because it sounds like a good idea doesn't always mean it is.

These stories inspire me to really try to find out the truth about things I support. Sure, I'll never have perfect knowledge, and in an imperfect world we will always mess things up. But surely I have the responsibility to try to be informed, to try to see all sides of an issue.

All I can do is try, but I guess that's a start.


  1. that's good. yeah, it's our responsibility to get as informed as we can. that's a good point. this post reminds me a lot of the book "When Helping Hurts". great book!

  2. Well, if I can ever get my hands on it, I'll read it.

  3. Hmm... great food for thought. It's amazing how when we think we think things through, we really don't. But that doesn't mean we can't. How are you planning to be more informed?

  4. At the moment, there's not much I need to be informed about. Most of the people I'm supporting are in the US, a culture I already know about, or in a long-established program.
    I think the informed part will come when I think about supporting a new ministry in a different culture. It certainly isn't easy, but part of it is checking out their spending habits (no more than ten percent should go for non-mission spending). Also, reading up on that culture and, if possible, talking to people who have lived there for a long time and know the people. Those are my thoughts, but I'd love to hear other ideas as well.

  5. Your post definitely challenged me, Laura! I've never lived in a non-Western country or anywhere so culturally different as Haiti. It makes me wonder what the consequence of my trip to Brazil in 2004 were. I wasn't thinking things through then, so I can only hope the leadership was!

  6. Your post reminded me of When Helping Hurts too - very good, challenging thoughts, Laura! When I came back from Honduras, there was a guy on the team who was really hard on the idea of short-term missions (he decided to give them up because he thinks they do more harm than good) i pointed out that people often have very good intentions - he agreed that they did, but that this doesn't change the harm that is done. So convicting! You are so right - We do need to think things through more holistically and in the context of the culture that we are working in!


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