Saturday, November 12, 2016

Toxic Charity

After having read When Helping Hurts, I noticed that a book called Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton, was also mentioned frequently alongside the other. So I put it on my list. Of the two, I think When Helping Hurts is the one I would read if I had to choose one, but they go hand in glove. In addition, I would recommend Poverty.Inc, a documentary to round out the course. 

While acknowledging a good heart behind charity efforts, the book starts off with a counterintuitive statement, “The compassion industry is almost universally accepted as a virtuous and constructive enterprise… Yet those closest to the ground — on the receiving end of this outpouring of generosity — quietly admit that it may be hurting more than helping?” (p. 2-3) The obvious reason for this is the dependency it creates. “When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.” (p. 3) Boom. There it is, right there. Mic drop.

So when does well-meaning relief become toxic? Luton gives the example of Hurricane Katrina which struck New Orleans. Six years later, relief was still being offered. He says, “When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.” (p. 7)

So in order to prevent Toxic Charity, he gives the compassionate crowd an oath he wants them take:
  • Never do tor the poor what they have (or could have ) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to trends of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said — unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above, all, do no harm. (p. 8)

He tells a story of a typical compassionate endeavor. A struggling seminary in Cuba was hosting U.S. volunteers. Twenty youth and adults arrived to lay tile in a new dormitory addition. They had no experience and the shoddy work had to be ripped out and done by local contractors after they left. The kitchen staff worked overtime to provide good, American-style food. Faculty members had to arrange the myriad logistical concerns such as housing and transportation. The president of the seminary knew the $30,000 spent by the volunteers on the trip was a total waste and cost her precious resources. But to turn them down would have endangered the much smaller cash donations the volunteering church made regularly to her ministry. This heartbreaking story is repeated countless times all over the world. 

The author found himself guilty of toxic charity right at home. He had worked for years with a group delivering holiday food and presents. But he discovered the lack of men in the house was often a symptom of shame as they hid from the volunteers. An emotional price tag cost those he most wanted to help. 

Then he discovered a quote from Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher in his book, Money and Power:

It is important that giving be truly free. It must never degenerate into charity, in the pejorative sense. Almsgiving is Mammon’s perversion of giving. It affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before. (p. 34)

Wow. Charitable giving can degenerate into a perversion. A counterfeit of true charitable love. This is a huge charge being made. But I believe Lupton backs it up. 

His solution is to return to a mindset based on Micah 6: 8, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” We are to “act justly” and “love mercy.” Lupton elaborates, “Twinned together, these commands lead us to a holistic involvement. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships.” (p. 41) Therefore, we must make sure our charitable efforts do both. But how? He recommends doing your due diligence as any investor would. “And if you don’t have time to invest in foraging a trusting relationship, give your money to a ministry that does.” (p. 49)

Although he specifically works in domestic ministry, he discusses foreign aid as well. He describes the $1 trillion in charitable aid that has been given to Africa as “Dead Aid.” A Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo, describes it like this, “Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.” (p. 96)

Lupton discovered this was not the answer many charitable organizations were looking for. He told audiences, “When we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment….  Exasperated, I asked, ‘Why do we persist in giving away food when we know it fosters dependency?’ ‘Because it’s easier! the attractive lady blurted out.’” (p. 56) He goes on to sadly conclude, “A hunger-free zone may be possible, but developing the dependency-free zone is the real challenge.” (p. 101)

He lost friends and supporters when he began to ask people whom he partnered with to take the hard route. Unfortunately they wanted easy and they wanted something that would make them feel instantly good about themselves and the work they do. 

And there it is. 

All too often, charitable activity can mask a desire to feel like “a really good person.” Building two-way relationships and doing the hard work of balancing mercy with justice, while closely following the prompting of the Holy Spirit, is too messy and takes too much time. Better to give away free food and regale others with your stories of helping out the less fortunate. Ouch!

He urges churches to focus on a geographic area and work to build relationships with the people in that community. Have a vision of what the area can look like and develop attainable goals and a road map to get there over an extended period of time. Years, not “service project days”. Move from Relief, to Rehabilitation, to Development. He then offers some practical advice for getting started.

One family, who had moved to an urban neighbor for the specific purpose of helping the people asked him where to begin. He told them to do nothing for 6 months. Just watch. Try to see what the real needs are. Identify assets the community already has. Meet with leaders who are already in place. Then start with small achievable goals. Build relationships and live life daily with the people. Be part of the community and not an outsider swooping in to save them. Even then, it’s not enough. This is exactly what he did. He moved into a neighborhood, raised his family there, established relationships, only to hear his neighbor and close friend remark one day, “I hate church vans.” He knew the reference was to a van that had just gone by full of outside kids ready to embark on a service project. Even though this neighbor had, himself been a recipient, he hated that way he felt being on the receiving end. This shocked Lupton. He realized he needed to think long and hard about what our charitable acts are actually accomplishing. 

Don’t we all. 

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