by Richard Starcher
What is development? The question was raised in a letter from several missionary colleagues I had recruited for Leadership Education And Development (LEAD), a program I was starting.
What is development? The question was raised in a letter from several missionary colleagues I had recruited for Leadership Education And Development (LEAD), a program I was starting. Perhaps not the most original of names, it nonetheless captured the essence of what needed attention, namely the development of leaders for the African church. This is what my colleagues wrote:
When we read the nice looking brochure regarding LEAD, we were wondering if page one gives the right slant or perspective on our purpose…If we use the brochure we have with nationals, we are afraid that words like “development,” “equip” and “resources” will immediately trigger material benefits.
I understood what they were saying. In our shared years of experience in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC), “development” was an unpopular term. It was not that our missionaries had no compassion for the Congolese people or failed to sympathize with their economic struggles, but in our work, much ambiguity and confusion surrounds the term “development.”
Opposing understandings and emotions concerning the term resulted in tense moments and outright conflicts between the mission and our national church. My colleagues wanted to distance themselves from their experience of development in DRC. Although I understood where they were coming from, I no longer shared their sentiments.
This article is about transformation. It is about the transformation of my own thinking about development. More importantly, it is about development as transformation.
A STARTING POINT
“The beginning point is with the developer. This person must come to appreciate the insiders’ point of view” (Elliston 1989, 209). It is equally important that developers understand their own starting point, including the attitudes and assumptions concerning development. The reference point for much of my own thinking, and that of our mission’s Africa team, was our collective experience in DRC.
THE CONGOLESE CONTEXT
When I arrived in DRC in January 1987 President Mobutu had extraordinary power, and yet the country was getting poorer with each passing year. Corruption was rampant and what was left of the country’s infrastructure was steadily crumbling. The vast majority of the rural population survived by subsistence farming. Although a few produced small cash crops, the country’s inadequate infrastructure precluded ready and regular access to outside markets.
Our national church, which functioned in perpetual financial crisis, had well over six hundred local congregations, dozens of elementary and secondary schools, one hospital, two dozen health centers, several lower-level Bible schools and one Bible college.
The common person owned few manufactured goods. Nevertheless, in 1987 most villages boasted several bicycles; transistor radios were common; and most men could afford to buy their wives a new liputa (a brightly-colored cloth worn as a skirt) at Christmas. Most families struggled to find enough money to pay their children’s school fees and few boys (and even fewer girls) managed to complete secondary school. The quality of health care at regional dispensaries was lacking and barely within financial reach for most of the population. However, as is customary in rural Africa, people helped one another in times of need.
THE MISSIONARIES’ MINDSET
Our mission organization had been involved in social actions often described as development activities. In 1987 the mission provided the church with secondary school teachers, nurses, medical doctors and several development facilitators. However, the majority of missionaries interviewed for this article were not involved in development.
Nine of the ten missionaries interviewed saw the lack of a clear definition of development as a source of conflict, confusion or negativity. Three principal working definitions appeared operative among our missionaries, which one missionary described in terms of three “camps”:
One camp [believed], “Development is for the social engineers, not for the church or the mission to be involved in” …so they relegated development as being irrelevant to us as a mission.…Then there was another camp who saw development as something to satisfy the nationals (be)cause, “You know, they’re always asking for help.” And so, we do token things to address this great desire the nationals have for development. And then there’s a third camp who said, “Okay, if we’re going to do development, let’s do Christian development and really meet the grassroots needs of the people, where they live and the lifestyle things they have to deal with.”
From the missionaries’ perspective, the source of negative feelings was the apparent conflict with national church leaders concerning the basic philosophy of development. The missionaries described the development approaches favored by national church leaders as “institutional developments,” “big-time projects,” “outside funding” and “a lot of money and a lot of machinery.” The missionaries valued the use of local resources, sustainable projects, non-dependency-creating approaches and human development.
MY STARTING POINT
As a missionary, pastor and theological educator in the DRC in the late 1980s, I shared many of the perceptions common to our missionary family. Although I felt the human suffering around me, I found myself overwhelmed by the amount of need. What could I possibly do to improve these conditions? The need surpassed the means available in our mission organization. Intervention by foreign governments and large development groups had not improved the life of the common Congolese villager, so what could I do?
Agricultural development was for specialists and I considered myself largely uninvolved in this development. Big projects were impractical. When the nationals around me asked for help, I gave it. For the most part, however, I concentrated on teaching future leaders for the church.
THREE DEVELOPMENT THEORIES
My experience as a rookie missionary was not unique. It reflected a number of issues debated in literature on development. The next section of this article covers three leading development theories: modernization, aid and social transformation.
1. Development as modernization. Modernization theory attempts to explain what needs to take place in any society for development to happen. Because traditional societies evolve along lines similar to those of the West, the theory takes what transpired in the West and applies it to traditional societies. Further, it assumes the benign nature of external forces promoting change, overlooking any culpability of the West for the current problems in the Third World (George, 1986).
However, modernization theory is inadequate as a development paradigm for the majority world. It is culturally chauvinistic and uncritically imposes a Western model on non-Western societies. It fails to improve the economic welfare of the world’s poor and perpetuates the colonial pattern of exploitation. Additionally, it ignores the non-economic, human aspects of life and well-being.
2. Development as aid. The purpose behind development aid is to use material assistance given by a donor to “jump start” a recipient community’s economy, thereby enhancing development and reducing poverty. Development aid’s goal is not to stave off immediate starvation but to accelerate the rate of long-term economic development and poverty reduction.
However, most development theorists have rejected the belief that majority world economic development and poverty reduction are the only (or even the primary) motivations behind aid (Riddell, 1996). More importantly, this aid simply has not worked. Not only did “aid giving” from 1956 to 1996 fail to reduce the absolute number of people living in poverty, but from 1986 to 1996 the proportion of the world’s population living in poverty actually rose (Riddell, 1996). Rather than resulting in economic development, aid engenders dependency and burdens recipient countries with crushing debt. Further, it ignores the structural constraints of the global context and suffers from the same two endemic weaknesses as modernization theory. It tends toward chauvinism by imposing solutions from the outside and it remains materialistic by viewing development wholly in economic terms.
3. Development as social transformation. Hiebert believes the basis of transformation (or development) is not technology but the reordering of the vision, values and goals of the community: “When a community has a new vision of what its future can be, new technological solutions will be sought within local resources” (1989, 99). While the social transformation model is not uniquely Christian, it encourages Christians to become involved in development work (Smith, 1989). The transformational paradigm is not immune to the chauvinistic pitfalls plaguing the models discussed above. However, because it is holistic, relational and contextual, it lends itself readily to a specifically Christian model of transformation.
Christian holistic development recognizes the integration of the physical, the intellectual, the social and the spiritual. “Christian social transformation differs from secular relief and development in that it serves in an integrated, symbiotic relationship with other ministries of the church, including evangelism and church planting” (Elliston 1989, 173).
A task-oriented approach to development often breaks down from neglect of relationship. Relationship is central to the Christian faith. The eternal triune nature of God underscores the fundamental place of relationship in the created and uncreated orders. Evangelism, church planting, community development and social action must foster relationships of integrity and transparency.
Any program that does not respect a people’s worldview “constitutes cultural invasion… good intentions notwithstanding” (Freire 1986, 76). Transformational development must take seriously the cultural context of the society in transformation. If it doesn’t, it represents domination rather than transformation. Contextualization is achieved by humbly listening to those who know their own local environment. The helper must first be a learner.
As I reflected on both my own and my colleagues’ experiences in DRC in light of the development theories discussed above, three prevailing misconceptions emerged. These require “re-visioning.”
1. Development is overwhelming. “The need is too great.” “There are too many suffering people.” “Macrostructures are inadequate and unjust; there’s nothing I can do to change them.” Such attitudes engender despair. Development as transformation is a helpful corrective to these assumptions.
Transformation often happens slowly, incrementally and almost invisibly to those closest to the situation. However, it does happen through the efforts of those relating to the people being transformed. It would be easy to undercut the development efforts of a small evangelical mission or a local indigenous church in Africa. What about the four hundred dollar tea shop project designed by and for Sudanese women in a refugee camp? What about the church leadership education program that serves thirteen men and women in a small refugee congregation? When such efforts are owned and implemented by the people they are designed to help—and when the details are hammered out in the context of an ongoing relationship of love, respect and reciprocity—the people involved, both nationals and expatriates, are transformed through the process.
2. Development is “us helping them.” I am convinced the root cause of much of the conflict over development in DRC was the result of missionaries trying to help in ways not wholly owned by the nationals and trying to teach the nationals things they had little or no desire to learn. Missionaries identified deficiencies, proposed solutions and implemented projects based on their own understanding of what was correct and/or beneficial in the long-term. Perhaps the missionaries were correct in what they promoted and resisted. Justice would have been better served, development would have been more sustainable, distribution of benefits would have been more equitable and accountability would have been more transparent. However, the nationals did not share the missionaries’ perceptions; thus, the perceptions were irrelevant. A helper’s top priority must be relationship informed by clear and copious dialogue. Dialogue must be pursued relentlessly until mutual understanding and joint ownership is attained.
3. Development is material. I asked one former DRC missionary who had trained a national leader to take over the church’s literature program if he saw his role as development. He replied, “Yes, I do…in the sense that I think of development now…[however] I don’t think I thought of that as development then.” Missionaries in DRC who saw themselves as uninvolved also perceived development primarily in physical/material terms. I know this because I was included in this group. For us, development raised the standard of living of the Congolese villager. It was undertaken by specialists and involved government projects. We failed to truly understand development.
THE SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION MODEL APPLIED
The social transformation paradigm transforms our thinking and allows us to “re-vision” a variety of laudable activities as part and parcel of holistic development. I conclude with two examples of “re-visioned” activities not normally thought to contribute to development.
1. Church planting is development. The Church, as a God-ordained, Spirit-filled instrument of human and community transformation, is a powerful development tool. “Christians who rightly understand the possibilities inherent in church unity as a social force are way ahead of the game in working for social transformation” (Wilson 1989, 154). Church planting done properly develops people in general and leaders in particular. It is impossible to plant a healthy church without discipling young believers and developing new leaders. Such “people development” is at the heart of the social transformation model. Healthy churches also engage and transform society. Churches in the majority world intuitively embrace this truth more readily than many of our historic denominations. Such churches see themselves as agents of personal spiritual development and as catalysts of social transformation. They feed the poor, care for the sick, help educate the ignorant and find work for the jobless. Church planting “re-visioned” is development.
2. Theological education is development. “Development and education can be linked when the goal of the education is to transform the environment, the perspective or the knowledge so the individual is empowered to integrate change into their own life and then into their community” (Stelck 1994, 74). Of course, not all theological education is transformational. Transformational education is more than indoctrination or training for a specific job. It is not done to or even for, but rather with people. It liberates individuals by empowering them to solve their own problems and achieve their own goals. Because it develops people, social transformation occurs.
Development is not money, machinery or material things. Development is people transforming the whole of their existence through the holistic outworking of the gospel of Jesus. Agents of transformation are people willing to come alongside those with needs to educate and empower them. This will transform hearts, minds, lives and communities.
Elliston, Edgar. 1989. “Christian Social Transformation Distinctives.” In Christian Relief and Development: Developing Workers for Effective Ministry, ed. Edgar Elliston, 167-178. Dallas: Word Publishing.
Elliston, Edgar, Stephen Hoke and Samuel Voorhies. 1989. “Issues in Contextualizing Christian Leadership Development.” In Christian Relief and Development: Developing Workers for Effective Ministry, ed. Edgar Elliston, 179-210. Dallas: Word Publishing.
Freire, Paulo. 1997. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
George, Susan. 1986. How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger. London: Penguin Books.
Hiebert, Paul. 1989. “Anthropology Insights for Whole Ministries.” In Christian Relief and Development: Developing Workers for Effective Ministry, ed. Edgar Elliston, 75-92. Dallas: Word Publishing.
Riddell, Roger. 1996. “The Moral Case for Post-Cold War Development Aid.” International Journal: Canadian Institute of International Affairs 51:2, 191-210.
Smith, Linda. 1989. “Recent Historical Perspective of the Evangelical Tradition.” In Christian Relief and Development: Developing Workers for Effective Ministry, ed. Edgar Elliston, 23-36. Dallas: Word Publishing.
Stelck, Brian. 1994. “Knowledge Transfer and Reciprocity.” Ph.D. Thesis, University of Alberta: Edmonton.
Wilson, Samuel. 1989. “Defining Development in Social Terms.” In Christian Relief and Development: Developing Workers for Effective Ministry, ed. Edgar Elliston, 145-158. Dallas: Word Publishing.
Richard Starcher is currently dean of Extension Studies at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology and has served for the past eighteen years in three African countries.
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