International Development: Helping or Hurting?

by Stephan Bauman

Some thoughts to guide us as we seek to influence a justice movement underway. Together, if we tread humbly, we can fulfill our calling to bring healing to the broken world around us.

What is it that you can do that a Zambian cannot?” These words, spoken to me by an African, illustrate the dramatic changes underway in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. Not only has the center of gravity of our faith moved to the Global South, but the development agenda—with its objectives of alleviating poverty and bringing hope to nearly half the world’s population (who live on less than $2.50 a day)—is shifting south as well. Paradoxically, as the development agenda shifts into the capable hands of Africans, Asians, and Latinos, we are undergoing a justice renaissance here in the West. The younger generation, called the “Justice Generation” by some, is reaching out in unprecedented ways—advocacy for Darfur, churches and new nonprofits focused on poverty issues, and documentaries poignantly capturing the injustice of human trafficking and HIV/AIDS. Our popular culture, too, is engaged like never before. Bono commands titanic attention on the world stage on issues of injustice and is the spokesperson for the “One Campaign.” Oprah Winfrey is helping young women get education in South Africa. Even Starbucks is sending interns to Latin America to work with coffee farmers in eco-friendly ways.

These trends should cause us to rethink the nature and goals of development. What development is helpful? What is our proper role? How do we meaningfully respond to Christ’s call to the oppressed? These questions, profound and pressing for today, require thoughtful reflection and a principled response. The following thoughts are intended to guide us as we seek to influence a justice movement underway—a movement in the West that is thirsty for leadership, and movement in the Global South that demands new posture. Together, if we tread humbly, we can fulfill our calling to bring healing to the broken world around us.

Development Belongs to the Mission of God
Seeking justice and peace through development is part and parcel of God’s unfolding story in history (see Wright 2006). Old categories of “Word and Deed” are giving way to a kingdom theology that seeks the full expression of God’s intentions, shalom in all aspects of life, and a vision where, according to Charles Spurgeon, there is “no place where God is not.” Whether education for a Pakistani girl, opportunity to start a business in Malawi with a $50 loan, protection against child soldiering in the Congo or trafficking in Cambodia, or the liberation of our souls, all constitute “good news.” Development must be anchored in this greater story of mission. If we detach development from this grand narrative, we begin with the wrong question—What is needed here?—rather than the right one—What is God doing here? Placing God at the center recognizes him as the source of development rather than us. It affirms a gospel that cares about all of life, and it recognizes a story well underway before our arrival.

“How” Is as Important as “What”
A friend of mine once prostrated herself on dusty concrete before a group of Rwandese women, stretching her hands to their feet. In this posture she prayed, blessing her sisters, “who deserve honor, who are loved by our creator, who teach us, who inspire us.” In one small act, my friend shed her perceived power and humbled herself. Resources, technology, or knowledge do not qualify us to do development—humility does. We must lead by serving, influencing with the basin and the towel (see John 13:4-5), and impacting by becoming less so others can become more. Humility and change must go hand in hand. Christ lived this way; so should we.

But it is hard to be humble in Cambodia, Sudan, or Nicaragua when our “smart” phones cost more than the annual wage of the average person. While humility is absolute and nonnegotiable for those who follow Christ, it is culturally defined. We may intend to be humble, but we often convey the opposite. Our servant leadership can sometimes hinder local initiative, our social exuberance can overwhelm others, and our sage ideas can intimidate those we are trying to serve. When I lived in Rwanda, I used to decline offers for a ride or a meal because I didn’t want to burden others. I later learned that each time I did this I was rejecting their friendship. I was offending rather than serving.

We must recognize that “Western peoples are [generally] no longer accepted as leaders by the rest of the world” (Newbigin 1978, 12). While the astonishing hospitality in the Majority World often camouflages this sentiment, it manifests itself in a myriad of ways—slow progress, inaction, or little communication (see Elmer 1994). As we seek to serve in development, we must push beyond our initial perceptions of need and poverty to discover a vibrant world of human strength, perseverance, ingenuity, and often unprecedented faith. Are we willing to listen rather than quick-fix, appreciate rather than analyze? Are we willing to defer to local leaders? Are we willing to take the long road of relationship? Trust takes time, especially when one party has resources and the other does not. With the posture of a servant, we earn trust and the privilege to roll up our sleeves with our brothers and sisters around the world.

Seek Value-led Empowerment
As we contemplate the history of development, we must ask ourselves what has gone wrong. Fifty years of nearly $3 trillion in aid has left many people worse off (Easterly 2006). Many suggest this is because there hasn’t been a fundamental transfer of power accompanying the transfer of wealth. We often spend our energies on designing and implementing projects without due attention to preparing those who will lead it. Indeed, people are empowered through relationship; this should never be underestimated. But mechanisms for empowerment are essential as well. Consider a collection of altruistic people gathered together to affect change without a process for decision making, leadership transition, accountability, and conflict resolution. Even the best of people, motivated by all the right reasons, will soon begin to struggle without clear process and practical tools. Good governance mechanisms, healthy local organizations, and good financial policies and practices go a long way toward practical empowerment.

But empowerment alone is not enough. A shift in values must also accompany a transfer of knowledge. Christ exhorts us to judge a tree by its fruit. He also says we cannot bear fruit without remaining in him (Matt. 12:33; John 15). Development deeply rooted in Christ produces values that affect people’s thoughts, hopes, and dreams. People who think differently live differently. Mothers who believe all children, privileged or peasant, are created in the image of God with infinite value change a nation. Politicians who believe God holds us accountable for actions toward the disenfranchised make better policy. Entrepreneurs who believe God has gifted them with a creative calling build businesses that impact thousands of people. Churches that own poverty and injustice as part and parcel to the gospel spawn movements.

Seek Proven Ways to Overcome Poverty and Injustice
When contemplating a development project, it is safe to assume that it has been tried before. Unfortunately, the development trail is littered with projects that fail after the early years of excitement, photos, and storytelling. Because we are motivated by relationships, it is easy to focus on projects that benefit only a few families or a single church or village. The likelihood for many of these projects to survive without continued outside resources is low. They generally lack the wider vision and mechanisms to be sustainable. Furthermore, many westerners are naturally drawn to people who are most like them—those who speak English, have studied in the West, and live in urban areas. Yet most poverty is among rural people (as much as eighty percent), where there are few leaders and pastors who speak English, few who understand Western ways, and many who cannot read or write. As a result, there tends to be an over-investment among a small part of the population, at times along ethnic lines as well.

There is a growing number of proven ways to do development well—ways that seek sustainability, focus on the whole population, and pay attention to cost. The microfinance revolution—providing small loans of $50 or $100 to clients traditionally deemed too poor to start a business or save for the future—now serves upwards of 100 million people. Certain “green revolution” agriculture techniques have drastically increased yields on staple crops in Asia and increasingly Africa. Community health approaches built upon local strengths, including their social and spiritual capital, have significantly improved child mortality and, in some areas, have all but erased malaria-related deaths.  

Proven mechanisms also contribute to the success of development projects. If it is an economic project, local institutions (such as community banks) that provide security and credit (or cooperatives) for selling agricultural products to local and international markets are essential. For community health or water projects, good connections to an adequate local health system are critical. For any project, church involvement across denominational lines is helpful and can serve to bring churches together that would otherwise not collaborate. Inter-church collaboration also prevents the “empowering” of one church above the others, leading, potentially, to jealousy or “powerbroker” scenarios.

Good program design is essential as well. Projects that involve (1) the greater community in its planning, design, and evaluation; (2) programming that seeks scale by helping the most people in a cost-efficient manner; and (3) models that aim to incentivize the community to become actors in their own development, all greatly contribute to development success.

The West Needs Development, too
We often hear about the “dependency trap,” where projects or programs create dependency upon outside resources. While we must work against this pitfall, we should not work for complete independence. The biblical model is interdependence,1 where each member of the Body of Christ has a role to play. As we reflect upon the global trends in Christianity, and as we seek to empower our brothers and sisters from the Majority World, we must remember that God has chosen us to produce fruit that will last (John 15). As westerners, there is a distinct and ongoing role for each of us. Still, we need to become more versed in seeking to make heroes of others rather than ourselves; we must be comfortable serving another’s agenda rather than our own.

And as we seek to understand our changing roles, we must remember that we, too, need development. While we in the West have adequate healthcare and opportunity, we fall far short of God’s intended shalom. We are blind to our own syncretism—whether our celebrity culture, materialistic tendencies, lack of unity, or dearth of hospitality to the marginalized in our own neighborhoods. It is in these areas where we need to embrace the gentle prophetic voice of our brothers and sisters from around the world. We have much to learn from their selflessness, sacrifice, service, and often unswerving faith and enduring hope. As we acknowledge and confess our own poverty in our decadent culture, we are better able to receive wealth from those the world considers poor. Indeed, the Kingdom of God is never one way; it is reciprocal. The best giver is the one who receives, and the one who receives must also be allowed to give.

1. I am indebted to Oscar Muriu, senior pastor of Nairobi Chapel, for his thoughts on interdependency, in particular his application of 1 Corinthians 12 to nations as well as individual people.

Easterly, William. 2006. The White Man’s Burden. New York: Penguin Press.

Elmer, Duane. 1994. Cross Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Newbigin, Lesslie. 1978. The Open Secret: Sketches for a Missionary Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Wright, Christopher. 2006. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.


Stephan Bauman is senior vice president of programs for World Relief (WR). In the past, Stephan served as WR Rwanda’s country director and World Hope International programs director. He also trained hospital ship staff for Mercy Ships.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


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