by Mans Ramstad
Increasingly, overseas service involves health care, agriculture, economics, education and related community development approaches as the means to do ministry in the country.
Increasingly, overseas service involves health care, agriculture, economics, education and related community development approaches as the means to do ministry in the country.1 In these contexts we foreign Christian workers often struggle with how best to meet pressing needs around us. We often feel pressured by local people and local entities to do something to address crises and acute problems in society. At the same time, we may be patiently waiting for long-term development projects to bring sustained and meaningful results. As we wait, the temptation to do something that will give immediate results, such as pay the medical bills of poor friends, distribute food to those in need or build schools for neglected communities can be overwhelming. The purpose of this article is to tease apart some of the issues relevant to this struggle. I intend to share personal experience dealing with this issue. This is a complex issue and one that I am only beginning to understand, so I invite others to participate in this dialogue.2
CONCERN FOR THE POOR IS PART OF WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A CHRISTIAN
First I would like to reiterate that relief and development work is a constituent part of what it means to be evangelical Christians. Furthermore, relief and development work can and should be a component part of evangelical witness. It bears mentioning that the Apostle Paul, undoubtedly the most famous missionary, evangelist, church planter of all time, was concerned about the physical needs of the poor (Pocock 1996).3 It is of note that the evangelism and spiritual vitality of the early church was in the context of relief and mercy ministries (Acts 2:8-11, 37-47; Acts 4:32-35). Historically, evangelicals have been strong proponents of wholistic ministry to the poor.4 Concern for the poor is the primary motive for relief and development, and it is modeled in numerous biblical examples.5
In some contexts, the words “relief and development” are used together to refer to one concept. I find the two approaches to be quite different, so this article will distinguish between them according to the following definitions (provided by World Vision).
Relief—the urgent provision of resources to reduce suffering from a natural or human-made disaster. This will usually require the provision of emergency aid. It is immediate and temporary. It is prolonged only when self-reliance is impossible (Elliston 1989, 257). I might add that this provision is virtually unconditional and assumes nothing will be paid back later.
Development—a process enabling a community to provide for its own needs, beyond former levels, with dignity and justice. In short, it is the improved capacity of a community to meet its needs. Development must be indigenous, comprehensive, long-term and aimed for improved self-reliance (Elliston 1989, 258). This process may involve activities such as training, funding the delivery of programs (loans, infrastructure, wells, roads, etc.), introducing problem-solving skills and catalyzing community participation.
THE BASICS OF RELIEF WORK
Biblical basis. The most compelling model of relief work in the Bible is the story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan happened upon a person in critical need, so he helped him—giving of his time and money. He had no expectation of anything in return or any conditions attached, such as behavior change or accountability. Likewise, Jesus once healed ten lepers, and only one turned back in gratitude (Luke 17:11-19). Although Jesus grieved their ingratitude, he did not make gratitude a condition for their healing. The Old Testament also advocates unconditional mercy toward those in need (see, for example, Deut. 24:19-21; Lev. 25:35; Jer. 22:15-16).
There are potential problems associated with giving such relief.
1. The main pitfall to avoid with relief efforts is short-term or limited benefits resulting in long-term harm or unexpected results. It is difficult to predict the long-term results of anything, but it is worthwhile to spend time trying to imagine what the long-term results of an effort might be in an attempt to secure the best possible long-term consequences.
2. As outsiders, we may be interfering in local processes, such as the responsibility of the family, government or community in the problem. Brazilian reformer Paulo Freire had this to say,
… the individuals who receive some aid always want more; those who do not receive aid, seeing the example of those who do, grow envious and also want assistance. Since the dominant elites cannot “aid” everyone, they end by increasing the restiveness of the oppressed. (Freire 1999, 133)
3. After relief is provided what does one do next? It is likely that whatever problem led to the current crisis will lead to its recurrence in the near future. If it recurs, should we provide the same relief again?
4. It is possible that relief patronizes the recipients rather than humanizes them. It assumes they are unable to solve the problem themselves. Again I turn to Freire,
…welfare programs as instruments of manipulation ultimately serve the end of conquest. They act as an anesthetic, distracting the oppressed from the true causes of their problems and from the concrete solution of these problems. (Freire 1999, 133)
It takes authenticity and genuine respect for the poor to deliver assistance to them in humanizing ways that respects the fact they are created in the image of God. It is true that some crises are so acute that human survival depends on relief assistance. It is also true that some relief efforts are used by organizations to raise funds or confirm their feeling of importance. We should all examine our inner motives in relief efforts to guard against this dehumanizing motive.
Despite these potential problems, the biblical call to mercy given by Jesus, and summarized in the story of the Good Samaritan, cannot be ignored. How can we best follow the biblical example and avoid the pitfalls? B. L. Myers puts forth the idea that the key is “a development agency must have some kind of philosophy … a response to the agency’s understanding of the causes of poverty” (1999, 97). David Korten states:
… In the absence of a theory, the aspiring development agency almost inevitably becomes an assistance agency engaged in relieving the more visible symptoms of underdevelopment through relief and welfare measures. (Korten 1990, 113)
As an organization we have had many discussions trying to develop our shared philosophy of poverty and how our programs can best get at the root issue while also demonstrating the magnanimous compassion of Christ. This brings us to the issue of development, to which we now turn.
THE BASICS OF DEVELOPMENT WORK
Biblical basis. The life of Jesus Christ is a good basis for development. In the incarnation, Christ identifies completely with humanity. He functions as an insider, helping them solve their problems. He exposes the false claims of principalities and powers in the culture. In his crucifixion Christ stands against the deceptive forces of oppression, demonstrating the power that comes from sacrificing oneself for others (Matt. 20:20-28). In his resurrection, Christ shows hope for the coming kingdom, and the life of the early Christian community lived out the hope we have for this coming kingdom (as described in 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 58 and demonstrated in Acts 2:37-47; 4:32-35). Therefore in development work, we need to follow Jesus’ example of identifying with those we hope to serve, of standing against forces that oppress, of sacrificing for others, of building people and of building true community.6
As with relief work, there are problems and challenges involved in development work.
1. As often described, modern development concepts derive from a fundamentally market-driven approach to problem solving. This approach assumes with Adam Smith that there is an “invisible hand” that guides our society so that if we all pursue our own self-interests, it will promote the overall interests of society (Gustafson 1998). But this places more emphasis on individualism and self-attainment than is found in the Bible. It implies that capitalism is the biblical economic perspective. God’s Word focuses more on personal self-denial and service, with primary concern for the corporate body rather than for personal fulfillment. Furthermore, “reciprocal exchange” also works in creative and dynamic ways to meet human need and build community (Wark-entin 2001).
2. Development requires patience and a long-term approach. A two- or three-year program focusing on some aspect may bring some good, but it will seldom bring substantial positive change to the community. Results are less dramatic than in relief efforts. Westerners tend to want quick, tangible results.7 It is difficult to struggle in challenging circumstances in developing countries without resorting to interventionist Western methods of problem solving.
3. Can those engaged in development work adhere to their long-term development principles and refuse to provide crisis relief? If you live or work at a considerable distance from where the community development program is being run, it may be possible to ignore pressing problems, but not if you live in the affected community. However, that doesn’t mean the only way to participate is to personally intervene. You can also serve as a liaison helping local people to access existing programs run by the government, churches or civic groups.8 Of course it is also an opportunity to encourage the local church to do more relief work if they are able.
4. If you take a passive approach to pressing problems, hoping to catalyze a long-term development approach that will address the fundamental problems, it is possible that you will eventually be delegitimized by the local authorities and your status revoked. The problem is that local authorities themselves don’t understand or respect your concern for long-term, locally initiated development. This suggests the need to work more with these authorities to educate and empower them as well.
In summary, both relief work and development work have biblical justification and undeniable challenges. At this point, I will consider several questions relevant to the successful implementation of both relief and development work. The responses I suggest do not come from one who has been outstandingly successful, but are based on lessons learned through reading and personal experience.
SOME CHALLENGING QUESTIONS
1. Can you do both relief work and development work in the same place? It is very difficult because in some ways they have conflicting approaches. For example, we have run a medical assistance program in the same community where we run a microloan program. This has been challenging. For many people it is confusing that one person is required to repay his eighty dollar loan, while another person across town has $120 in medical bills paid for him with no requirement to pay it back.
2. Can one organization do both relief work and development work? As with question one, this is a big challenge. It is easy for staff workers inclined towards different approaches to conflict with each other. Those given over to development work will be frustrated by the hasty handouts made by those given to relief work. However, with good leadership and clear guiding policies, it is possible to strike a healthy balance between these two equally Christian and important approaches.
Some development agencies would consider relief work impulsive, ill-advised and even inappropriate. I won’t argue with their approach, but as one who lives in the target community, I find it very difficult to neatly compartmentalize my role into either absolute development work or absolute relief work. The key is true participation in local systems so that when you get involved in one approach or another, you do so cognizant of true local need and potential local impact. Whether we as foreigners are engaged in relief, development, or both, we could afford to do less promotion of projects, and more partnering with people (Cogswell 1987). This is important advice indeed!
3. What are the criteria for measuring successful relief work?
- The needs are met
- There are no failed expectations such as the idea that the group would stay and give free food indefinitely
- No dependency has been created
- There has been no abuse such as goods being given to other people or places
- Local people have managed the distribution
- Giving is done in locally appropriate ways, such as tithing to the church or giving to recognized community sources of relief when possible (Warkentin 2001)
4. What are the criteria for measuring successful development work?
- Members of the community itself are taking initiative to address problems and develop their community in various ways
- Measurable long-term impact
- New methods and information are internalized by locally responsible people (not necessarily that the specific program itself is maintained)
- The development initiative fits with broader local initiatives or goals
- If there has been external funding, there is a plan for financial sustainability after it ends9
5. What are criteria for measuring successful relief and development work done together?
- Development programs aren’t contaminated by the handout mentality of relief programs
- Beneficiaries are not moving back and forth between the relief and development programs “double dipping”
- Clear guidelines indicating which individuals and/or communities should receive relief and/or development benefits
- A shared understanding of the reasons for poverty as a criteria by which to measure program decisions
6. In what ways do these two ap-proaches complement each other or conflict with each other?
- Relief leading to development is a natural or appropriate progression.
- Both relief and development are needed in every community. There is no community that only needs one or the other.
- Big-hearted people will always do relief on a personal basis. Even if you have a commitment to long-term development work, there will always be people on your staff who will be compelled to give to those in need. This is in keeping with their spiritual gifts, and is a way to strike the proper balance as given by Jesus’ personal example. The key is open and frank communication to keep such behavior from sabotaging larger organizational goals. This is how our medical assistance program alluded to earlier was begun. We were trying to hold to a development approach when one of our big-hearted staff members felt moved to provide medical assistance to a poor family with a sick boy. Her action was very Christ-like and well received.
Over time, and through much discussion it was decided to formalize this assistance program with the establishment of relief guidelines. Now the program is effectively ameliorating devastating health crises without impeding our ability to conduct long-term health education and medical programs.
- Some development organizations commonly do crisis relief projects as a way of gaining access to an area and then capitalize on the good reputation they have earned by bringing in development programs. For example, I know of an organization that provided tents to victims of an earthquake, and later parlayed that into a local microloan program. It seemed to work out well.
- The psychology of being a beneficiary of relief is completely different from that of development. If your organization hopes to be understood in the community, but is engaging in both types of work, it will be hard for people to know if you have come to distribute relief, or to work with them to solve entrenched problems.
- If people get relief, they might not appreciate the higher personal accountability associated with being part of a development project. Participation in development requires creativity, personal responsibility and cooperation. Receiving relief requires nothing of the recipient except cooperation.
Christian organizations will always participate in relief and development work. It is part of our heritage and calling as Christians. Furthermore, it is an effective way to bring a gospel witness to countries of the world otherwise inhospitable to a Christian presence. It is important that well-meaning Christian groups conduct their relief and development efforts in ways that accomplish the most good possible with the least negative consequences and do so in accordance with the organization’s mission and long-term objectives. Furthermore, these efforts should be done in ways that are dignifying and empowering to the beneficiaries.
It has been my experience that relief and development work can be done together. But this work must be well coordinated or it may result in tremendous conflict. This conflict may come between the organization and the community or between staff members themselves. As suggested by Korten, it is important to develop a philosophy of development by which to assess possible relief or development programs (Kerton 1999). If done patiently and methodically, with each affected person involved in the decision-making process, relief and development work can complement and serve each other.
Those who seek to engage in relief and/or development work in a new community should be prayerful, cautious and thoughtful. I have introduced some of the issues and questions that beset us as we strive to conduct both relief- and development-type programs in our host community. By learning from the experiences accumulated, results can be increasingly positive, and with good long-term consequences. Furthermore, such efforts may produce a broad and significant witness to the power of the gospel of our risen Lord.
1. I assume a fundamental integration of relief and development work and evangelism, where the services rendered are a component part of the overall witness, not as somehow an impediment to or in opposition to verbal witness.
2. Several excellent books exist that give excellent theological and theoretical bases for relief and development work. I am particularly indebted to works by Elliston, Myers, and Samuel and Sugden (see References). These authors surely could address the practical problems I am posing in this paper. To my knowledge they have not , so this is my humble attempt to do so.
3. We find in Romans 15:25-33 (esp. 25-29) that Paul was concerned about the famine victims. He put mission to Spain and Rome on the back burner until he successfully delivered the relief money from Macedonia to the believers in Palestine. In fact, he and Barnabas had been doing relief work ever since the Holy Spirit had shown the church in Antioch there would be a famine in Palestine (Acts 11:27-30). In Paul’s doctrinal defense before the Jerusalem church, the elders admonished him not to forget the poor. He said that he was eager to help the poor (Gal. 2:9-10). Further evidence of Paul’s concern for the poor can be found in Acts 20:32-34 and 2 Corinthians 8-9.
4. One of Charles Wesley’s arguments was that caring for the poor is essential for one’s own spiritual growth. Reflecting on Wesley, Maddox wrote, “Authentic mission to others needs to be grounded in a community that takes seriously their own Christian formation,” and, “We have reduced engagement in ministry to the poor to a matter of ‘duty’, losing Wesley’s deeper appreciation for its essential contribution to spiritual formation” (Maddox 2001).
5. By “poor” I mean the oppressed, the powerless, the destitute, the downtrodden, etc., and not only those who are financially poor.
6. This is not to deny the redemptive purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection, but my purpose here is to dig deeper into its meaning and perhaps discern ways we might more closely “follow in his steps,” as Peter exhorted us to do. Samuel and Sugden have poignantly demonstrated the power of such a theology as the basis for evangelical involvement in social services (Samuel and Sugden 1999). They draw on the theme of the “Kingdom of God.” They summarize the goal of all mission (relief, development, evangelism) as that of bringing “transformation” to individual lives and to the community at large.
7. A church leader from India said to a US church audience, “You are great in a crisis, but poor in a struggle” (Cogswell 1987).
8. This is what Gustafson calls the “Process/Broker” approach (Gustafson 1998). Process implies the local people are involved in creating change. They are talking to one another. The scale of activities is usually small. As development workers, we need to be involved in that process, and promoting that process, by listening and organizing dialogue opportunities. Broker means the primary role for the outside agency is as a link between the local people and opportunities and information that they don’t currently have access to. The opportunities and information the local people need are discovered as one walks with them through the process.
9. One way to avoid dependency relationships is not to stay in one place too long. But this may be in conflict with long-term commitments to community-building and ministry strategies. An alternative strategy is to limit involvement in one arena, such as child’s health work, to perhaps three years, and then move into another related arena, such as elderly care, for several years.
Cogswell, J. A. 1987. “Relief and Development: Challenges to Mission Today.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 11(2): 72-76.
Elliston, E. J., Ed.1989. Christian Relief and Development: Developing Workers for Effective Ministry. Dallas, Tex.: Word.
Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Gustafson, J. W. 1998. “The Integration of Development and Evangelism.” Missiology 26(2): 131-142.
Korten, David C. 1990. Getting into the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda. West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press.
Lingenfelter, J. 1998. “Why do We Argue Over How to Help the Poor?” Missiology 26(2): 155-167.
Maddox, R. L. 2001. “‘Visit the Poor’: Wesley’s Precedent for Wholistic Mission.” Transformation 18(1): 37-50.
Myers, B. L. 1999. Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Pocock, M.1996. “Focus and Balance in Missionary Outreach.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 32(2): 160-164.
Samuel, V. and C. Sugden. 1999. Mission as Transformation: A Theology of the Whole Gospel. Oxford, U.K., Regnum.
Warkentin, R. 2001. “Begging as Resistance: Wealth and Christian Missionaries in Postcolonial Zaire.” Missiology 29(2): 143-163.
Mans Ramstad is a tentmaker. He has lived with his family in China for ten years.
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