Hurtful Handouts

July 4, 2013 at 1:16 pm

There were plenty of things interesting about President Obama’s trip to Africa last week. A black man standing in the place where people were once kidnapped from their tribal homes because of the color of their skin. A black President of a country that once held quite a bit of stock in the business of the buying and selling of those kidnapped people. Or when Obama spent time on the island where his hero, Mandela spent decades of his life fighting in shackles for the kind of equality in his own country that would eventually lead to his election as a global leader. 
Interwoven into those two stories, the subplot of Obama’s time in Africa was a new perspective on how best to help the continent of Africa in the coming years. In his speech to a crowd in Cape Town Obama shared his hope that the U.S. would seek the kind of “partnership that empowers Africans to access greater opportunity in their own lives.” If those words failed to be clear enough, Obama continued, “Ultimately I believe Africans should make up their own minds about what serves African interests.”

This language of “empowerment” is a healthy turn for American policy, particularly as it relates to historical U.S.  relationships with the poor in the global south. What Obama’s speech alluded to was putting an end to the kind of “charity” that can oftentimes become crippling for those who receive it.  
It brought to mind for me the work of Robert D. Lupton, founder of FCS Urban Ministries (Focused Community Strategies) in Atlanta, the voice of the Urban Perspectives newsletter, and the author of Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life. For 40 years Lupton has served on the frontlines of urban ministry activism and has seen more than his fair share of “charity-gone-awry.” In his book Toxic Charity he writes, 
“In the United States there is a growing scandal that we refuse to see and actually actively perpetuate. What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.”
Speaking specifically of the Africa which Obama recently visited, he adds statistical data to our President’s anecdotal evidence of the damage of hand-outs. 
“In the last 50 years the continent [of Africa] has received 1 Trillion in benevolent aid. How effective has this aid been? Country by country, Africans are far worse off today than they were a half-century ago. Overall per-capita income is lower today than in the 1970’s. Over half of Africa’s population of 700 million lives on less than $1 a day. Life expectancy has stagnated, and adult literacy has plummeted below pre-1980 levels.”
This is not “God helps those who help themselves” theology. It is not a call for dis-compassionate individualism, or support for survival of the fittest. What lies behind the statements of Obama and Lupton is a fundamental understanding that whenever we do that which someone is able to do for themselves we rob them of their dignity and humanity. Again Lupton observes:
“For all our efforts to eliminate poverty- our entitlements, our programs, our charities- we have succeeding only in creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures, and eroding their ethic of work. And our poor continue to become poorer.”          
Perhaps most sinister of all is that our primary motivation for doing so, even as Christians, is to feel better about ourselves, or to improve our standing with God. Subconsciously, many of us are thankful the poor don’t ever seem to disappear because we need someone to serve in order that we may continue to justify ourselves. Admittedly, this is a hard word to hear, and it causes me to reevaluate exactly why I do what I do, and for whom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with these issues deeply in his WWII Germany. Watching the suffering of billions he concluded in the end that it would not do to simply tend to the effects of injustice when he could spend himself, literally spend his own life, fighting against its causes. It is my prayer that his convictions might become my own, and those of the Church.    
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer