Monday, July 25, 2005

The Arrogance of Helping the Less Fortunate

We in developed countries like to do our bit for the less fortunate in Third World countries, donating clothes and food, raising money and attempting to make poverty history by wearing fashion accessories and putting up concerts like Live 8 or persuading guilt-stricken school children to donate their lunch money to sponsor a child in Africa or adventurously popping in to a developing country to build a school for kids dressed in rags, and at the end of the day, patting ourselves on the back and feeling good about helping the poor and starving. Perhaps we should not be so arrogant.

In conjunction with the G8 summit earlier this month, Spiegel spoke with Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati:
SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa...

Shikwati: ... for God's sake, please just stop.

SPIEGEL: Stop? The industrialised nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty.

Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years.

It has been suggested that the figures of those needing aid have been exaggerated (sound familiar?). There is also some suggestion that financial aid perpetuates corrupt cruel dictatorships, food aid destroys the livelihood of local farmers, and the mass dumping of used clothing lays waste the local clothing industries. And people in Vietnam don't need religious tourists short-term missionaries to come and build their schools.

Why do we assume that we know best what the needs of developing countries are? Why do we not assess the situation or seek local advice before riding into town on our high horses and shooting the wrong man?

Oxfam gave some thought to this in its guidelines on involving locals in decision-making mechanisms in the provision of aid. (Thanks to Huichieh for the link.)

Our arrogance in dealing with the Third World is somewhat like our arrogance in dealing with God. We say we will relate to Him however we want, we will give Him whatever worship we want to give Him. All our religions will certainly lead to the same God, because we want it to be so. Why bother finding out about Him? Surely what ever theory we have is correct.

And so the Israelites decided to worship God with a golden calf (Deuteronomy 9). And God in His wrath was angry enough to wipe them off the face of the earth completely, but in His great mercy spared them. Only to have them many generations later, continue to decide that God was to be despised and so anyhow worship also can (as we have recently seen in Malachi).

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