Saturday, August 13, 2016

First World Problem: How Do We Help the Third World?

I watched her grow from a child to a young teenager over the past six years while visiting my family in Mexico. She lives with her parents and brothers in a small cement house on the five acre property. Her dad helps care for my elderly father and also maintains the grounds of the school, factory and houses. Her mom, Irma, who gave my mother loving personal care when she was ill, cleans the home and also works at my brother’s guava factory. Fatima's innocent charm, wide smile and helpful nature made me want to scoop her up and bring her home with me. But she is the apple of her father’s eye and her mother’s pride and joy. She is where she belongs.

With Irma and Fatima at my mother's funeral

Many people from first world countries visit poorer countries on short term mission trips or secular volunteer opportunities. The Mental Health Unit at our hospital has partnered with medical professionals in Guyana. Staff members use vacation time for teaching and training in an effort to set up better mental health services in that country. I know retired people who work with local people in third world countries in their area of expertise. Other volunteers and agencies respond and provide urgently needed aid after natural or man-made disasters. These are worthwhile, productive endeavours. 

There are critics of short term mission trips. Participants are eager to visit a poor area, bring gifts, build structures, evangelize, play with orphans and then go home in a week or two with plenty of pictures and a feeling of self-fulfillment. The focus is on how much the first world volunteers have to offer, not on the strengths and capabilities of the local people. The motives of the volunteers may be sincere but misguided. I have seen people leave Canada with suitcases filled with blankets, candies, school supplies and clothing to distribute to the “poor and needy”. But the definition of poverty is relative and care is needed to avoid conveying a sense of superiority because of our affluence. Gift-bearing volunteers may not understand the values of the community and can undermine the local economy. 

No "Shoebox" gifts required (photo by my brother, Mark)

We used to fill a couple of shoe boxes with recommended items each year at Christmas time for distribution to needy children. It appeared to be an unselfish thing to do in the spirit of the season. The boxes are collected, unpacked and checked by volunteers at a warehouse and then distributed around the world. The practice makes little sense socially or economically. The purchased items are usually inexpensive imported goods that may have been made by underpaid workers in another third world country. They are then sent by air to a community that may not share our values or holidays. Once again the local economy in the poorer country loses out as “free” items are given to “needy” children. The donors feel good, but the money could be put to better use.

People who are materially poor may be rich in relationships, community, meaningful work, and happiness.   
Conversely, the materially rich may be poor in relationships, meaningful purpose and contentment. 

Eugene Peterson recently tweeted, 

“Living in the land of the free has not made us free. We are a nation of addicts and complainers.” 

He spoke as an American but his statement is true in many developed nations. We may forget that strain in life builds strength of character, just as lifting weights develops physical strength. 

Visiting third world countries is a valuable learning experience. I remember visiting a home in a Mexican village in 2006 with my brother, who came to pay the man for work he had done. The adobe and tin house had a dirt floor and chickens walked in and out the door. A TV was on the table and an extension cord ran to an outside power source. The family received us with great hospitality and offered us a drink. I wanted to take a picture of the surroundings but knew it was not appropriate. The FIFA World Cup was in progress and Mexico was playing a game that day. While we were there, Mexico scored a goal and a great roar rose from the hills as everyone living on that mountain cheered. These people enjoyed community, had their basic needs met, and were content in their circumstances in spite of their relative poverty. 

Roadside Restaurant- Mexico (delicious gorditas!)

We need to share resources in collaboration with people who live in poorer nations. Education is essential and children often need uniforms, books and tuition to go to school. There are charities that work to address the root causes of poverty. People in third world countries have a voice, dignity, potential and ability to achieve their dreams. We cannot jump in and impose our values on them but need to listen and view their world from their perspective. It is important to do our research before giving to charities to make sure that the organization is using funds to empower the recipients, and not making them dependent on handouts. The same principles are important when dealing with poverty at home. 

Robert D. Lupton wrote an thought-provoking book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). He recommends an "Oath for Compassionate Service" with six guidelines: 
  1. Never do for the poor what they can do for themselves; 
  2. Limit one-way giving to emergencies; 
  3. Empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements; 
  4. Subordinate self-interest to the needs of those being served; 
  5. Listen closely to those you seek to help; 
  6. Above all, do no harm.
Other resources:
Poverty, Inc. - I highly recommend this documentary, available on Netflix and elsewhere
When Helping Hurts- a book with similar themes as Toxic Charity
Living on One - Two documentaries available on Netflix
Barbie Savior- Satirical look at the "white saviour" complex


  1. So many wonderful points to ponder in this excellent post, Ruth. It does absolutely strike me that the biggest hurdle in helping is our own smugness that WE have what everyone wants or needs. Ugh. As you so beautifully wrote, many times the very people we propose to swoop in and "help" are richer than we'll ever be. Off to ponder my post...

  2. What a great post, Ruth. I have never contemplated that giving of gifts may be more harmful than helpful although I have usually been suspicious of short term projects. People are trying to help, but from what I can tell, it is for the most part done without significant use of indigenous people and resources.

  3. Some great points to consider and keep in mind when helping out in any way. Thank you for sharing from the heart.


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