The Church’s mission should be to help the poor and the desolate. But the definition of poverty will change depending on who is defining it. The poor may define it through the psychological and social lens while churches in higher income countries are more likely to focus on the lack of material things. Depending on who defines poverty, it can create and reinforce issues of paternalism in Western churches where outside workers provide the "only" answer. The causes of poverty are complex and sometimes people come up with ‘great ideas’ to make life a little easier for those living in poverty. However, they can cause more harm than good if they are not thought through carefully.

Take TOMS Shoes for instance. Since TOMS came up with the concept of Buy One Gift One (B1G1) this model has been picked up by other retailers. And why not? It is very popular with consumers because of the ‘feel good factor’. But let’s stop and think about the ramifications. A child in a low-income country gets a free pair of shoes. That’s great, isn’t it? But poverty is not about not having shoes, it is about families not being able to overcome the barriers that keep them in poverty, and that may mean they can’t afford shoes.

So what are the effects? The local cobbler can’t sell as many shoes because people are getting free shoes from TOMS. Depending on the number of shoes, it could even put him/her out of business or cause job losses. The parents of the child may be grateful, but if TOMS was to invest the money in a local initiative that helped the parents to increase their income, they could buy the shoes for their child. This would give them dignity and support the local economy. Are the shoes a good cultural fit and suited to life outside of big cities? Did the child even need shoes or is he/she happy to go barefoot or kick around in a pair of sandals or flip-flops? What about the environmental impact and the inefficiencies of sending the shoes? Local businesses suffer while those businesses promoting the idea get increased sales by promoting what they are doing for those in poverty. This is the kind of critical thinking that has to go in before implementing ‘good aid ideas’.

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What about in a disaster situation? It is natural for people to want to help but the kind of help matters here too. We often see people rallying their community to gather household goods, clothing and non-perishable foods to ship to a Pacific Island nation that has been struck by a cyclone. But let’s look into this further. Like the TOMS shoes, the local economies are flooded with free goods and foods so local retailers and producers struggle. Those retailers play an important part in the recovery process. Aid agencies try to buy goods locally for their aid efforts for this very reason.

Are the goods in the containers appropriate for the recipients? There are many stories about goods being shipped that were inappropriate such as heaters for people with no access to electricity or extreme weather clothing for people in warm climates. Sometimes even people’s unwanted junk. Then there is the cost of sending the containers and a whole lot of logistics. When aid agencies are responding, these containers can clog up wharves and warehouses vital to getting emergency aid to people in need. Then you have the problem of who is going to transport the containers and distribute the goods.

I have heard of optometrists sending containers of used glasses to low-income countries so people there have access to improved sight. Sounds like a good idea but not having their eyes tested and their own prescription lenses means they could be damaging their eyesight in the long-term, not to mention the piles of unused glasses that can’t find a home.

Don’t get me wrong, it is good to help, but it simply comes down to how you do it. The fact is that sending goods usually doesn’t stand up to this critical thinking and it often has a negative environmental impact as well.

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Giving money to an aid agency you trust is the best way to help alleviate poverty or to help in a disaster. In almost all cases, these agencies will have applied this critical thinking to their programmes to bring about sustainable solutions to the problems of poverty, not a band-aid like some of the things discussed here. The B1G1 retailers would be better to donate funds instead of goods into helping people grow their incomes, or at very least, have their goods manufactured locally. The communities rallying to send goods would be better to have a garage sale and donate the funds to an aid agency that was responding to the emergency. And the optometrists would be better to put their money into sending one of their own to do eye tests, then get prescription lenses inserted into the frames in New Zealand, before giving them to the recipients who had their eyes tested. Better still, members of the profession could band together to support a local organisation that was doing this sort of work already!

At Tearfund, we believe in the inherent God-given dignity and worth of every person, and that every person has unique gifts and talents. Our Strengths-based approach to overseas development identifies and builds on the strengths, abilities and assets that communities already have. The approach leads to better, more sustainable solutions to community issues, and allows everyone in a community to participate in building a better future.

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So, please don’t let this article put you off giving. Just think about how you are giving. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to see if a programme stands up to critical and careful thinking, and let that determine how you can truly help.

 


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