Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Notes - Toxic Charity

Recommended to me by one of Ember's guides, this is an important book and you need to read it if you serve around the nonprofit, church outreach, or missions arenas. Much of the premise of the book lies in this statement: "Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people."

Two early examples in the book grabbed me. First was the notion that every time the author was involved in delivering Christmas gifts to needy families, the father in those families left the room. The experience sapped their hope and dignity. The second example was his church's transformation of a food pantry into a food co-op. This cooperative actually 'employed' the people that it served with roles ranging from managing the budget, to deciding which food to purchase to manning the 'storefront'.

I first learned of this dependency/sustainability issues with regard to global missions and poverty in the Perspectives class. When I ran student missions for a megachurch, we never engaged with a building project precisely because I wanted us to stay away from projects that might create dependency issues. This book is helping Ember get an even sharper focus when it comes to poverty and the poor and the projects we help facilitate.

Dr. Lupton also touches on controversial ideas such as whether short term missions is effective and African economist Dambisa Moyo's claims that aid to Africa pushed it into poverty. [See this for sharp contrast between this idea and Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty author.] Although there probably isn't a black and white answer, understanding the tension in both of these issues is part of being a global leader today and in the future. Neither short term missions or the relationship between aid and the economic ladder will be going away anytime soon.

I agreed with a lot of what this book said, especially in terms of Ember's work with students. After reading this, I'm more convinced than ever about our primary paradigm of 'catalyst'. This paradigm seeks out the indigenous, helps people do what they are already capable of doing and tries to minimize dependency on us. Ember's also going to be hosting a discussion session on this book with some of our guides and students because, like with all important concepts, it's all about executing and contextualizing those ideas. Maybe tell you more about that later.

Here's some other quotes:

The Bahamas, it is estimated, annually receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents.

And unlike clothes closets that place limits on the number of visits and garments a recipient is allowed, a thrift store relies on attracting paying customers to purchase as many clothes as they are able. When the customer is necessary to ensure the business's survival, there is equity of power. And parity is the higher form of charity.

Food in our society is a chronic poverty need, not a life-threatening one. And when we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment.

If we cared about, for instance, seeing human dignity enhanced, or trusting relationships being formed, or self-sufficiency increasing, then we could employ proven methods known to accomplish these goals. We know that trust grows with accountability over time. we know that mutual exchange and legitimate negotiating is energizing (people of every culture love to bargain!) And we know that employment starts people on the path to self-reliance. We know these things. And we have the capacity to accomplish them. But the will to change our traditional charity systems - now that is the real challenge.

Dead Aid:
- get off aid
- promote entrepreneurship
- promote free trade
- invest in infrastructure
- secure reasonable loans, not grants
- encourage stable homeownership

Questions for community building work
- who are the producers
- where is the energy
- what is the win and is it achievable
- who are the principal investors
- whats the organizing mechanism

The oath for compassionate service
- never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves
- limit one way giving to emergency situations
- strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements
- subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served
- listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said - unspoken feelings - may contain essential clues to effective service
- above all, do no harm

Don't presume that because an area is poor and run down it is devoid of leadership and resources. In every community, there are leaders who exercise influence - informal leadership perhaps or elected officers of a not-so-well-organize neighborhood association, but leaders nonetheless.

Getting to know community leaders first requires us to listen and respect indigenous leadership and learn the dreams of the people.

The best investments, however, are not the program volunteers initiate but the capacity and connections of committed partners.

Does the proposed activity strengthen the capacity of neighborhood residents to prioritize and address their own issues?
Will the proposed activity be wealth-generating or at least self-sustaining for the community?
Do the moneys generated for and/or by the local residents remain at work in their community?
Does the proposed activity have a timetable for training and transfeering ownership to indigenous leadership?

Need does not constitute a call. [**Someone needs to unpack THIS]

Betterment does for others. Development maintains the long view and looks to enable others to do for themselves.
Betterment improves conditions. Development strengths capacity.
Betterment gives a man a fish. Development teaches a man how to fish.

Indices for measuring community health [could this be how we measure effectiveness of churches?]
- public safety
- educational improvements
- economic vitality
- homeowner/renter retention
- neighborhood associations
- spiritual vitality

The best service projects are joint ventures where the need is real and the vision compelling, the work is organized and productive, and the interests of both groups are satisfied.

If there is one take-away message that this book can offer to those in service work or supporting it, it is this: the poor, no matter how destitute, have enormous untapped capacity; find it, be inspired by it, and build upon it.


  1. LOVE this post. Thanks for posting it.

    "Need does not constitute a call. [**Someone needs to unpack THIS)"

    I know. The president of Wheaton talked about this a lot.

    Hey I'm home- would love to see you! Coffee sometime?

  2. yeah thats a huge one huh? ps - i'm texting you right now =)

  3. Tayest7:53 PM

    Can't wait for Jan 8th. We're excited

  4. going to be great! =)