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What helps and what hurts in relief and development aid?

Jimmy Carter once said, “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something . . . I’m free to choose what that something is, and the something I’ve chosen is my faith . . . My faith demands — this is not optional — my faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”

Many Christians are doing their best to make a difference. We know our faith compels us to action, and we’re ready to get to work. But when we read the news, we’re confronted with stories of Christians who got it wrong. They wanted to help, but in their zeal they did more harm than good. The narratives related to charity can be equally confusing, and it’s hard to tell if our gifts are helping or hurting. 

Often these missteps come down to a lack of education combined with our impulse to “just do something.” We need a robust understanding of forms of aid in order to decipher which form is most appropriate in a given circumstance. 

Relief aid: Timing is everything

The two most common types of aid are relief aid and development aid. These two categories of assistance share the same overarching goal of helping people overcome difficult circumstances. However, relief aid tends to be reactionary as it is generally employed after a disaster. It often involves supplying materials needed to sustain life that have become inaccessible or limited. 

An example of relief aid is distributing medicine, food baskets, or clean water after a natural disaster. One tell-tale marker is a lack of long-term goals because relief aid focuses on doing the most immediate good in out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. It’s inherently bound by a time limit; when the emergency ends, so does the assistance.

Relief aid is necessary in many situations, but if implemented inappropriately it can lead to a host of problems, including dependence, unhealthy power dynamics, and the demeaning of vulnerable people. 

Giving away goods on a regular basis encourages dependence on the giver. When we choose to provide relief aid to communities for an extended time, particularly after the initial crisis has ceased, they eventually come to depend on donations to function at a normal level. This has been a chronic problem among evangelicals. In an effort to be generous, Christians have applied prolonged relief aid beyond when it is helpful. This can stifle local economies, circumvent slower upstream work in favor of quick-fixes, and overlook the assets a community already possesses. 

Additionally, inappropriately administered relief aid degrades those being served. When we insist on supplying temporary provisions rather than striving to educate and empower people to provide for themselves, we relay the message that they are not intelligent or capable enough to thrive independently.

As Christians who honor the imago Dei, we should prioritize teaching people to care for themselves and their family. Our aid must acknowledge God-given capability in every person.

Development aid: Commitment is key

For these reasons, it is vital to prioritize development aid over relief aid in noncrisis situations. Development aid seeks to attack the root problems causing vulnerabilities like fatherlessness and poverty. It aims to improve economic and social issues through education, reform, and asset-based empowerment. The goal of development aid is self-sufficient communities. Barring cases of disaster, they have the tools to depend on neighbors rather than outsiders for support.

Development aid is often considered “upstream” work because it is preventative in nature. It addresses the underlying issues of cultural and systemic brokenness. For instance, if parents bring their children to a children’s home because they can’t provide food and education, a root cause of the orphan crisis in that community is poverty. By helping to establish sustainable means of income, we can help prevent avoidable family fracturing.

A Ugandan example to follow

127 Worldwide’s aquaponics project seeks to address that very upstream issue in Nebbi, Uganda. Several years ago, 127 assisted Odongo Geoffrey, local pastor and partner to 127, with creating an aquaponics system on the property of Acres of Hope School and Children’s Home. We built ponds that house catfish, and the nutrient-rich water from the ponds fertilizes nearby crops. The fish and vegetables grown through this system feed children at the school, and the sale of these goods raises money for Acres of Hope to continue its ministry. 

But aquaponics has also equipped Geoffrey with the means to implement both relief and development aid himself. Today Geoffrey manages six fish ponds on the property, and each pond holds up to 1000 fish. Aquaponics is producing more fish than the school needs. Geoffrey plans to sell the fish to families in his community at wholesale price, allowing them to turn a profit at retail price in the market. He hopes to provide sustainable income to needy families through his ponds. He’s also developing personal mini-aquaponics systems the size of whiskey-barrels that families can use to harvest their own fish and water their crops. 

In an area where the average monthly income is $50, these sustainable solutions are a step toward helping vulnerable communities flourish. When COVID-19 hit, Geoffrey leveraged his development project toward relief aid, distributing fish and vegetables to families affected by the virus and lockdowns. He has even more plans for how aquaponics can continue to serve his community, but just these examples show how investment in development aid can make a long-lasting impact on vulnerable communities.

It is important to note that the gradual movement from relief aid to development aid is not linear, and Geoffrey’s story illustrates that well. There will never be a point at which a community never needs relief aid again. Geographic location, government instability, and family fracturing make some communities uniquely vulnerable to continued crises. But in any new crisis situation, it is important to again provide relief aid, while still attempting to maintain previously-adopted development initiatives. A general pattern of intentional and sustained movement toward development-based aid remains the best tool for achieving community transformation.

Your part

The impulse to care for the vulnerable among us is evidence of authentic Christian faith (James 1:27). The gospel compels us to do something about the brokenness we see in the world around us. But gaining the knowledge to discern how to empower communities to thrive often requires more time and investment than we expect. As you consider what role you might have in serving vulnerable communities, let us make three suggestions.

  1. Do the research before you give. Ask good questions, read news articles, and try to find out as much about a given initiative as you can. If you determine that a project is perpetuating relief aid beyond its helpfulness, look for another organization that is doing development work in the same area. In true crisis situations, consider giving both to a relief cause and toward a development cause in order to meet immediate needs and help those who are preparing for long-term solutions.
  2. Look for organizations to invest in monthly. Sustainable solutions take time and require ongoing support. 127 Worldwide partners with four local leaders, including Geoffrey, in Uganda, Kenya, and Guatemala. The contributions of monthly donors allow 127 to support ongoing community development and contribute to relief causes in those places. Find an organization whose mission you believe in and invest your resources there.
  3. Consider how to best honor the imago Dei in your own relationships and ministry. It’s not just organizations asking you for donations that cause you to evaluate your charity. We all encounter people with financial needs whom we could help in a variety of ways. Next time you meet someone asking for a handout, consider what God has given you to utilize in loving your neighbor and how your actions either affirm or deny their God-given capabilities. 

We have all been given different gifts, capabilities, and callings to serve the Lord. Yet, we know we are all meant to minister to the vulnerable. Pray for wisdom and discernment as to how you can meet tangible needs in a way that promotes flourishing and carry the gospel to your neighbors near and far. 

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