What helps and what hurts in relief and development aid?

April 30, 2021

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. 

Grace Sigmon

Grace Sigmon has served as an intern for 127 Worldwide through high school and now in college. She is currently studying nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a member of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh. She is part of a family of seven, with … Read More

Wren Yaeger

Wren worked as the Content and Messaging Coordinator at 127 Worldwide. She and her husband, Wyatt, have a son named Mordecai and now live in the Middle East. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24