Welcome to the Book Journey of Overrated by Eugene Cho.
Have you read the book review and schedule for this book journey?
If not, you can find it here.
Chapter Nine – The Irony of Doing Justice … Unjustly
Author Eugene Cho opens this chapter with some searching questions:
- Is it possible to do justice … unjustly?
- Is it possible that we’re doing justice and creating unhealthy dependence?
- Is it possible that we’re doing justice and making ourselves out to be the Western saviors or heroes?
- Is it possible that we’re doing justice by exploiting the poor and not extending dignity?
Cho illustrates the basis for these concerns with a true story. A US-based nonprofit worker visited a village in Bangledesh to connect with a local NGO. The mission of this US nonprofit was to provide pajamas to children – pajamas to a country where kids were dying from preventable diseases, disproportionately high amounts of women were dying in childbirth, poor nutrition was causing kids to die from diarrhea, and oral redehydration was just being developed. In other words, as Dr. Meredith Long, life-time devotee to service and humanitarian efforts said, “at this time in Bangledesh…we were focused on the core areas of child survival, such as access to and understanding of immunizations, reproductive health, and family planning.”
The bigger problem came when the US worker insisted on dressing up the kids in pajamas in order to take pictures for donors. Then, when the pajamas ran out, he wanted to simply take the pajamas from the first group of kids and have new children wear the pajamas for pictures. Needless to say, the local worker refused, and the US worker left angry, reporting that other NGOs had been willing to complete the pictures for him. The story worsens: the US worker was staying in a nice hotel, made numerous international calls, and left the local NGO with a couple thousand dollars’ worth of phone bills – a debt greater than the goods he delivered in the first place.
As Cho summarizes: “This is not development, not relationships building, and certainly not moving people toward independence, empowerment, or reciprocity. I believe the mind-set is selfish. With this mindset, we could very well be robbing people of their dignity. Dare I say it – I believe, in fact, that this way of thinking is sinful.”
BOBS and TOMS shoes
BOBS and TOMS are both lines of shoes in which the consumer buys a pair of shoes and someone in the developing world receives a pair free. The BOB tagline goes: Look good. Feel good. Do good.
While this shoes are certainly fashionable, Cho explains that “the criticism at TOMS (and presumably BOBS as well) in the humanitarian world is that the sometimes-airdropped boxes of shoes disrupt the economies they seek to help, and that they are essentially passing off consumption as charity.” The overarching issues of poverty and unemployment are overlooked, while the sales and eventual distribution of the shoes only treat a symptom “and are in fact making the economy worse in countries that already have high unemployment,” says Cho.
Despite the stats and critcism, it is commendable that TOMS continues to evolve. Cho says, “it is now manufacturing some of its shoes in Ethiopia, in one of the communities that receives the shoes. Similar manufacturing plans are in the work for Kenya and India and Haiti.”
In short, “at the end of the day, whether you’re for-profit or not-for-profit, we shouldn’t do what we do at the expense of those living in poverty,” says Cho.
The Responsibility of Storytelling
Two exceptional quotes that can stand alone from this section:
In discussing the temptation to paint people in a negative light, in order to raise funds and garner support, Cho says, “we can’t parade people around the same way the Humane Society parades abused animals, heap guilt on the audience, and give little dignity to the people we seek to serve…So let’s be responsible and work with integrity. It’s important because the last thing we want to do is perpetuate the false picture that people in all developing countries are helpless, hopeless, hungry, needy, and incapable.”
“Imagine if other countries sent their missionaries, NGOs, and churches to your respective country. What if they came to the USA? They would likely take lots of selfies with us smiling or crying in the background. They would take photos of us with runny noses, ripped Abercrombies, and worn-out TOMS shoes. Maybe they would sell T-shirts to save us. #AfricanSaviorComplex. Sounds ridiculous, right?”
Relief, Recovery, or Development?
This section references the book, When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert, a highly-recommended read for anyone interested in a biblical perspective on helping the poor responsibly. Cho summarizes his takeaway from this book by saying, “a helpful first step in thinking about working with the poor in any context is to discern whether the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development.”
RELIEF: urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid; reduces immediate suffering, often from natural or man-made disaster. This sometimes looks like Red Cross providing assistance immediately following a disaster.
REHABILITATION: seeks to restore people and communities to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions, works with victims as they participate in their own recovery. Often this looks like the means to access and grow food, rather than relying on the relief efforts of delivering food, following a disaster. Cho says, “the job of the humanitarians is not providing the food; it is training and equipping those in need to do it on their own.”
DEVELOPMENT: ongoing change that moves all people involved closer to being in the right relationship with God, self, others, and creation; this is not done to or for people but with people. Development affects the “helpers” and the “helped.” Often this looks like skill training, saving groups, and microlending to grow businesses.
The problem, as said by Cho, is this: “We do not move beyond handouts. This is our Western mindset about helping people: to be content with giving handouts instead of equipping people long-term.”
Relationships > Missions
Cho says, “About 25 years ago, 120,000 people embarked on short-term mission trips, usually spending 1-3 weeks in an impoverished area or country, serving the community in some way. Now the number of short-term missionaries has grown by at least 1,800% to about 2.2 million in 2006. That year, we spent $1.6 billion on the trips alone…with any massive change in behavior, there must be impact, with both good and bad consequences, intentional and unintentional.”
Cho shares two painful, yet necessary stories to process.
- A church in Mexico that hosted many short-term teams and allowed its building to be repainted 6 times during one summer by 6 groups to keep the teams busy.
- A misguided team in Brazil accidentally built a wall on an orphanage’s soccer field.
Further, Cho points out that “the typical short-term mission trip might easily cost between $2,000 and $4,000 per person. The thought of sending 10 to 20 people from a church across the world at a cost of between $20,000 and $80,000 doesn’t make a lot of sense when you consider how far that money would go if given directly to fund in-country development initiatives.”
Cho agrees with the concept that short-term trips may be beneficial and life-changing for those going on the trip. Yet, as a rule of thumb, “spending more money to visit in person and see the work than you are investing in the work is ludicrous.”
And, in summary, Cho says that it’s not a matter of choosing between local or international missions. “I believe neighbor is a broad term,” he says, “especially now because we know about and are connected with the entire planet through the web, nonstop cable news, and social media. While it still may be a bad idea to send a team of 20 to Mexico to repaint a church wall, the value in international travel and ‘vision trips’ remains.”
Don’t Reduce People to Projects
“Be careful. Be wise. Be human,” says Cho. “When you’re not interested in building genuine mutual relationships, you rob people of dignity and they become projects. Don’t reduce people into projects. When that happens, they become statistics instead of people. How can you love and serve the poor if you don’t even know the poor?”
Here are some posts related to topics in this chapter.
- How to make your short-term mission trip a long-term blessing
- Please don’t do missions – live missions
- Why doing missions is not the goal
- When the mission field slips in under your feet
- From the steeples to the streets
- How to really be a blessing (and not just donate your stuff)
- 12 Marks of a Welcomer
- Close enough to love
- How to trash the rose-colored glasses & treat the calloused heart
Remember, quotes from the book are posted daily on my Front Porch, Inspired Facebook page.
NOTE: The summary and discussion questions for Chapter 10 are included in a separate post.