Development is hard: Carolina

IMG_3389

Shortly after moving to Mexico, my wife and I met a 13 year old girl named Carolina. She quickly became a little sister to us. She would hang out with us all the time. She appreciated having a protective and loving big brother and, being the youngest of five, I actually enjoyed having a younger sister to spend time with. She is such a kind-hearted person and I loved watching her grow over the years. After her quinceanera, my wife and I prayed with her and let her know that anything she ever needed, we would be there. She became a very important part of our lives while we were living there. We just love her so much and we felt like it was so unfair that this incredibly beautiful and gentle person lives the life that she has to live every day.

After a few years my wife and I left Mexico to move back home to Phoenix. We still visit every now and then but one of the things we miss the most is spending time with Carolina.

On our last visit she gave us a letter, explaining that school is getting hard and her family needs money so she is going to quit high school and start looking for work. She has made it farther in her education than anyone in her family before her, so they are supporting her decision.

This is where development gets really hard. The decision is not clear cut. Should we step in and make sure she stays in school? The point in life isn’t to graduate high school. If she hasn’t taken it upon herself to own her future and make it better, us stepping in would be like putting bandaid on a broken arm.

This is one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen and here she is being thrown to the wolves in the barrios of Mexico. Worst case, she’s picked up by some cartel member who makes her his new girlfriend. Best case, she graduates high school and works as a day laborer wrapping candy or separating shrimp.

The point is, best case scenario for the majority of the world is a devastating prospect. I believe we can change that. It will not be easy, but if it changes the reality of someone like Carolina in 50 years from now, it’ll be worth it.

Pray for me and my beautiful “little sister” Carolina. She created a place in my heart that I didn’t even know existed. She needs to know she’s valuable and she needs to know that life doesn’t have to be about simply surviving.

Make the jump

Edgar 2I started out as a great white missionary who was going to move to Mexico and save the world. Now, I’m a full time advocate for local development who is generally against great white missionaries going into the field. That was a big jump. Someone recently asked me how I went from one extreme to the other. I met a guy named Edgar.

I work for 1Mission. We’re a nonprofit giving people in poverty the opportunity to earn a new home by serving in their community. One way we do that is by hosting short-term teams who come for a weekend at a time to help build homes. In March of 2009, we had a group cancel last minute because they said it was too dangerous to come to Mexico. Regarding the danger, it just doesn’t exist but that’s not what this is about.

We had already purchased the materials, the house needed to be built whether the group was coming down or not. We gathered up some people we’d built for in the past and the neighbors of the family receiving the house. This is the first house we built using exclusively local labor. It was a powerful thing to be a part of.

At the house dedication, Edgar (the man to the furthest left of the picture above), gave a small speech. He said, “If there are a bunch of Mexican crabs in a bucket, when one tries to escape, the others will pull him down. Today, we got down on our hands and knees to serve each other. We gave of ourselves to create a ladder so that each one of us could get out of the bucket together. We don’t need anyone else’s help for us to serve each other.”

Needless to say it was an inspiring moment for the local volunteers and for me. We saw a glimpse of our future in real life.

Fast forward to today. Just a few weeks ago we built over 16 houses in one weekend. Those 16 houses represent 3200 volunteer hours served in the community (by locals)! We could have parachuted a team in, built a house, and lives would have been changed forever. Instead, we encouraged community members to get involved and to become active participants in their development, not passive recipients.

It all started with a group that cancelled last minute. What obstacles are you facing right now that could become your future reason for success?

Success Story

luz 1When people have lived in poverty for generations, why do we think we can bring them out of it in even a few years? It can be a very thankless job because successes can be very few and far between. You aren’t alone if you wonder if you even have a success story. Here is one example of what success looks like:

Amparo is a single mom with eight kids. She has been volunteering with us for over a year.  We weren’t able to build for her because she has no legal ownership of the piece of land she is living on.  Over the course of a year, she built friendships with some of the other women she volunteers with.  They began encouraging her to apply for a piece of land nearby that she could gain ownership of.  Two ladies that have been working with us for a while walked her through the steps to acquire some land.  The biggest obstacle was the $300 required for a down payment.  She had exactly $0 saved.  She hasn’t had a steady job since we’ve known her, and barely makes enough money for a little bit of food each day.

One of the ladies who met her through volunteering came to us and wanted to help with the down payment.  Maricela is a mother of 5 kids.  Her and her husband have not had steady work since we’ve known them either.  They gave $40.  Thats about two weeks of income for them but to her, Amparo needed it more than she did.  Maricela believed that others were there for her when she was in need, and now she had the opportunity to help when someone else was in need.  Over the course of four days Amparo’s community came beside her and raised the money needed for a down payment.

The day her house was completed, her neighbors and friends surrounded her, all crying as they looked at Amparo’s new home, which they had each helped make possible.

How we measure success is through locals serving in, and giving to, their community.  We are happy to see more and more community members taking ownership in making their neighborhood a better place to live.

Measuring Success

I’m a strong advocate for the saying, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” That means that if you aren’t measuring something, it’s probably not getting better. If you are a runner who isn’t tracking your time and distance, you probably aren’t improving as a runner. So many churches measure attendance because it’s an easy number to obtain. What happens when all you measure is church attendance? You have a lot of shallow people filling your church every week who aren’t connecting to God or to each other. The evangelical church has been guilty of this for years.

In international work more than ever it is important that you have measurable results. There are countless ways to measure success. In the work of a Christian, one possible way is laid out for us at the end of the second chapter of Acts.

Acts 2:42-47 says:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This is describing what a Christian community looked like right after Jesus died. One thing we have to be aware of, is that this passage is a description of what the early church looked like, not a prescription of exactly what our communities should look like. Too often we read passages like this and try to force fit our culture into it, this can have very damaging results.

That said, here are some measurable results you can use to know if you are on the right track. Since a lot of our success is spiritual and therefore intangible, it’s easy to fake. Be very cautious of this, it will only harm you and your ministry by pretending to have results. The real challenge, however, is it’s even easy to deceive yourself! Sit down with a trusted supporter, board member, or colleague every month and measure your success based on the following results:

What is a disciple?

Why development?

Recently, someone close to me told me that they’ve found a lot of scripture to support caring for the poor but nothing really says we need to focus on development work. My answer was something similar to:

  1. Caring for the poor should not be taken out of context from the rest of the Bible. We are still called to disciple, to teach, and to empower regardless of a person’s materially wealth. Thus, we should care for the poor in a way that honors the rest of scripture. That means we should value everyone as stewards of resources, not helpless victims.
  2. Development works better than relief in truly serving the materially poor. God gave us brains to come up with good strategies for dealing with things and we should implement those strategies when they work.
  3. Jesus treated the material poor with dignity and when we don’t we aren’t honoring them as God’s children, equal to us.
  4. A sign of a true disciple is someone who gives and helps others. If we aren’t careful, we could be robbing a local of the joy that comes from giving and serving. Short-term mission trips are especially guilty of this.
  5. There’s clear support for caring for the poor throughout scripture. When we use our brains and take the entirety of the Gospel into consideration, it’s clear that development is the best way to truly care for the poor.
  6. Does God hand us everything we want or does he provide us opportunities to grow and fail and succeed and struggle and celebrate? Why should we take those opportunities away from other people?
  7. God’s overarching purpose is not that no one goes hungry but that everyone is redeemed and given the opportunities to be what they were originally created to be. Relief work only does part of that, development is all about that redemption process.

Short-Term Missions (again)

There’s been a lot of talk about short-term missions (STM) lately. Most of it is well grounded and theoretical but not super practical. I really want to dive into why STM are the way they are and what we can do about it. This is incredibly hard to do because there are so many STM organizations and so many different groups of people that want to do something about it.

It would be one long (and hard to read) post if I tried to answer all of that at once. Instead, I’m going to do a series of posts looking at STM from a bunch of different angles. Churches, organizations, groups, and individuals all look at STM in completely different ways. Just like community development work should be done holistically, so should developing a new definition of STM. I’ll start off with a few links to other useful resources that introduce different perspectives on STM.

Here’s a blog post I wrote so you can see my bias right off the bat (though I’ll try to keep it objective throughout the series).

Here’s a book I highly recommend about the subject. I’ll be doing a review on this book shortly.

Lastly, a blog post I’m not affiliated with that does a good job explaining the big picture of STM.

Some things I’ll address in this series of posts:

  • What does an individual need to know about STM?
  • What should you be on the look out for when searching for a good trip to go on?
  • What types of organizations can host an effective STM?
  • Why do STM have such a bad reputation?
  • What can someone do to be most prepared for a STM trip?
  • What are some basic dos and don’ts?
  • How to take and how not to take pictures on a STM trip.
  • What is our role in world missions and community development?

Just so you know: I will not say that you should not participate in any short term missions. I do not think that you should stop giving money. I still think STMs can be an incredible way to share life with people all around the world. It’s an opportunity that my grandparents certainly didn’t have and I’m appreciative that my generation can now do things like this. That said, with great opportunity comes great responsibility. We must do everything we can to make sure STM are helping who we say they are meant to help.

I’ll update this post with links to each new post in this series so you can always come back to it for reference. This is such a big topic, I’d love to get a discussion going. Email goodmudblog [at] gmail.com if you’re interested in something like that and I’ll help set up a google hangout or a Skype session.

Ingenuity and Sustainability

This video is a great example of the innovation that can be found all over the world. Another example is this post from Good Magazine today. As international development workers, it’s our job to find ingenuity and encourage it. It doesn’t matter if they are building lights, inventing new irrigation systems, or preaching the word. All we can do is find a little spark, add some fuel, and hope it starts a fire throughout the communities we work in.

Intentionally be on the lookout for creativity and innovation among the people you are working with. Robert Lupton says it well in his book, Toxic Charity:

“The poor, no matter how destitute, have enormous untapped capacity; find it, be inspired by it, and build upon it.”

This concept is the single most effective tool you have in fighting poverty in a sustainable way.

The Joy of Giving

joy-of-giving

In 1 Chronicles 29, David prays a prayer over the new temple in Jerusalem.

In verse 14 he says, “Who am I, and who are my people that we should be able to give like this?”

He was mystified that the creator of everything would deem him and his people worthy of giving anything. He goes on to say, “I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you.”

There is an honest joy associated with giving. David understood this and he was experiencing it when he prayed those words.

When we send money oversees, we could be robbing a local community of this joy. Are there exceptions? Sure, but they are few and far between.

A new measurement of success could be: how much are the people you’re serving with giving?

No matter what aspect of international work you are involved with you have to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do the people I serve experience the joy of giving?
  • What actions could send the message that their gifts aren’t enough?
  • Have we ever discouraged someone from giving (with actions or words)?
  • How are we encouraging people we serve to give?

Giving to a bigger cause is almost always a sign of maturity and development. It’s also a command from scripture. Are we being faithful to the full teachings of Christ? He commended the poor widow that gave just two coins. If I had seen that widow, I would have probably tried to convince her that giving away 100% of her money was bad stewardship.

The joy of giving is such an important part of our spirituality. Please make sure you are not robbing anyone, or any community, of this joy.

Book Review: Poor Economics

I just finished the book so its still fresh on the mind, it’s called: Poor Economics.poor-economics-book-cover

This is the FIRST book I’ve read that does a good job of explaining both sides of different important issues.

There are a lot of differing [valid] arguments when it comes to how to fight poverty.  What everyone can [finally] agree on is that there is no silver bullet.  It’ll take multiple efforts in varying sectors to really put a dent in poverty.  Most organizations and individuals represent one of two arguments.

The relief argument says that Africa needs more clothes, more food, and more money handed out to the people.

The development argument says that Africa needs to learn to make their own clothes, grow their own food, and produce their own wealth.  How can we help Africa accomplish this self-sustainability?

If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time you know squarely where I fall.  I’ve alway said we need to emphasize development and IF we use relief it must be to kickstart the development process.

This book does a good job of explaining why neither relief nor development alone can solve the problem of poverty. It cannot be either/or but both/and.  It is a great overview of almost everything that is currently being done by governments and NGO’s alike.

Food, health, education, family size, children, savings & loans, and politics are all addressed.

This book gives real examples of what has worked and what hasn’t worked in the fight against poverty all over the world.  Its written by two MIT economists that studied 18 different countries over the course of 15 years.

The basic conclusion of the book is that the policies and efforts to fight poverty have failed in the last 50 years because we haven’t truly understood it.  We filter poverty through our personal lenses and make policies or programs based on what we would want if we were in a given situation.  The answer, is to understand it on a ground level and work our way up.

I appreciate that the book emphasizes the fact that true change will come from the bottom up, not the top down.  I also like that it does not ignore the responsibility that those on top do have to advocate for those on bottom.

Its an all around good book, though it can be difficult to get through at times (both authors are professors of economics at MIT).

There are some shortcomings.  It mildly addresses spiritual issues.  The fact is witch doctors, the occult, and many false religions have a strong hold on poverty.  Without truth in the form of a loving God that does not motivate through guilt and fear many people will never break the chains of poverty.

My conclusion: This book has had a significant impact on the world and on me personally when it comes to viewing and aiding the fight against poverty.  Anyone involved in social justice issues that deal with the poor, must have this book on their bookshelf.  If you give money to charities I would highly recommend reading this book to determine if your charity of choice is on the right track to truly put an end to poverty.

Chronic vs Crisis

I wrote a post on short-term missions that wasn’t super helpful. It explained a problem without even starting to talk about solution(s). That’s not the way I like to do things.

One solution can be found in the “Chronic vs Crisis” discussion. One way to determine if relief work is necessary (as most short-term mission trips are), is by asking the question, “Is this situation a crisis or is it chronic?”

A crisis is usually caused by a natural disaster, a war, or some other act of God that cannot be predicted. After the earthquake in Haiti, it’s perfectly appropriate that organizations went there with airplanes full of food and medical supplies to hand out. Like I’ve said before, if someone is about to drown, it’s not a good time to teach them how to swim; just pull them out of the water.

What probably isn’t appropriate, however, is that years later some of those same organizations are still handing out food and medical supplies without any local involvement or ownership.

Chronic is everything that isn’t a crisis. Normal life. Every day. Most poverty around the world is chronic poverty and although it’s getting better it’s been around a long time and probably won’t be going away tomorrow (though I still believe it could go away in our lifetime).

The solution to a crisis is immediate relief.  The solution to a chronic problem is long-term development.

If you try to do development during a crisis, people will die. If you try to do relief work in a community with chronic poverty, you’ll be reinforcing their poverty.

It’s crucial that we understand the difference between the two and implement solutions that are fitting.