Equal Exchange

equal-exchange1MISSION asks  families to volunteer in their communities before they are eligible to earn a new house through our program. We actually get a lot of questions about our process. Wouldn’t it be more loving if we just built a house for them, no questions asked or strings attached? Short answer: no. Long answer: continue reading.

OPTION 1: Fly a team in and build a house for a family of 6 that currently lives in a cardboard box in the rainy mountains of El Salvador.


OPTION 2: Ask that they become engaged in their community and in the process, meet many other people just like them who live and work in their community.

Let’s fast forward 10 years:

OPTION 1 IN 10 YEARS: The family lives in a decent house that is beginning to fall apart. The really good news, however, is that no one living in the house has died from hurricanes, mud slides, earth quakes, or respiratory problems.

OPTION 2 IN 10  YEARS: The family lives in a decent house that is beginning to fall apart. The really good news, however, is that no one living in the house has died from hurricanes, mud slides, earth quakes, or respiratory problems. The even better news is that most of the community knows each other from when they all helped build each others’ homes. If the neighborhood watch program works in America, imagine how much more engaged these community members are. How would you feel about your neighbor if he actually helped build your house? Also, the community now has access to reputable doctors, pastors, teachers, and government officials because they interacted with them while volunteering to earn hours for a new home.

Which option seems more loving? A community who “does life” together or a bunch of individuals that received something for free from some foreigners?

If you still think option 1 sounds more loving, you are probably motivated by feelings and emotions more than truth and authentic development. The remedy for this usually requires two things. The first one is observing a genuinely dependent community and seeing the harm caused by dependencies first-hand. The second one is some honest personal assessment about why you’re in this line of work in the first place.


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?

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.



Development work is all about integration:

Physical and Spiritual

Commandment and Commission

Relief and Development

Individual and Community

Culture and Truth

Is your work integrated? I’ll be honest, it’s a lot easier if it isn’t. It is a lot easier to measure fragments.


The short-term gains (measurability, convenience, explainability, etc…) aren’t worth it.



The following is a story I heard during a CHE Training. If you are interested in community development at all CHE is the absolutely first place I would recommend starting. I wandered around community development for a year and a half before stumbling on CHE and I haven’t been the same since.

Here’s the story (word of warning, it’s longer than my usual posts):

There once was a village located on top of a steep mountain. On a regular basis, as people were coming down the mountain, they would slip off the trail and fall to the valley below. A number of people were injured and some even killed.

A visitor came to their village, saw this problem and wanted to do something about it. He thought about what he could do and then decided that the best thing would be to station an ambulance at the base of the mountain. Therefore, when a person fell, a driver could rush with the ambulance to pick him up and bring him to the closest hospital 10 kilometers away. The people in the village were excited about this idea.

One day the ambulance broke down, but the people ignored the problem until another person fell off the trail and needed the ambulance to be taken to the hospital, but there was no transport available.  They then became very concerned and went looking for the outsider who had put the ambulance there. They complained that his ambulance was broken down and wanted to know why he didn’t keep the vehicle in good repair. He fixed it for them.  However, the same problem happened several more times, again with the people coming to the outsider wanting him to sort out the problem.

The outsider finally decided that there were too many repairs required on the vehicle and he didn’t have the money or time to keep fixing it. He told the people it was their problem, he had tried to help but no longer could.  The people felt sad about this, but did nothing. They were now back to the place where they had begun.

Representatives from the church diocese came, saw the problem and said they wanted to help. The diocese decided that what was really needed was a clinic at the foot of the mountain, so if someone fell they could get immediate medical care. The diocese then built a clinic, provided equipment, staff and drugs. The people were very happy that those who fell could now get immediate attention and not have to make the 10-kilometer drive to the other clinic.

This worked well for awhile, but eventually those working at the clinic wanted some time off so the clinic was left unattended. The people went to the diocese and complained about the poor service that the clinic was providing and said the diocese had to give them better care. The diocese put in extra staff to cover during the holidays.

Several times the clinic ran out of drugs and the people complained about the poor care the diocese was providing for them. The diocese ran low on money and had to stop some of their operations to conserve their money. They decided to stop staffing this clinic and providing drugs for it. They shut it down. The people were very angry with the diocese.

The people didn’t know what to do. The two ideas which outsiders had done for them, the ambulance and clinic, were no longer available and working. A respected man in the community said, “Let’s meet to talk about the real problem.”  They looked back at their original need, which was to somehow take care of those who fell off the path as they were traveling up and down the mountain from the village.  The two solutions helped somewhat, but there were problems with each solution.

As they talked, the respected man said, “I had an idea when we first talked about the problem, but no one would listen to me. The outsider was going to do everything for us for free. My idea would have taken some work and money on our part so no one was interested in what I had to offer.”

He then told them his idea, which was to build a fence along the trail to keep people from falling over the edge. It would take work on the part of the people to cut the wood for the fence and to put it up. It would take a little money to put the fence posts in cement so they would last longer.

The people responded with, “That’s a great idea. Let’s do it.”  So they raised the little money they needed and began to work. After several weeks the work was done.  Now, when someone slipped, the fence stopped them from falling over the edge to the valley below.  After a few years the wood began to rot, but instead of going to an outsider, they went and fixed the fence themselves.

Now, instead of looking to the outside for help, they began to look to their own community for solving the problem. This one project gave them confidence that they could do things for themselves. Now when someone from the outside came to give them something, they said “Thank you, but if we think it is important we will do it ourselves.


Handouts and relief work make us feel good, but don't actually accomplish much.

Handouts and relief work make us feel good, but don’t actually accomplish much.

For the last 20+ years missions and charity work has been mostly motivated by what makes us feel good as the giver. Unfortunately, after years of this we’ve expended an absurd amount energy, money, and thought without accomplishing much in the realm of moving communities beyond poverty… but we definitely feel good about it.

Maybe what feels good to us is actually cuasing apathy and disinterest among the people we are trying to help. It’s holding them back from owning their own communities and being the change they want to see. What’s the point? If I work hard I can save money and paint my own house. If I do nothing but sit around and wait and look poor, some organization will come and paint my house for me.

Robert Lupton says it well in his book, Compassion Justice, and the Christian Life.

Doing for a community what it is capable of doing for itself is charity at its worst.

The focus has to be on community members seeing themselves as the solution, not some outside program.

The richest man in the world is a Mexican. He doesn’t believe in charity for some of the same reasons.

Without teaching capability and responsibility all the money and good intentions in the world won’t end poverty.

If you got in this world of international aid to feel good, relief and handouts are the way to go. If you got into this because you truly want to end poverty, handouts simply aren’t an option.

Relief vs Development

I talk about relief vs development a lot. Here is a quick overview of some of the differences between the two.


This is just a start to help explain/understand the differences. This article puts it well.

If we are going to move from charity to community development in our ministries, we must move from being servants to being friends. We must become immersed in the lives of people and in the life of our community, to the point where we no longer see a distinction between our well-being and theirs. All of our well-being is tied together through out bond of friendship and faith.

There is no more us and them. It’s only us. Paul seems to agree.

The answer is dignity, not stuff.

Outside of the Mathare Vally Slums in Nairobi, Kenya.

Small structure in the Mathare Vally Slums in Nairobi, Kenya.

Poverty is not a lack of stuff, you’ll hear me say that a lot.  If it isn’t a lack of stuff, but we are called to help, what can we do? The answer cannot be to try and make other people’s lives look like ours. We need to empower them to make something of their own lives. They need to own their own development and futures. This builds dignity which empowers communities, over the long term, to solve their own problems and not be dependent on outsiders. Nothing stifles dignity faster than dependencies.

Dependencies kill community development. If you haven’t read the book, When Helping Hurts, now is the time.