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.

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.

Having Fun

I wrote this post while sitting at a park under a shade tree. A few minutes before being at the park, I was sitting in my house talking about how beautiful it was outside.

So we walked to the park near our house.

I started thinking about how easy it was for us to walk 5 minutes to the park near our house, lay out a blanket, and just enjoy the weather. Then I started to think about a previous post about how rain falls on the rich and the poor. The flip side to that is that good weather can be enjoyed by the rich and the poor alike. From there, my brain started to wonder what people living in material poverty do to enjoy the weather.

I took the picture below when we went with some friends to an abandoned boat dock in Mexico. People would wait for the tide to be just right and then spend the afternoon jumping in, climbing out, and doing it again and again.


The next picture I took while I was waiting for the ferry to take us back from the island of Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua. A group of kids would climb up the rope anchoring the boat, hang there for a minute, and then swing off into the lake.

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This last picture is also from Nicaragua. Some kids were hanging out in the street taking turns jumping rope.


It’s such a simple idea, but for some reason watching people actually enjoy themselves is incredibly inspiring. I want to start scouring the interwebs for pictures of people all around the world having fun (for free).

IWMC: Joshua Kienzle

Joshua Kienzle has been serving at Food for the Hungry for the past eight years, working mainly in the area of Church Engagement. He is passionate about seeing churches find meaningful and healthy ways to engage their church body and impact vulnerable communities with the fullness of the Gospel. The following are notes I took during his talk called, “The Variables that Make for a Healthy Church Partnership in a Cross-Cultural Setting.”

It’s easy for partnerships to be based on friendships or existing relationships but that shouldn’t be the single qualifier for a healthy partnership, it is rarely the strongest indicator of future success. Just because you like someone doesn’t mean a partnership will be healthy.

First questions to ask a potential partner:

What is your vision? What are your passions? If these things don’t line up with your vision and passions, it is just a matter of time until the partnership falls apart.

Partnerships must be based on scripture.

You must be able to clearly see an alignment of vision, mission, and passion.

Equally as important as vision, mission, and passion is mutual trust.

Create goals, accountability, and expectations as early on in the process as possible.

Pre-determine communication patterns and expectations. For example, an international partner may like to pray a lot during what an American partner perceives as a logistics meeting. From the American perspective, you feel like you didn’t get anything done. From the international partner perspective, you feel like prayer is not a priority of your partner.

Determine a duration of partnership up front. Start small and slowly extend the time limits with each “duration” conversation. At least make sure you are having this conversation on the front end, because on the back end it’s always harder.

There needs to be mutual transformation. Clearly communicate how you are each measuring transformation and make sure there is a way to share those stories back and forth across the partnership.

Don’t forget about maintenance and oversight – who owns this partnership?

Some things to remember:

Transitions – People will change, organizations will change, churches will change, the world will change… make sure you’re aware of changes and try to stay in front of them.

Universal Depravity – Everyone will make mistakes, make sure you are aware of them and that you try to stay in front of them.

Celebrate – It’s extremely important in trust building to celebrate “wins” together when they happen.

Below is the “pyramid of partnerships” that can be followed to ensure a healthy partnership.

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Lastly, he passed out a copy of the latest Lausanne Standards (affirmations and agreements for giving and receiving money in missions). These are a very helpful starting place for creating partnerships if money will be exchanged.

Individual vs Community

If you see someone drowning, it’s not the time to teach them how to swim. Pull them out of the water. That’s individual relief. Once they are out of the “life or death” crisis, teaching them to swim is appropriate. That’s individual development.

pool 2

If, however, there are countless people drowning every single day, pulling them out one by one might not be a great plan. Sure, you’ll help a few people, but for every one person you pull to safety, another 20 will perish.

pool 4

Continuing with the metaphor, community development can be summed up as: Teaching people to swim and share their skill(s). Sound familiar? It should.

This is an oversimplification of a very complex problem, but the steps are: 1) teach people to swim, 2) teach them to share their new skill, and 3) repeat.

Sound simple? It is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Robert Lupton explains it well in his book Toxic Charity.

Feed a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; (Individual relief) teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime (Individual development).  But what happens when the fish disappear from the lake due to pollution or overfishing? Then it’s time for a change of strategy. Someone has to figure out how to get control of the lake: stop the pollutants, issue fishing licenses, put wildlife-management policies in place. Teaching a man to fish is an individual matter; but gaining control of the lake is a community issue.

A micro-loan may help a family buy a cart to haul their produce but it will not pave a road made impassible during the rainy season—that takes community development.

Poverty Reinforcement


How does giving handouts reinforce poverty?

Imagine someone with a severely broken arm. They are screaming in pain and every move they make hurts, so they stop moving. You come along, you aren’t a doctor but you do have some pain meds. You have friends back home with pain meds too and they are willing to help out. So you start dolling out a consistent amount of pain meds to keep your new friend painless.

Eventually, one of two things will happen: 1) The arm heals improperly and will never function the right way again. 2) Bone fragments enter the blood stream and the patient dies a slow death, without ever knowing it.

You see the correlation?  Handouts dull the pain of poverty enough to keep the underlying issues below the surface. When we hand things out, it may feel good, but we are driving communities around the world farther and farther into poverty.

If the irony of hurting those we set out to help doesn’t keep you up at night, I’d say you’re in this for the wrong reasons.

Book Review: When Helping Hurts

book_when_helping_hurts_thumbWhen Helping Hurts was one of the first widely accepted books on Christian development work. I know I’ve read it countless times over the last 5 years, every time gaining new insight.


Gives an incredible introduction to development work and why it’s so important. Describes perfectly how damaging thoughtless charity can be. If you are ever discouraged about development work, this is a great book to rely on for some inspiration. Presents the problem well.


Misses opportunities to present solutions to the problems of international work. Leaves the reader wanting more.


If you have ever been on a mission trip, if you want to go on a mission trip, if you have anything to do with missions, or relief, in anyway this book is a must read.

Favorite quotes:

Saving souls is only a subset of the comprehensive healing of the entire cosmos that Jesus’ kingdom brings.

While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences.

The problem goes well beyond the material dimension, so the solutions must go beyond the material as well.

Development work is not done to people or for people but with people.

The North American need for speed undermines the slow process needed for lasting and effective long-run development.

Participation in its fullest sense is not just a means to an end but the most important end!

Development is a lifelong process, not a two-week product.