Friday, December 9, 2011

Doing It Right

We're back in Nicaragua after a great trip to the U.S. (more on which soon). As we get deeper into the projects that we work on with la Misión Cristiana, we've been thinking a little about what it is that we do and how we do it.  To give an example of what I mean, here's an interesting article by Charles Kenny titled "Haiti Doesn't Need Your Old T-Shirt" about the unintended consequences of (some) charity and development work.
Here's the trouble with dumping stuff we don't want on people in need: What they need is rarely the stuff we don't want. And even when they do need that kind of stuff, there are much better ways for them to get it than for a Western NGO to gather donations at a suburban warehouse, ship everything off to Africa or South America, and then try to distribute it to remote areas. World Vision, for example, spends 58 cents per shirt on shipping, warehousing, and distributing them, according to data reported by the blog Aid Watch -- well within the range of what a secondhand shirt costs in a developing country. Bringing in shirts from outside also hurts the local economy: Garth Frazer of the University of Toronto estimates that increased used-clothing imports accounted for about half of the decline in apparel industry employment in Africa between 1981 and 2000. Want to really help a Zambian? Give him a shirt made in Zambia.
Now, our work with Global Ministries doesn't involve t-shirts and is only partially about development work per se, but it's worth asking if we aren't making similar mistakes by emphasizing our priorities and interests instead of listening closer to our Nicaraguan friends.  I hope not, but it is always good to self-examine.

Of course, we all know about the bad old way of doing missions.  Missionary (and development) work used to be a offshoot of colonialism, the system of economic and military domination of poor countries by the rich ones that still echoes around the world today.  In support of empire, churches from the global north were encouraged to pick up the white man's burden, and in turn adopted an attitude of superiority towards their brothers and sisters across the globe.  But just knowing about the wrong way doesn't automatically make it easier do it right.

Global Ministries has adopted an explicitly anti-colonial way of doing overseas ministry and I think they have a really good model for how people and churches from the global north can build links with folks in the global south.  The Spanish word we use to describe the heart of our work is acompañamiento (accompaniment), which implies not leading and not following, but walking together and sharing the road and the struggles.

In a sense, the idea is to move beyond that old adage about teaching a woman to fish.  To mangle the metaphor, a step beyond "teaching" would be working with the fisherfolk to build a self-sustaining, local fishing school, all the while trying not to destroy the local fishing economy or the fishery ecosystem.

The way it works is that la Misión Cristiana sets the priorities, designs the projects (often with our input) and makes the decisions.  American churches can provide resources by giving to Global Ministries (who then passes that money through to various local partners around the world) and by going on people-to-people pilgrimages where groups can visit the local partners to learn and work together.  So far we have been lucky to have several groups visit Nicaragua and in 2012 la Misión will be hosting six (!) groups from the U.S. and one from Puerto Rico.  With so many great projects starting up and so many groups visiting, it should be a very exciting year!

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