village breakfast uganda

With our upcoming move to Nicaragua, I have joined several Facebook groups of expats living in various parts of the country. Since I’ve been back from Uganda, there have been several US news outlet reports of various churches preparing “food aid” and sending it to Nicaragua. One church in Charlotte actually prepared 55,000 (yes, 55 THOUSAND!) packages of food.

And I get it. I really do. It seems like a good idea. The youth can get involved. We’re helping. Maybe we even have free space on a cargo container. It’s a home run!

Except it really isn’t. This is the type of project done by people in the rich United States who have no clue what life is like for the people in the country where they are sending food. All they know is that Nicaragua (or whatever Third World country they are targeting) is poor, ergo send stuff. Because Americans’ general response to any life crisis is stuff.

Here’s the problem. Most Third World countries, barring a crisis situation, which I’ll address in a minute, have plenty of cheap, fresh, and nutritious food. Food that is, in fact, MUCH cheaper than food purchased in the States, without even counting packaging and transport. Sure, it may lack variety — lots of beans and rice — but it’s there, it’s fresh, and it’s available.

In addition, that food is grown by local farmers and sold by local vendors, and those people NEED to sell that food for their own survival. Sending 55,000 packages of food does one thing: it takes the equivalent amount of sales out of the local economy.

Finally, food that can be packaged up and sent by container ship or even by plane is, inherently, not going to be as nutritious as food recently grown, recently harvested, and fresh in the market. It’s processed food, pure and simple. In a crisis, yes, it’s better than NO food. But it’s not as good as what can be bought in-country.

What all that means is that all of these food drive campaigns are not only misguided, they are harmful. While I’m not a fan of the book “When Helping Hurts” (a conversation for another day!), in this case, the name is apt. This type of “helping” DOES hurt.

I understand that these organizations want to help, want to serve, and want to pass on the love of God to those in need. I totally get that. I also understand that many/most people can’t or won’t GO and so don’t fully understand what the needs are. (Actually, a lot who do go don’t either, but that is also a topic for another day!)

Let me offer some HELPFUL alternatives:

First, bring in someone who has actually lived, visited, or worked in the country, to educate your church or group on how things really are. While visiting a place is the best way to know it, having a passionate speaker who does know and love the country is the next best thing.

Second, plan some fun fundraisers to raise MONEY. Not food or clothes. MONEY. Have a dance-a-thon, a walk/run, sell candy bars, have car washes, collect change for a month, host a silent auction or benefit concert. Anything that raises cold, hard, valuable US currency.

Third, work with a LOCAL, reputable NGO in your country to target the aid where it is needed most. It may be food, but it is much better to send money to purchase locally produced food, especially fruits, vegetables and meats that many diets lack. It may be water, so your money could be used for a community well. It might be purchasing goats or cows or fruit trees for families to not only use for food but also for a business. Often the greatest need as identified by the local families is education – your money could pay for school fees or even build a school where there isn’t one. It might be funding for medicines or prenatal care at a local clinic, purchasing mosquito nets, or eyeglasses.

Here’s the thing: it almost certainly ISN’T whatever you think it is based on reading the news.

Now to be clear, I’m not talking about crisis relief. There IS a time for that, to be sure. When the Kampala City Council Authority took bulldozers into the Namuwongo slums in the middle of the night and razed people’s homes, destroying their possessions and leaving them homeless, we raised money for crisis intervention. We did a food distribution each month for three months, buying food locally. We also helped relocate families and gave micro-business grants to women to help them restart their livelihoods. When there’s a natural disaster, a war/conflict, or even a tragedy or illness in one family or community, crisis relief is vital. We should all pitch in where we can.

But in the course of everyday life in these Third World countries, let’s stop assuming that the people are somehow “less than” – less smart, less capable, less hard working, less knowledgeable. Let’s instead assume that they are perfectly capable of assessing their own needs and articulating them when asked. Let’s assume that they not only can, but actually want to, be self sufficient if given the chance. In short, let’s treat them as adults. As humans. As JUST LIKE US.

 women's co-op Namuwongo Kampala

One thought on “How Not To Help

  1. Amen! I agree with you 100%. There’s nothing more bizarre, surreal or unnecessary than foreign products shipped from the West into a developing nation. In a crisis, yes. But generally, no.

    I’m reminded of the time a few years ago, when, living in a developing country and while sending our kids to a local school, my kindergarden-aged son came home with a shoebox of gifts from Samaritan’s purse. Besides just being ironically funny (“man these are some expensive toys and toothbrushes. If only the giver knew who got it…”), we had a few concerns.

    Besides not actually containing the type of toys that local kids might play with, this ‘boy’ shoebox actually contained gifts for a girl. In a country with deeply-entrenched gender identity issues, I can imagine that this error might have some potential negative consequences. Thankfully there was no bully in that KG class.

    Second, and most oddly of all, these shoeboxes went to a school where the kids are not at all poor. Just local, Asian, and somehow considered needy?

    Finally, why not just use these funds to host a special Christmas program? Or offer grants to families struggling to pay school fees? Or just buy local toys as gifts in the market? At least that would have the secondary effect of also helping the local economy.

    Lot’s of issues here that are seldom, if ever, really discussed or thought about by well-meaning donors. So glad to see you bring them up.

    So, yes, I agree. If you’re going to give, do it where it counts. To a team or organization that you know and trust. For an initiative that will help, not hurt, local artisans or shopkeepers. And with the impact that only a local ministry or non-profit can guarantee.

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