Shortly after auditioning one of our Repossessing Virtue interviews a few days ago, I was catching up on reading my RSS feeds when I happened upon a poignant post from Alanna at the Blood and Milk blog:

Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. Even if it’s your old clothes, technology they can’t use, or a school building with no teacher.

But poor people don’t have nothing. They have families, friends – social ties. They have responsibilities. They have possessions, however meager. They have lives, no matter what those lives look like to Westerners.

And Glenna at the Scarlett Lion puts a finer point on this as she observes Liberian girls in Monrovia passing over Nancy Drew books donated by Americans. Of course I immediately hear Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina telling Krista that foreigners should just “leave us alone.”

But, perhaps more importantly, I need to remember to apply these lessons closer to home as we encounter more suffering and job losses and homelessness during these tumultuous economic times. When I start to pity the bearded man who sits on a 5-gallon bucket at the off-ramp of Penn Ave and I-394 in sub-zero temperatures, I need to remember he has a life. To pity him is to judge him. That’s not helping him; it’s not helping me; it’s not helping teach my boys in the back seat each day we encounter him.

Share Your Reflection



Krista writes: "To pity him is to judge him. "

I must say I don't understand this. Pity is something that initiates from a feeling or believing of separateness...which in this case is a fact, perfectly understandable to your "boys in the back seat." A "spiritual" response would be compassion - an active form of pity? - actually doing or not doing something to help the homeless. So not sure where judging another comes into play here.

As my son gathers clothes for a his Catholic School Lenten service project, he keeps saying, "We're giving this to the poor, mom." I'm always struck by this, since we are not rich by most standards. He is oblivious to the realization that he lives on much less than most other Americans. Generous people have paid for his Christmas presents while his father completes Orthodox Christian seminary. Most of his clothes are hand-me-downs. Our home is largely furnished with used or donated furniture.
"But, honey, we are the poor," I tell him. I'm at a loss at conveying that the poor don't have 'nothing.' I'd rather he think of himself as poor, as one of them, but realize that the most generous givers and, sometimes the most content, are those that others call poor. I have an instinct that I'm not addressing this just the way I want, but I want him to sense that we give away used items only if they are in good shape. If we are discerning in picking up donations, then we should also give in the same spirit.

I find myself thinking of the "Sound of Music" when Maria tell the Captain that the 'poor didn't want [this dress]' -- no wonder! It WAS ugly. From what stores are we giving?

This is an extremely timely and important topic, particularly in the midst of a "voluntourism" boom of Americans traveling abroad with the goal of helping out. Americans are a generous and compassionate people, and I believe they sincerely wish to help heal injustices and inequality. But, they must do so respectfully under the direction of ethical and experienced programs with strong development partnerships with local leaders. To do otherwise risks exploiting local people for the benefit of the volunteer. Yes, we in the U.S. want to "do good," but we must be helpful in a way that is needed and wanted. This isn't always so obvious, and most certainly isn't easy or fast. Local people MUST be in charge of their own development. The best the outsider -- regardless who or from where -- can do is ASSIST in the manner that's requested. Anything less potentially reinforces “Ugly American” stereotypes by simply dressing “do-gooder” programs in humanitarian clothes.

I think there is an important difference between attempting to help the poor in Africa and attempting to help the poor in our own midst. Wainaina and others like him are making timely, crucial points about the inherent risks of trying to help those so distant from us, both metaphorically and geographically. The intentions are great but we often don't know the circumstances well enough to judge what is or is not helpful. We have so much more information about someone from our own community or culture, such as the man on the 5-gallon bucket, at least relatively speaking, and are thus more capable of knowing well how to serve him and his needs.

We can help poor people by giving our used things. Like our old clothes, shoes and books and many other things. We can give food to poor people. There are many ways by which we can help them. I must say We should do our best in order to help them in every perspective...
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