Over the course of my time here in Africa, I have had numerous discussions with others about whether the money and services being provided by Americans (and other Westerners) are actually helping – or hurting – countries like Uganda. In other words, does the constant flow of financial and developmental assistance to third-world countries operate as a helping hand to lift them out of poverty, or does this assistance actually have the opposite effect of creating a culture of dependence and national sense of an inability to function independently.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, generally thought of as a forward-thinking innovator who has helped Rwanda emerge from its darkest genocide days in the early 1990s into one of the brighter lights of Africa, is a frequent encourager of Africa reducing its dependence on Western aid and the services provided by Western NGOs (non-governmental organizations). To be clear, he is not at all ungrateful for the support Rwanda and other African countries have received (and continue to receive). His point is simply that African sovereignty depends upon sustainability and self-reliance, and that Africa needs to always be on the pathway toward independence.
There is, of course, no question that much of what the West has done for Africa has been very good. For example, it is undisputed that the AIDS epidemic in Africa has been contained by assistance from the West. Had the billions and billions spent been withheld, the devastation would have been infinitely more severe. But other programs and expenditures leave the question more open to debate.
I will confess to wondering myself whether some of the work I have been involved in is actually helping as much as I would like to believe. For instance, when a group of American lawyers descend upon a children’s prison and prepare their cases for resolution so the children can gain access to justice, this feels like a really good thing, and it is. But if this act then causes the Ugandan government not to provide such services in the future because they believe Americans will keep coming back, then it can actually serve as a long-term detriment. Accordingly, we are being as careful as possible to integrate Ugandan lawyers into these projects and we are attempting to change structures, rather than fix immediate problems. Time will tell if these restructuring plans hold.
The challenges that can be encountered when Americans with the purest of motives are not careful when trying to help were starkly illustrated in the past couple of days. Earlier this week, the Ugandan government closed down an “institution” that was apparently masquerading as an “orphanage.” Those running this “orphanage” have been arrested and charged with a whole host of fraud and child neglect crimes. The authorities are alleging this “orphanage” was funded by a civic organization in the United States, which thought it was sponsoring needy children – providing them food, shelter, and education. Apparently, however, the children were actually not orphans, not really getting any schooling, and living in squalor (the pictures and video were quite disturbing). In contrast, the individuals who were running this “institution” were apparently living like kings on the $35 per child per month they were receiving. (Reportedly, most of these children were taken back to their families within hours of the raid, who professed shock and disbelief that their children had not been at a boarding school). The allegations are that the American civic organization was duped by the Ugandan “orphanage” leaders into believing that it was supporting children in need. Apparently photographs and descriptions were sent that were completely fabricated. Supposedly, a member or two from the American civic organization came to Uganda within the past six months, but never actually visited the location in question. Once again, these are the facts as alleged, which may or may not be ultimately proven. The government (and others who have lived here in Uganda for quite some time) have no doubts that this is not an isolated incidence of unsuspecting Westerners unwittingly supporting “orphanages” that do much more harm than good.
In contrast to this, earlier this week I met with two pastors from an American church who had just flown into Uganda the day before, and who were flying back home the next day. They were here to meet with the leaders of the sponsorship program in which many of the church’s members participated. They met with the leaders of the program, the teachers in the school, and the kids themselves in order to ensure that the money being sent was (i) being used by its recipients to accomplish its intended purpose, and (ii) not doing more harm than good. Fortunately, they found precisely what they hoped to find, perhaps in no small part because those to whom the money was being sent knew they would be held accountable. Not only was their money being used in the ways represented to the donors, but this support was also revitalizing the surrounding community by providing jobs for those who were serving and teaching the children.
The contrast between these two scenarios could not be more apparent. In both cases, there were American families who sincerely wanted to help impoverished children in need of food, shelter, and an education. In one case, there was a lack of follow up and accountability. Not only was the money being diverted from its intended purpose, but the fact that money was being sent affirmatively harmed those it targeted – children. Children were (apparently) taken from their homes and used as tools to enrich unscrupulous people. In the other case, representatives of those sending money took affirmative steps to ensure that the money was being properly used – to hold the recipients accountable.
I am by no means the first person to issue a word of caution about ensuring that money given for laudable reasons is not actually causing harm – the book “When Helping Hurts” comes to mind. And I am certainly not an authority on this subject. But living in Africa exposes one to the harsh realities of this more readily than living in the United States.
In fact, just last evening, I was talking with a friend I have gotten to know fairly well since arriving in Africa. We were chatting about the differences between street children in Jinja versus street children in Kampala. We both have a sincere faith and a desire to follow the teachings of Jesus, which includes caring for those in desperate need. (Though she is younger than I, her life demonstrates a firm understanding of this better than mine does). I was telling her about my internal struggle every time a child, pregnant mother, or mother holding a small child comes up to our car window to beg at an intersection. The traffic here is so congested, motorists are constantly harassed by those who seem to be in dire need of food and money. Aren’t these children and mothers “the least of these” Jesus instructs us to help? Don’t I have the means to help? Aren’t I being selfish or self-righteous (even judgmental) if I refuse to help? On the other hand, doesn’t Jesus also instruct us to be wise and shrewd?
What would Jesus do?
I firmly believe he would instruct us to help. Perhaps he would want us to provide immediate relief to those in need and leave the judging to him. I don’t know for sure, but I think, however, he would want us to help in ways that actually help, rather than prolong or exacerbate the pain. I think he would have us consider both the immediate and long-term consequences of our actions. And I think he would encourage us to take steps to ensure what we gave was being used to help those it was designed to help.
So what is my point? Simply this – it seems to me we are called upon to act on the instinct to help, but also to take steps to ensure what we are doing is actually helping. We should partner with organizations (like World Vision and others) where there are no doubts about how our money is being used. In the alternative, we should recognize and accept the responsibility to verify how our funds are being used when our giving creates risks of abuse and harm to those we seek to help.