Two Simple Questions to Ask Before Donating
Poverty is complex, and I’m approaching this topic with a bit of trepidation. I don’t want to claim that I’m an expert on these things. I’m not. I’ve read a few books and articles and have traveled a tiny bit. But it’s a topic that I care deeply about and want to continually learn and dig deeper into it. All I hope to do is share the little bit that I’ve learned with those of you who might not read an entire book.
Poverty is also an incredibly broad topic. I’m not going to try to dig into the many factors that contribute to it, or give you a list of “do’s and don’t’s,” or write a book-length post about a theology of poverty. Those are all good things to learn about, and I hope to write more about this topic as I continue to learn. However, I think that there is one important distinction that is often missed when we talk about organizations that are “helping the poor.” At least, I know that I often missed it when I was growing up and even into my adult years. I assumed that “giving to the poor” meant giving to the poor, and that was that. It was all the same. So, I hope this will be helpful for those of you who haven’t considered this aspect of giving before. Thanks for stopping in.
Imagine this scene for a moment: a young woman is walking and gets hit by a car. She’s knocked unconscious, stops breathing, and has a lot of broken bones all along one side of her body. The first response, naturally, is to call 911 and perform CPR. Immediate and life-threatening, she needs to gain her breath back. But in the long-run, our friend is going to need some casts for the broken bones, perhaps even surgery and physical therapy.
Immediately after the accident, though she’s still alive, medical help is urgently needed because she wouldn’t be able to heal completely on her own. For her long-term healing, she’s going to need to work, along with the doctors and physical therapists, to regain her strength and mobility. What would happen if the doctors continued to do everything for her and to her, rather than with her? She would not regain her strength and her muscles might even begin to atrophy. The goal is that eventually she will not need the doctors to help her but that she’ll be be restored to health again.
This is a simple illustration of the difference between relief and development.
Relief work takes place when there is an immediate need where help is urgently needed. Many times, this emergency may come in the form of a natural disaster, but it could also be on an individual level, as in the case of a battered woman fleeing her abuser without anywhere to go.
These are clearly situations where emergency rescue, shelter, and donations are urgently needed. Here is how one relief organization describes this dynamic: “We provide humanitarian relief when war, conflict, or natural disaster disrupt life to such an extent that communities are unable to recover on their own.” 
Development, on the other hand, is ongoing and long-term. “Development is not done to people or for people but with people….[it is about] promoting an empowering process…”  It might be a situation of chronic poverty, or it may be in the aftermath of a disaster where it is necessary to transition from relief to development. Simply donating food or clothes may not be the best response to helping people in chronic poverty.
For example, one organization in my community
has started a community garden, where families in need and volunteers work side by side to grow vegetables each year. All are learning valuable skills as they go, and the families in need are empowered in this process, rather than simply being given food.
I’m not trying to claim that development work is as simplistic as “Never give handouts unless it’s an emergency.” But it is important that we ask, “Is there a way that we can further empower people, that we can value their gifts and strengths, learn from them, and work alongside them toward long-term goals, rather than thinking that we are swooping in to rescue them?”
On the one hand, I don’t want to oversimplify this process. I haven’t been a relief or development worker on the ground, trying to sort out the complexities of poverty and working in another culture. It is incredibly complex. I don’t want to suggest that there are easy answers or a recipe to be followed when talking about relief and how long it should last, or exactly what development should look like in any context.
But on the other hand, I think that understanding the basic distinctions between relief and development will help all of us think more deeply about the kind of work being done by the organizations we support.
One of my favorite organizations that is doing both relief and
development work worldwide, but has a clear understanding of the difference between the two, is Food for the Hungry
. Two development organizations in Guatemala that I love are Agros International
, focused on land ownership, and Lemonade International
, which is focused on education but also has a relief fund
for urgent needs that arise in the community. There are loads of other relief organizations and development organizations that are doing fantastic work as well, so if there is an organization you support, I encourage you to find out what kind of work they are doing. If not, check out those organizations and consider how you might be able to support their work.
Two questions to ask when looking into an organization helping those in need:
- Is this a situation of relief (immediate, temporary), or development (long-term, ongoing)?
- And what is it that this organization is doing in response?
What are your thoughts? What are your favorite relief or development organizations? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments!
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