Sunday, October 23, 2011

Coming Clean

I've never been to Africa.

There, I said it. Not that I'm ashamed of it. In fact, I'm actually rather proud of it. (Proud might not be the best word, but its the best word I can think of for anti-shame. Satisfied, maybe? I'm sure you know what I mean.) I bring this up because of a question I was asked recently by someone interested in many of the same things I am, if not more so.

Let me provide a little bit of context. In April, I wrote a piece arguing that TOMS shoes and the perpetual phenomenon of in-kind donations are more harmful than they are helpful, and are ideas that the giving community should seriously reconsider. There's a lot more to it than that, but you can read the piece yourself if you're interested. Through a series of events and links and whatnot, that post exploded (both relatively and metaphorically speaking). In mid-July, I was approached by the editor of a soon-to-be-launched magazine focusing on localized innovation throughout the world who thought that my piece would be a good fit for the magazine.

The request was this: cut the article to roughly one-seventh of its original size, focus on one argument rather than all four, and alter the tone of the piece to better fit the tone of the magazine as a whole. These were not easy things to do.. Why? Because the topic is one I am passionate about, and I believe that an argument can only be made convincingly if all aspects are discussed and included; because I don't believe that the same message can be conveyed in 500 words as with 3500 words - something, inevitably, will be lost; because I refuse to put my name to anything that doesn't speak with my voice.

These requests led to a bit of friction between the editor and I - disagreement that while not malicious was still substantive. Thankfully, that disagreement led to a better understanding between us, making me comfortable to put my article in his hands. We revised the piece more times than I would have expected, but in the end reached a finished product we were both comfortable with.

The last action I had to take was to create a bio for myself. That wasn't too difficult - name, location, background, etc. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated. Yet when I listed my location as St. Joseph, Michigan, the editor came back to me hoping for a different city. This is the question I was referring to at the beginning of this rambling.
"I know your article is focused on all of Africa, if not global...but is there a certain city in Africa you've done a lot of work in that I could list you as reporting from?"
I certainly understood where the question was coming from - the magazine features articles written and researched all over the world, from Mexico City to China to different countries throughout Africa. Michigan doesn't have quite the same ring to it. The answer I gave then was pretty simple, pretty straightforward. "It wouldn't really be honest to say I was reporting from somewhere in Africa," I said. The answer I gave was honest, but having taken time to reflect on the process, I wish I had been a bit more clear.

I've never been to Africa.

Not because I have a fear of flying, or because it was never possible. To be fair, I didn't grow up swimming in pools full of money, and no incredible opportunities have ever presented themselves. But still. When I spent a few months living in London, I could easily have fit a trip to Africa into my time. Wouldn't have been cheap, wouldn't have been easy, but still. Yet I never have, and I'll tell you why.

If you have read my piece on in-kind giving or any of the things I've written about short term missions, you know how important economic efficiency is to me. The price of visiting a place like Haiti or Kenya isn't small, counting travel, food and lodging costs. Short term mission trips make me the most uncomfortable, especially ones involving young students - cost adds up extremely fast, but the impact on the visited community tends to be far less substantive than our lofty motives would imply. We end up spending bucketfuls of money for what ends up being, more or less, a Habitat build in another country. Or an international, multi-cultural Boys&Girls Club event, only without any long term relationships being built between the children and the volunteers.

In my mind, these service-vacations (servications, if you will) are terribly wasteful, inefficient and fail to live up to expectations. For me to participate in one would be completely and totally hypocritical. To be clear, I don't want to be seen as being against "service" or "helping the poor". In fact, the reality is quite the opposite. My fear is that the Western giving/serving community has become so mesmerized by sexy and popular giving campaigns and service opportunities that true, significant, lasting impact on communities in need is no longer the measuring stick people use to judge them. If it were, shoe and clothing donations would be decreasing in popularity, not exploding. If it were, enormously expensive short term missions trips for unskilled individuals wouldn't be the youth group traditions they are today.

The same goes for doing research in these impoverished areas. To steal from something I wrote previously...instead of going to these places myself, I have chosen to rely on others who have gone before me, listening to and learning from their experiences in these places. Could I go and do my own research? I certainly could. But I would likely come to the same conclusions, while attaining them much less efficiently and without the expertise possessed by those who live and work and breathe in these places. There is certainly value in seeing and experiencing something yourself, but in this case I don't know that the experience alone is worth the cost.

Of course, this assumes that whatever time and money you would have spent in Africa or Haiti or Mexico or wherever would be donated to charities that would use it more efficiently. In fact, this assumption is really the whole point.

I was listening tonight to a podcast from my church back in Cincinnati, and one of the stories the pastor told jumped out at me. Every Saturday for the last twelve years, a group from the church has gone down to a park in the city where between two and three hundred homeless are. What many would think of as the reason behind the trips is obvious: to cook lunch for people in need. But if you hear the pastor tell it, that isn't the purpose at all.
"We sit around and play cards and talk and pray...the big deal isn't the's the community, it's the relationship. The Vineyard has become their home."
Community. Relationships. These aren't just ideas that sound good on paper. These are the ways we build communities, repair brokenness and make the world a better place. Spending a week with kids in a Haitian orphanage sounds good, but unless you go back week after week, what lasting impact are you having on the lives of those children? In the end, to make any kind of lasting impact you must first begin with a relationship.

I've never been to Africa. And as much as I want to change the world for the better and find solutions to the problems we face, I also want to do it both efficiently and effectively. That means that any kind of service I engage in should begin first in my home, then in my community. Unless the people and places closest to me are no longer broken and in need, there is no reason to take my focus to another place. If your heart breaks for Africa or Haiti or somewhere else, donate to organizations which live and breathe and build communities in those places. You'll do more good than you would by traveling to those places and trying to help.

I've never been to Africa because I believe that effective aid is efficient aid, and that impactful service begins relationally. From what I hear though, it's a beautiful place.

And so on...


  1. Compassion International is a great way to use limited resources to benefit people in far away places. We enjoy the letters we get from the child we have supported over the years. It costs about $450 a year to support the individual... but that is much less than an airline icket...

  2. well put. thanks for sharing your thoughts on the web. i never considered these ideas.