Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wrestling an elephant

Psalm 131
O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty;
Nor do I involve myself in great matters,
Or in things too difficult for me.

Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child rests against his mother,
My soul is like a weaned child within me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever.

I will say this for Idea Camp, it has definitely made me think… it’s almost been annoying, because I can’t stop wrestling with the elephant-sized questions it raised for me, and like most things I can't let go of, :^) this struggle is going up on the blog.

My hat is off to Charles Lee and his crew for bringing together such a wide assortment of representatives from a variety of different sectors of service. I’m really blown away by the fact that they were able to bring in so many influential people from all over and still hold the conference for free. I am particularly grateful for speakers like Leroy Barber, Mark Horvath, Jenny Hwang, Shannon Moriarty, and Greg Russinger who work very hard on domestic issues such as immigration, homelessness and poverty in the inner cities, and on merging the arts and activism. I really and truly learned from these guys, and I felt jostled –again—to take more seriously my role in my community, and to use the artistic gifts I have for the benefit of my community wherever I can see a role for that. I am, and will be in prayer about these things.

The thing needling at me, though, is the attention given to aid organizations that work overseas. This attention to the suffering of the poor in other countries is utterly familiar to anyone raised in the church, and it tends to be viewed with unquestioning admiration from those not engaged in such service. I would never ever EVER be arrogant enough to criticize the intentions, passion, creativity and dedication of the people devoted to this work. But I sincerely question its long-term effectiveness, and I question the effect that it has had on my generation.

I’ll address the second point first, and I’ll speak for myself here, even though I do know others who have had similar experiences. I had a fascination with the thought of working overseas, and I wanted to do that very badly in my late teens and early 20s. What could be a better way of distributing the privileges I’d been given as a white American than to go to a poor country and give my time towards helping them fix their problems? But also, what could better assuage my guilt and my feelings of helplessness towards the problems of race, class discrimination and poverty in my own country? What would be a more effective veil for the fact that I grew up without much money than to go to a country where they really had nothing?

Really, I had plenty of energy around wanting to help the poor... within the American concept of such things, I had grown up poor. The thought of helping to lift others out of a far bleaker poverty with my tiny pool of resources – the thought that I actually HAD privilege and with it some measure of power to assist someone else— was exhilarating. I could help someone!! I could really HELP someone!! And I could travel, too!! And, unlike the African-Americans I’d gone to high school with, these folks wouldn’t automatically put a mark in the negative column because I was white.

I was wrong about the last thing. Racial discrimination and white privilege are global, a nauseating legacy of colonial policies that privileged lighter-skinned members of the occupied nation. I was wrong about a lot, actually, but I didn’t get the opportunity at the time to find out how much more I was wrong about because circumstances kept me from going anywhere other than England, an experience that I loved, but which is absolutely unimpressive to mission-minded church folks.

I was bitter for a long time about this. I wanted a badge that said “I want to help the Third World, but I’m broke, too”. I wanted a chance to explain to people that my I also got tears in my eyes when I saw pictures and videos of emaciated folks with empty eyes. I felt deeply guilty over their situation. I felt it personally. I wanted to hug and cry with all of them. All of them. Really. I would have sold my possessions to pay off my debt and go help, but my possessions weren’t worth all that much. Supporting two Compassion kids kind of helped assuage my hunger to help (and it was like a physical hunger), but not really.

It’s a cruel dichotomy, really. My financial situation was mostly the result of bad luck and a lot of dumb but well meaning decisions, both mine and those of multiple family members for generations. I felt that the rich kids, who had always had everything anyway, also got to be the heroes. They also got to be honored and respected for their concern for the poor, for their “selfless” service in poor foreign countries. It was the weirdest dynamic that I lived in for the longest time, this blind, numbing jealousy of feeling that my economic status denied me even the privilege of selflessness, and that my race denied me the privilege of having visibly overcome the odds against me. I worked my ass off, and I struggled, and I really really wanted to make the world a better place, and nobody noticed. I’ve written about this before, but I really can’t stress how much this view of things had a hold of me.

Thankfully, I got a lucky break that changed everything. I got to teach English as a Second Language at Truro Church, and I got to put all that love and desire to help on to my students. That volunteer teaching helped me get a job as an admin assistant in the International Student Office at GMU, and I turned all that love and frustration and longing onto the students I helped. My position at GMU allowed me to get a Masters Degree for free, so I studied Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and turned all of that longing to be allowed to help the developing world into study of the conflicts that had shaped affairs in those countries.

And you know what I learned in that Masters Degree and in that 6 ½ years of service to students from all over the planet? I learned that people in the developing world are generally grateful for the money, but they want to solve their own problems. They have the intelligence and resourcefulness. For all of my longing to help, I can’t hold a candle to the ingenuity and problem-solving capacity of many of the students I met. Their personalities were forged in circumstances that required much more of them than mine required of me, and it shows.

More than that, though, they, and they alone, truly understand the dynamics of the cultural, economic, and political problems in their countries. Although they appreciate the desire of individual people to help, they cannot help but see the disproportionate use of American and European resources to fix their country’s problems as a desire for control of their country, and I honestly don’t blame them. To be fair, if I saw a regular flow of folks and money from South Asia coming to try to solve the problems of the inner-city DC, Chicago, or Atlanta, I would seriously question their motivation, too. How could they possibly understand what was going on? What, really, could they be after but a desire to influence the affairs of my country?

Which brings me to Dambisa Moyo, a woman who has written a powerful book, Dead Aid, that has probably pissed off a lot of people. I was 13th on the waiting list for this book at the Arlington Central Library, so suffice to say her ideas have gotten people's attention. I haven’t read the whole book, but the central argument is that western aid to sub-saharan Africa has had the opposite of the intended effect. Ms. Moyo doesn’t pull her punches. In the section “The foreign aid agenda of the 2000s: the rise of glamour aid,” she writes the following after mentioning the role of Bob Geldof and Bono in promoting the interests of the African poor to heads of state around the world:

“Scarcely does one see Africa’s (elected) officials or those African policymakers charged with the development portfolio offer an opinion on what should be done, or what might actually work to save the continent from its regression. This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa. One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied. As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.” p. 27

You can almost hear the slap across the faces of all the well-meaning Americans and Europeans who have tried to help. I’m sure there are well thought out counter-arguments against her (I found this as soon as I Googled her book), but right now I’m just sitting with her assertion. I’m thinking of what I’ve learned over the past 9 years since I’ve been in DC. I’m thinking of the guilt and frustration I put myself through over not being able to pursue my “dream”… and I’m thinking of how often I found myself squirming this weekend at Idea Camp, how often I wanted to stand up and say “hold ON a minute… how are you so sure this is what God wants from you??”

I’m not sure I’m right, either, but I think it’s high time for the church to question the wisdom of idolizing those who go overseas to “help”. Where are the voices of the African, Indian, Chinese, and South American Christians (and I am intentionally not adding a “-American” after those adjectives)? What do they really want from the American church? What do they really think of the money that goes into the charities sent to assist them? What do they think of the people who parachute into their societies for a couple of weeks or months to build a well or a house? I’m very supportive of the models used by, for example, the Mennonites, who do believe in sending people for years to become part of the community, and who do not proselytize, but I have to ask the question even of that model… what do the local folks think of them?

This is a long post, and I have no answers. Sorry if that’s frustrating, but thanks for reading this far if you have.


Fox Confessor said...

Wow. One of things I have struggled with in my life is that I have not done anything "important." I wanted to help as well. I wanted to do those things... but you bring up some very interesting points. I had a similar discussion about white America a few weeks ago that touched on other subjects.

Thanks for the food for thought, as always.

promo75sanca said...

I have been working with Habitat for Humanity for 1 year back in my country Bolivia ( South America) . I met many american volunteers and I can attest that their work made a difference. I 've seen families drop tears 'a mares' because they were able to have their first house. I have seen mormons walking the streets of numerous cities in Bolivia, as I have seen bahais from different nationalities trying to improve the working conditions of poor people helping them get better education. I can say that certain aid specifically addressed to the concerns of the poors certainly benefits both sides the giver and the receiver. But as Amy mentions too, certain aid ends up being counterproductive.
Good writing Amy !! I am afraid mine wont have the same caliber as you.