Economics 101

Serving the Poor with Humility

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One of the greatest “sins” of international development and humanitarian work is paternalism. It comes with an attitude that “we from the West are better than the Rest.”

The attitude is not always blatant; in fact, it’s often very subtle. However, when we think more highly of our means and of ourselves, we hinder our ability to learn from others.

Paul Borthwick, the author of Western Christians In Global Mission, says this about committing to a posture of humility when serving around the world:

Listen and learn…I need to note here that our Western arrogance can nullify our Christian effectiveness. We need to reaffirm our commitment to humility. We need to listen and learn from: Christians in Cuba and China, who can teach us much about carrying the cross daily, Christians in the poorer world about finding our identity in Christ instead of in possessions or accomplishments, Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, who know something about staying faithful under the pressure of Islam…people outside of our own ethnicity who live in our midst, so that they can teach us what it means to have the dividing walls broken down and become one new creation in Christ.

While Borthwick is speaking directly to Christians in missions, his words are applicable to all who work in the field of poverty alleviation, international development, and relief aid work.

The work done in these fields has to be one of extreme conscientiousness and humility lest we continue with the patterns of the past.

The “Sins” of Paternalism

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, the authors of the popular book When Helping Hurts, spell out clearly in their book the different ways paternalism can manifest itself:

  • Resource paternalism: believing that throwing money at global problems will solve them.
  • Spiritual paternalism: believing that since we are materially rich and they are economically poor, we must have the deeper walk with God.
  • Knowledge paternalism: believing that we are the teachers and they are the learners.
  • Labor paternalism: doing work for people that they could (and should) do for themselves.
  • Managerial paternalism: taking charge when things are not moving at a pace that satisfies us.

Essentially their message is “do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.”

When those of us who want for nothing walk into a community that lacks much, it is easy, and maybe even natural, to want to pull out our wallets and try to fix the problem ourselves.

It can also be a natural response (I know it is for me) to think of all the skills and knowledge you have that would be perfectly suited to address the present situation.

We may even think, “God has given me skills and talents to serve these people and fix their need.”

While it is true that God has equipped us with skills, talents, and experiential knowledge, and that he wants us to serve the poor, God also calls us to humble service in the body of Christ.

One Body, Many Members

In Romans 12:3-5, Paul gives us a good indicator of how we should walk in this realm:

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

While this passage talks about the church specifically, it is applicable to those working in poor communities.

We likely are qualified to help a poor village overcome their need for clean water in the short run. We are also called to humility and consideration of the talents and gifts of the members of that village.

Without this consideration, we are missing the opportunity to allow God to shine a light on the creativity and skill of the local villagers.

From a more technical standpoint, if the skills of the local villagers are not taken into consideration, the long run functioning of a new well may become obsolete.

Humility and conscientiousness are vital to the world of international missions, development, and humanitarian aid.

Understanding that God has created each of us uniquely with our own comparative advantage to be sub-creators with Christ is important to effectively serving in a community that is not your own.

Let us learn from one another, not closing ourselves off from the wondrous gifts that God has given to each of us.

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  • Charlie Albright

    Thought provoking. I think of 2 Cor. 8:13-14, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.” this gives me some thoughts,

    -Pride does make me think that what I have to give is totally sufficient.
    -But in reality there is the dynamic exchange of strengths for weakness between people. This is what Paul is talking about in the above verse.
    -This means that I do have strengths to give. But it also means that I have weaknesses which needs to be given into.
    -So one way to fight paternalism is seeking to exchange strengths for weaknesses and not seeking to be the total savior.

    Thanks for the article!

    • Jared DelGado

      Awesome!! This article open my eyes, and your example of an exchange of weaknesses for strengths is truly humbling. I believe god created this kind of social exchange as a way to love others no matter the situation.

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