Consider this typical scenario. You’ve just arrived in Uganda on your first missions trip out of the country. What you see is totally foreign to everything you’ve ever experienced. It’s unfamiliar, the people look different, they dress different, they speak a language you don’t understand, and the traffic is crazy and chaotic. At one of the first traffic lights after leaving the airport, you see people standing on the side of the road coming up to your window. Some are trying to sell things, others start washing the car window and a lady with a small child is standing there asking for money or food. What do you do?

Or closer to home – you could be in your own neighborhood leaving the grocery store or at a gas station and someone comes up to you asking for some change. What do you do?

In chapter four of the book “When Helping Hurts”, Brian Fikkert and Stephen Corbett address this type of question. It is important when we work with the materially poor to carefully consider our response and whether the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation or development.

Fikkert and Corbett write, “One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make – by far- is in applying relief in situation in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.”

Let’s look at the distinction between the three.

Relief – Aid immediately after a disaster. People are in life-threatening need and require immediate support.

Rehabilitation – Once the immediate disaster has ended and a community is being restored to their previous level.

Development – A long-term view to move all people closer to right relationship with God, self, others, and all of creation.

The majority of situations that we encounter do not require relief or rehabilitation, but actually development. When westerners travel abroad and experience poverty greater than we’ve ever experienced at home. It is easy to think you are in an emergency situation that requires relief rather than long-term development. This jump in mentality happens because the needs seem so urgent and much greater than you’ve seen before.

At Water Missions International, we’ve built our community development program around the philosophy that we need to avoid paternalism and not do for others what they can do for themselves. Otherwise what might feel like helping in the short term, might actually build dependency in the long-term. This means that when we work alongside a community, we first meet with local leaders and lay out the plan. There are certain requirements of Water Missions, but there are also requirements that need to be met by the community – providing things like unskilled labor and materials, forming a safe water committee, opening a bank account, etc. If they don’t meet their obligations, then we will not move forward with the project.

Why is this important?

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” – Genesis 1:27, NIV

All of mankind is made in the image of God, which means they have inherent skills and abilities. When we bypass these and act or say that we can accomplish something “for them” or give something “to them” rather than working “with them”, we are not living out this verse.

Fikkert and Corbett write, “As the materially poor develop, they are better able to fulfill their calling of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.”

So, when you find yourself in your own neighborhood or on the other side of the world and faced with a need. Ask yourself.

  1. Is this a situation for relief, rehabilitation or development?
  2. If this were my community, what would be the appropriate response?
  3. Is there a local leader, I could ask about what would be appropriate?

In doing so, you will better empower the local community and reflect the love of Jesus. 

by Kevin Herr / Church Engagement Manager, Water Missions International

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