Good Aid vs. Bad Aid: Is There a Difference?

My post today is a reaction to this article, and you would better understand this post if you read that article first. (Go ahead – it’s short. I’ll wait.)

A friend of mine at work sent around a link to a blog post that had been written by his friend in support of the above article. My response is mostly to the original source and is not directed at the friend my coworker pointed us to – mostly because I want to get at the source, not merely someone who supports the source, but also in part because the friend’s blog post did not delve deeply enough into the issue for it to be fair for me to take her to task.

However, one thing she did mention is that people (mostly Americans) only support TOMS shoes because they get something out of it – namely, a cool pair of shoes. And that statement is what led me to read the original article and decide that I needed to sort out my thoughts via a written response. So here we go.

I have mixed feelings on the subject as a whole. I don’t think the desire for a cool pair of shoes is the driving force behind the TOMS consumers, but I could be wrong – after all, $50-60 for a pair of shoes is the only reason I don’t have any.

I definitely see where the Day Without Dignity campaign is coming from, and I agree that the issues being addressed won’t be solved until the systems are attacked. I think that is common knowledge.

But where the Day Without Dignity campaign fails is inclusiveness, and that is where campaigns like TOMS succeed. Companies that promote in-kind donations may not be fixing systemic problems or overthrowing the cycles that perpetuate these issues, but what they are doing is helping people learn to become globally aware. And while, for some, this might be a one-time, distant, “I did my part and I’m done” thing, for others it changes their lives and teaches them to live outside themselves, rather than just step outside themselves once in a while (in the form of donating food or money).

Campaigns like A Day Without Dignity do the opposite. They say, “change the local government;” “find a way to purify their water;” “clean up their soil.” Well, frankly, these are not things that just any ol’ Joe can do. These are things that will only be accomplished over someone’s lifetime of working for them because it’s not that easy. (If it were, there’d be clean water and soil and more stable local governments all over the world by now.)

And working for change like that involves it being a career – a lifestyle – and it’s not going to be everyone’s lifestyle. Not everybody is going to be a social justice lawyer or public defender or global diplomat or politician or whatever it takes to get to the root of a system and change it. So people who want to help but do not have the education, background, intelligence, finances, or whatever else to be a part of huge, systemic changes turn to campaigns like TOMS, where at least they can continue to cultivate that outside-themselves mindset rather than do absolutely nothing.

A couple of other terms this article throws around (or maybe some of the articles associated with it – I’ve clicked so many links by this point that I can’t remember) are “good aid” and “bad aid,” and these terms rub me the wrong way. I don’t think I agree that there should be a distinction made between the two, especially because it vilifies the spirit with which the aid is given (not to mention the person giving it). Aid is aid. After all, if one child’s life is changed because a pair of shoes was given, how can that be called a bad thing? If one family is able to keep its electricity and water running for another month because a sack of groceries was donated, how can that be a bad thing?

It seems to me that instead of working against each other, these campaigns (and others) could work in tandem and accomplish a lot more. (After all, how many different clean-water campaigns are there? What if they all joined forces and worked together?) I appreciate the purpose behind the Day Without Dignity campaign, but I am having trouble appreciating the attacking/mocking spirit with which I feel it has been led.

That article also has a four-minute video on the subject. The video spends the first two minutes talking about how donations strip these people of their dignity and hurt the local market because handouts are competition for local economy. Okay, I get that. That’s a great piece of information to have, and what truly compassionate human being would be okay with continuing an action that has such negative impact (assuming these claims are true)? But then I started to get irritated because my thought was, Okay, so what’s next? What’s the solution? How can I help in a positive way?

I felt hopeful when the video transitioned then and seemed to be about to tell me how I could help. But then I got frustrated again when it didn’t. It provided vague, general answers like the ones I already mentioned above (government, water, soil) – the kind of broad, big-picture answers that limit my ability to be helpful (and even my desire). The video says to educate myself on what the locals need. “Ask a local” is one of their suggestions. Really? Ask a local? I live in Kansas City. For many reasons, I cannot just choose a random phone number from the World Phone Book – one from Cote d’Ivoire or Ethiopia, for instance – call it up, and say, “Hey. What do you need besides shoes? How can I help?”

Another solution suggested was to read blogs or books authored by locals. And again, I ask, really? First of all, if they are in need of help, who of the locals is taking time (and money) to write a book about the kind of help they need? This seems more like something a concerned investigative journalist would be doing, so why would I not look there first? Second, finding a blog written by a local isn’t as easy as it sounds. (I promise – I just spent half an hour trying.)

The last solution the video provides is for me to stimulate my own local economy. Now, I know that stimulating local economy is trendy and cool right now. And for a good reason. But as a solution to how we can help a global problem, I fail to see the correlation. How does me helping to line the pockets of a Kansas City entrepreneur help a small country in Africa get a more stable government? Or cleaner water? Or better schools? I’m not being mocking here – I’m honestly asking because I don’t know, and if this is such an obvious solution, then clearly there’s something I don’t know about the  business world.

Except for Chai Shai, a local restaurant I support because the food is delicious and because I can walk there from my house, I am not aware of how local KC businesses are helping fight international problems. (Chai Shai has a tip jar that clearly states that all tips/donations made will go to help Pakistan flood victims and refugees.) But unless other businesses make it obvious to their consumers that they are doing something like that, I kind of thought that all their proceeds went either in their pockets or right back into their own businesses. Which is fine – but remember, my point is that I fail to see how that (i.e., stimulation of local economy) helps solve a majority-world problem.

Since my coworker sent the email and link originally to our entire department at work, I replied all and sent most of these thoughts back as a response that I hoped would stimulate intelligent discussion amongst the group of us. Unfortunately, not one person (even the person who’d sent the original email!) replied to my response, and none of them even acknowledged that I had responded.

I really wanted some discussion on this topic. So then I shared my thoughts and the link on Facebook with a friend of mine with whom I’d discussed a thread of this subject very recently. He also did not respond. Thus, I am putting my thoughts a third time to a larger audience to see what happens.

And by the way, I am going to take one suggestion from the video to heart. I’m going to research something I’m interested in and see if I can find a reasonable way to help: education and specifically illiteracy. I hope to report back in a post later on about my progress, but I learned a long time ago not to make promises or guesses about the kinds of blog posts I will feel like writing in the future. But just know – I’m going to make an attempt.

So how about you? What are your thoughts on this topic? Or, if you’ve found a solution that works for you, what is it?



Filed under bloggy, goals, sentimental

25 responses to “Good Aid vs. Bad Aid: Is There a Difference?

  1. Jeremy E

    Just gonna throw up some of what I took from this topic:

    They express the need to think locally, rather than a blanket problem like not having shoes. Im sure you can find people everywhere who dont have shoes, whether it be deep in Africa, or in any of the 50 states in the USA. Yes, it can benefit some people, but is a new pair of shoes anywhere near the top of these peoples priority list? Is there something way more important they could use?

    Probably. So then you ask, “Ok, well then what do they need? What can I do to help?”. I dont think its as simple as switching out ‘shoes’ for ‘X’ commodity. The reason they keep referring to this whole ‘local’ idea is that every place will have their own unique issues. There may very well be a village somewhere who could greatly benefit from shoes. There are many locations that dont need shoes, but rather fresh water, or paved roads, or sewage control, etc.

    So if you want to help, how will you know who needs what? I would agree that hearing the advice of “ask a local” or “read local blogs and books” seems a bit vague, especially depending on how you chose the location in the first place. You see a big headline “Haiti needs help”, and are confused as to how you can engage someone from Haiti. Well, is Haiti the only place where help is truly needed?

    If you drove around Kansas City, you could come across people that need the same mentioned necessities listed above: fresh water, shelter, maybe even shoes. Is helping people in Haiti any better than helping people in your own backyard with the same needs? Im not saying that we should forget about other countries, but maybe the way we help people needs to be re-evaluated.

    Organisations and companies like TOMS have the resources to help people abroad, through the simple act of vowing to match any purchase you make from them to help struggling people around the world. But instead of handing them a pair of shoes, maybe they could use the resources they have to educate people how to better their local community. After all, they know what they need more than we do. And as the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”.

    I may have veered off into my own thoughts from what they were saying, but I dont think they are too far off from their point.

    Anyways, thats what was stimulated in my mind upon reading all of this.

    • Jeremy, thanks for your comment. And thanks for clarifying what you think their message was supposed to be. Not sure if I’m too dense to have understood or if they could’ve been a bit clearer about their intent. Either way, I appreciate your respectful response, and I agree that teaching a man to fish is the better way to go. However . . . if I don’t know how to fish, how I can teach someone else? Therefore, it’s easier to share the fish I am blessed to have rather than try to teach him myself. I know there are many arguments that can be made against this statement of mine, and I don’t think I’m trying to excuse myself from service. But I do think that this particular argument might be the driving force behind in-kind donations – a desire to help; a lack of knowledge on how.

  2. I have to say that anyone who wants to help someone in any way should not be judged; no one should take issue with the fact that I gave the boy down the road a new pair of shoes. Sure his family is struggling and in need of food and the electric bill paid. But, the boy also needs shoes to protect his feet from burning on the pavement while walking to school in the summer and his toes from freezing in the frost of winter.

    And (again, thinking of children) what child wouldn’t want to show up at school with a shiny new pair of shoes? Rather than tattered hand-me-downs. Because that child’s family is struggling for a living means that he shouldn’t be afforded the feeling a shiny new pair of shoes would give him?

    Maybe I don’t have $20 to buy food for an in-need family; but my daughter does need shoes for school. So if in spending what I would spend anyhow, would earn an additional pair of shoes for someone else — then by all means. It’s a win-win.

    I understand that even within our own government, our financial aids have issues that are in some ways enabling to those in need — thus giving them the fish rather than teaching them to catch it on their own. But, those people still need to eat. We can’t pull back our aid and assistance because a program is flawed or we disagree with it.

    And, last there is the main issue. If I want to help in some way it is my choice what to do with my provisions and how I choose to share them. Where is the dignity in judging someone for trying to help in their own way?

    Does that add to your discussion? :-)

    • FW, it’s interesting to me that you’re applying this in the context of your own community. I think that makes it a very different argument indeed. In the areas where TOMS is distributing new shoes, I don’t think that showing up to school with brand-new shoes IS much of a concern and, for some children, might earn them more disgrace and ridicule than “fitting-in” points.

      But I also agree that it’s better to give “flawed” aid than none at all.

      And I agree with your last point too, which was the point I made in my blog. I am not against the idea behind the campaign – only the negative spirit with which it was spearheaded.

  3. b longfellow

    I can’t respond to this piece without testifying to my own hypocrisy. My actions do not match my stated beliefs. Basically, when it comes to global compassion, my actions can only be defined as apathetic.

    To veer a bit off topic, a missionary in Haiti (or The Dominican Republic? some island county anyway) told me something a few years ago I haven’t been able to forget. He said in almost all cases it would be more helpful for churches to send the money they spend on short term mission trips than it is to send the people themselves. This is from an economic viewpoint, of course, but it does suggest that compassion may not always take the forms within which we prefer to place it.

    • Reese

      That’s an interesting take on it. Something I have thought about but haven’t fully considered. I agree that money is extremely helpful, but I also believe that sometimes the act of showing up and physically showing you care can mean more than writing a check. Anyone can do that, but not everyone cares enough to take time to go serve. However, like you said, this is a testament to my own hypocrisy as well.

    • Brian, I think that thinking about it and discussing it and working toward figuring out a paradigm are still important steps in the right direction. But you are right. We cannot hide under that excuse umbrella forever, and there does come a time when we must put our words to good use. I confess, I myself am living less for others and more for myself right now than I would claim as ideal as I try to get my financial situation in order, and I live in a constant tension of not knowing whether that’s okay.

      I have heard the sentiment before of your island missionary, and I can’t say that I disagree with him. After all, look at the money we spend on flights, food, preparations, etc., for short-term mission trips, and what purpose do they end up serving in the end? They make us feel better about ourselves and that’s about it. At my job I’ve been in the middle of some pretty intense debates both for and against short-term missions, and I’m not sure how I feel about it in the end. This in particular would be a good discussion to have elsewhere, verbally, in my opinion.

  4. I don’t know if I’ll enter into the realm of intelligent discussion, but I’ll post a comment in any case. First of all, it’s a bummer that stuff like that has to be expensive. Like you said about the $60 shoes, most things I’ve found that benefit a good cause are more expensive than I’d prefer to pay. I see why, but it still is a bummer, and so often I think people try to “raise awareness” to issues so someone else, perhaps with more ability to help monetarily, can get involved. In that way, we can all do something. [Note: another attempt at italics. Hopefully I didn’t botch it.]
    Also, I agree with you that while I see the point the article is trying to make, you also shouldn’t put down people who are trying to make a difference, even in something as seemingly insignificant as wearing or not wearing shoes.
    I don’t know if getting a handout strips someone of as much dignity as have to beg would do, and if people don’t get aid, they’ll end up having to do just that. And even so, shouldn’t we be showing love to others by giving what we have? It’s a good practice for those of us with money, clothing, shoes, etc. Not to put words in peoples’ mouths, but sometimes I think that someone who would write an article like “A Day of Dignity” is putting the wrong motive on helping others. We shouldn’t do it because it will make us feel better; we do it because we want to help, because we want to make a difference. And with that sort of motive, we don’t want to strip away dignity, and hopefully those we help recognize that in us as well.

    Okay, I’m not sure if that made any sense, but I’m posting it anyway.

    • Reese, I know you are mostly agreeing with what I say, but I can’t help but play devil’s advocate (to both your comment and my post) and ask, if it were you receiving a sack of groceries (or something else) from a stranger – how would you feel? If a stranger, unbidden, uninvited, unannounced, showed up on your doorstep and handed you a sack full of groceries – when you have a full pantry – or handed you something you will never use – would you not feel a little stripped of your own dignity? Eventually you might come around to giving them credit for having good intentions, but initially, would you not be incensed at a lack of sensitivity to what you really need? Would you not be annoyed by the fact that they didn’t take time to get to know you first? That their “charity” is impersonal and robotic? That they don’t care what you really need but are only concerned about making themselves feel better and more Christian?

      Sorry. I know it’s not really fair for me to do that to you, since all you were doing was backing up what I originally posted. But I’m not really challenging you. I’m challenging myself and my own post because I don’t want to be complacent about this issue because I don’t think there is a simple, black-and-white answer.

      • Reese

        I’m a little confused, I think. You said: “If a stranger, unbidden, uninvited, unannounced, showed up on your doorstep and handed you a sack full of groceries – when you have a full pantry – or handed you something you will never use – would you not feel a little stripped of your own dignity?” But aren’t we talking about giving, in this case, shoes to people who don’t have shoes? Not people who have closets full of shoes.

        People don’t just go around knocking on people’s doors handing out groceries, do they? Is that what we’re talking about? If someone did that to me, I would think they were weird, and I wouldn’t feel stripped of dignity because I, like you said, had a full pantry. And if I didn’t, and someone offered to help buy me groceries, I would probably feel grateful. But maybe I’m only saying that because I don’t need that sort of help on a daily basis.

        Then you said: “Would you not be annoyed by the fact that they didn’t take time to get to know you first? That their “charity” is impersonal and robotic?” But isn’t that the point, then, of missions trips? Or should be the point, at least. So that the charity isn’t impersonal, but we get to know people and serve them in some way like building a school or fixing up a church or putting on soccer camps.

        If someone goes on a missions trip just to make himself feel better, that’s about motive, and God sees that even if no one else does, so I don’t think that’s something we can/should concern ourselves with.

        • Reese – I’m going to respond to this point by point.

          “But aren’t we talking about giving, in this case, shoes to people who don’t have shoes? Not people who have closets full of shoes.”

          Yes and no. The article and video I reference (and some of the other articles the main article links to) make the very point that shoes are not a commodity that is needed. They posit that TOMS has a great marketing campaign but is not actually solving any problems because they are providing shoes where shoes are not needed.

          And, shoes is just one concrete example, but the big-picture issue is in-kind donations as a whole, not just shoes specifically.

          “People don’t just go around knocking on people’s doors handing out groceries, do they?” Umm, yes. They do. Have you ever participated in a canned food drive? Where do you think that food goes?

          “But maybe I’m only saying that because I don’t need that sort of help on a daily basis.” Bingo. Sometimes we all experience a struggle with making the paycheck stretch to the end of the month, and for those of us who are more fortunate than others, it might not be a big deal to say, “Hey, I’m a little short right now; would you mind helping me out?” Because we don’t view it as a perpetual problem – it’s a one-time, occasional thing, and it’s not our usual state of living. But if it IS the usual state of living, it can be a really humiliating position to be in, and asking for help becomes a point of pride and dignity, so receiving unbidden help becomes a bigger deal – especially when that “help” isn’t even what is needed. It can feel like a blanket attempt by the givers to make themselves feel better rather than an actual stab at solving the problem. “Well, we know you’re poor, but we don’t know exactly how, so here are some cans of gross food that have been in people’s cabinets for months (possibly years). They’re not stuff any of us would be able to make reasonable meals out of, but you’re poor, so you’ll eat anything, even cardboard, right? And this random assortment of peas and beans and beets is MUCH better than cardboard. Good luck, see you next month.”

          “But isn’t that the point, then, of missions trips? Or should be the point, at least. So that the charity isn’t impersonal, but we get to know people and serve them in some way like building a school or fixing up a church or putting on soccer camps.” I like your rose-colored opinion here, but again – it’s a good intention with usually negative consequences. Most mission trips last one week, maybe two. And you’re building a school or repairing a church, great. But where did you stay on the last short-term mission trip you went on? Did you stay in the homes of any of the people you were helping out? Or near them? Because on all the trips I’ve been on, we’ve slept in churches or in missionary compounds or campgrounds where the only people we’re socializing with after the sun goes down are ourselves and other middle-class white Americans who are there for the same purpose. Where is the relationship building in that? And during the workdays, when you’re building a school or repairing a church, what relationships are you cultivating and with whom? Usually it’s with the directors of the programs, the liaisons between the organizations, or representatives/spokespeople who aren’t even part of the schools or churches you’re helping. And when you attend church services, do you mingle with the congregation? Based on my experience, no. You sit there with your friends and team members, huddled in a white bubble near the back (or the front, if the pastor insists on seating you prominently), and not really engaging with the church members at all. Maybe these are not your experiences with short-term missions, but they are mine, and I must say, it all feels very surface level and somewhat non-genuine.

          “If someone goes on a missions trip just to make himself feel better, that’s about motive, and God sees that even if no one else does, so I don’t think that’s something we can/should concern ourselves with.” I’m not willing to brush this off as something we cannot or should not concern ourselves with. You are acting as if people’s motives are clear, plain, and well defined to everyone, even themselves. And I do not think the issue is so clear cut. Most people will say – even to themselves – that their motives are pure, unselfish, and others-focused. But how can they be, if what I’ve described in the paragraph above is true? And this is why we SHOULD be concerned with it: If we aren’t even aware of our own motives (and my argument says that we are not), then this is a bigger issue than you seem to think or want it to be.

          Anyway – I’m not trying to accuse you of anything. Just trying to keep the wheels turning and play devil’s advocate because it helps ME think through my own motives and intentions when it comes to this matter.

          • Reese

            Okay, I guess I thought canned food drives went to food pantries, where people came to get food who needed it. And what you mentioned has not entirely been my experience with missions trips. Also, while I DO certainly feel that we should be concerned about our own motives and attempt to figure them out, I’m just saying that I am not going to concern myself with other peoples’ motives, because I don’t see the point in that. It’s not that I don’t want this to be an issue. Maybe I am being a bit rose colored, and I certainly could do more to help, but also I think being positive and cheerful in our daily lives in our interactions can impact people in a way we never thought just by not being rude to them when ten other people before me might have been. I know that doesn’t have anything to do with the physical well-being of another, but it also is something we ALL could do to help. But maybe that’s just me being being naive and rose colored.

  5. Reese

    That’s it. I’m not trying italics anymore. This is stupid. I think I am going to start “A Day of Italics” and raise awareness to the problem of overusing italics and the proper usage of HTML code.

  6. Reese, I think you just forgot to close your italic tag.

    the symbol opens it; then, the symbol closes it. :-) Same for bold only using the letter b.

  7. Well, even in spacing the code – it italicized my ‘help’. Plfbt! :-P

  8. b longfellow

    Potential disconnect between point of giving and point of receiving

    Reese- Thanks for keeping this topic turning in my head. I often get frustrated when encountering issues that don’t have a clear answer and thus decide to start thinking about something else, like which pair of shoes best compliment my pants and shirt that day, but your comment helps me keep thinking.

    Let me say first that I lack the information to speak with much authority on this shoe-giving topic. Second, my gift for asking questions exceeds my ability to answer them. My instinctive response is on the side of Audra’s devil’s advocate position. In large part, this is because I wondered, Who are the shoes being given too? People without shoes? Perhaps. People who can use newer shoes? Perhaps. A recycling company? Maybe.

    I haven’t put much effort into finding out this information. (I clicked on one unpromising link from the original article, and there my energies expired.) But I have heard stories about aid-givers showing up and saying, We’re here, and this is what we’re giving you. None of this is first-hand experience, maybe not even second hand, but something about the way in-mass movements and bureaucracies work makes me believe this could easily be true. The way aid was handled after Katrina isn’t a fair comparison, but it does demonstrate the “telephone” effect of the difference between what is needed and what is given and how it’s disseminated.

    If these thoughts help point me in any particular direction, it might be to consider placing priority on local action. The less distance there is between giver and receiver, the greater benefit for both parties, in my opinion. Mainly, a relationship is established, one that could potentially continue long-term. What follows COULD (I’m so ignorant of the italics function, I’ll go with caps) include a better understanding of what is needed, even as needs change, as well as an extended opportunity to practice the “teach to fish” philosophy.

    Since the relationship factor is so important, as we all seem to agree, I think it merits questioning short-term missions even further. Fortunately, these are largely organized (I assume) by someone who DOES have a long-term relationship with the served community. But (and I have to imagine here) I assume ofttimes the relationships between server and served is not only short-term but also fairly superficial. There’s gotta be a better word. I’m thinking about the language barrier . . . maybe a lack of REALITY is what I’m thinking of. For those two or three weeks everyone involved is–to some extent–experiencing a completely different life than they normally do. (And perhaps this is what powers the real possible positive effects for both sides, thanks be to God.)

    Interestingly, something like a language barrier exists even with a local focus, a cultural barrier due to economics, demographics, or values, that can only gradually be transcended via long-term relationships.

    I’m kind of embarrassed about the length of my ramble. I guess I’ll close by confessing that one of the only things I do to help people, I get paid to do. Perhaps, Audra, you should post a blog advocating a 30-hours-or-less work week so I have more time to come up with excuses. Wait. I probably work less than that already.

    • Brian – mostly you made me laugh with this (with your self-deprecating comments and admissions of apathy), but I think you bring up a few good points too. Your relationship point is right on and is partially the point I was trying to make in my own scrambled response to Reese.

      I do think this is where the local action thing is most important, which of course answers my own question from my post. But to me, it’s kind of like the age-old converting Christians argument. How can a Christian go into a foreign situation and just presume to begin converting people without having an understanding of those people to begin with? The important thing is to begin by cultivating relationships, not by coming in and saving the day with “help.”

      In this way, it seems to me that my best course of action now, then, is to start getting to know people in my own neighborhood, on my own street. I’m doubly daunted by this task since I live on a corner and technically have two streets’ worth of people to get to know. I’ve lived there a year and have made very little progress, and I’m not proud of that at all. But it’s also not part of my personality to just reach out to someone randomly. I prefer happy coincidences that become areas ripe for cultivating relationships. I hope that by spending more time on my porch and in my yard this summer than I did last year, I can set the stage for more of these “coincidences” to occur.

      I think I lost the thread of discussion and went off point. But oh well.

      • b longfellow

        To stay off point, I identify with the neighborly ideal vs. reality. I’ve lived in the same house for over four years and know only one neighbor by name. This was not my plan when I moved in, but as time has gone by an unfortunate inertia has established itself. boo. of course, my head is full of ready excuses. I did say “Hi” to the new neighbor across the street today. Talk about progress!

  9. b longfellow

    Correction: I’m so ignorant of the italics function I don’t know how NOT to do it!

  10. First of all, I tried to read all the comments on this post, but there were too many and they were too long. I should’ve joined in sooner, I guess. Plus, the italics were driving me nuts. Thanks, Reese ;)

    Audra, great post. I really appreciate the way you take an even-handed approach to it. It’s wrong to blame someone for their charity, but at the same time it is important to realize that our charity won’t be enough.

    The one point that should be made, though, is that literally there is sometimes bad aid. For instance, hundreds of churches can gather all their clothing and ship it to Africa out of genuine intentions, but then put all the local clothing makers out of work because of the influx of free products. That is a real example, by-the-way. In that sense, being aware of the the consequences of our actions should be done alongside pooling our good intentions.

    I think a good analogy to this discussion could be the evangelical church’s take on racism (and social issues in general). There is a rising awareness in the church that racism exists and that we are complicit in it. So what’s the response? For even the most open-minded evangelical church, it usually begins and ends with befriending people from other races and inviting them to worship with us. This is a great thing, and a constituent part of bridging the racial divide, but certainly won’t bridge the racial divide by itself. Racism is worked into the system. It’s worked into where people live, how and where they go to school, where they shop, how they vote, and the work that they do.

    So, should I pat myself on the back if I say “hi” to my Laotian neighbor? Should I pat myself on the back if I invite them to church? Have them over for dinner? Listen to their story? Go to their church? Read with their children? Help them with their taxes? Not vote for a political candidate that would treat them harshly based upon their citizenship status? At what point do I pat myself on the back?

    I think the point is, you can and should feel good about your acts of generosity, as long as your compassionate act isn’t only patching over an open wound of emotional guilt that is there for whatever reason (Jesus told me to love the poor, I have so much-they so little, etc.). I think relying upon the feeling of generosity to assuage our guilt always ends in undervaluation of the issue. Complex social issues have complex causes that you can’t feel your way through, only. The feelings are a necessary but insufficient aspect of incarntional compassion. Hence, good intentions aren’t enough. But they are good!

    • Hey Wes, thanks for commenting, even if you were a little late to the party. No worries. :)

      Writing this post was really interesting for me because, when I first began to write it, I was firmly on one side of the fence. Then, as I wrote it out and thought out my feelings, I began to realize I’m less on that side of the fence than I thought. And then, as I worked through my thoughts further in these comments, I realized that I’m way closer to the middle and/or other side of the fence than I ever knew. So that was kinda fun (and if you HAD read all the comments – particularly my responses to Reese, in which I readily admitted to play devil’s advocate for the sake of arguing with myself and stretching my own mind, you would’ve seen that change of loyalties on my part play out).

      I appreciate your contribution to the discussion and agree (as I wrote in the post) that hurting local economy is a bad thing. After all, if one action helps somebody but hurts somebody else, then yes, that is definitely a negative thing. (I guess it’s that whole robbing Peter to pay Paul thing in action.)

      I’m intrigued by your question, “At what point should I pat myself on the back?” I don’t think you are asking that as Wes McKain. I feel like you’re asking it somewhat rhetorically, as an anonymous charity giver, and my answer is, “Never!” To me, that is the definition of bad aid. Or maybe selfish aid. Nothing should ever, ever be done to make ourselves feel better about ourselves or to pat ourselves on the back and say, “Job well done, Self.” I am disgusted by people who knowingly make that their purpose and saddened by people who unknowingly do it.

      I like your phrase “emotional guilt.” I am reminded of something your dad read last night out of that Strengths book that was being passed around. When he was reading that passage about empathy, this part most struck me: The empathetic person does not feel pity for someone less fortunate than themselves. That would be sympathy.” And I feel like that principle applies here to what you’ve said about emotional guilt. It is not about helping people so that we feel better about our own possessions. Or helping people so we feel like we can check off an item on a Christian checklist of kingdom actions. It is about entering in and embracing and living and joining and communing.


      Thanks for commenting. You got my wheels turning yet again.

  11. JJC

    Like Wes – I tired of reading all the comments – so I’m just jumping in – sorry if I’m repeating anyone.

    First of all – Economic arguments against what TOMS does are bullshit. People don’t have shoes (generalizing here) because the local or federal economy in that country/area has failed. 1. people don’t have jobs to make money to buy shoes, and 2. the market forces have not kept the cost of shoes down so they are affordable. Those against the TOMS model suggest systemic change – yes – that is needed but what do we do in the mean time? Have a bunch of shoeless kids running around? no. However, those people are not necessarily wrong – those areas do need systemic change – but do you know how that occurs? In part it’s by debt-forgiveness, IMF and World Bank funding and charity organizations going in a doing work. So basically to make the change the global system gives money to the higher ups and hope that by helping the government the shoeless people in rural areas will eventually (in 5-10 years) get shoes. Rarely do non-corrupt governments have these kinds of problems, so you can imagine the effectiveness of this aid. Yes – some of it helps – great programs for women and children are implemented all over the world – but those systems are buoyed by donations and money. Market arguments fail because the market MUST be tinkered with at some point.

    Also – Day w/out Dignity is lame b/c it assumes that needing shoes isn’t a legit need. Most impoverished countries are in the Global South – I don’t know about Day w/out Dignity – but I’d be pretty much screwed if I had to walk across hot sand to get to work/school. Shoes are a legit way to fulfill a need.

    However – as I said – we do need systemic change. BUT… even though I think we need to work with governments – I don’t trust people who corrupt and manipulate systems.

    Here’s my suggestion for you – look into micro-financing. There is a reason why the guy that implemented it in…. India (?) won a Nobel Peace Prize…it’s b/c it works. You give a small loan of $20-$100 and help a villager (or some other person like a villager (not said to be condescending – just trying to find a general term) ) the capital to start a business. They have an amazing rate of success and almost always…like 80% of the time – get paid back. There are websites where you can do this yourself. And you’ll find them in must less time than 30 minutes.

    As for local v. global – I’ve never been to Ethiopia or Africa in general really (minus a small day trip to Morocco – but that doesn’t really count) but my guess is they don’t have thrift stores all over their cities. just a hunch. Also – when the government is fragile or failing (as are many Global South governments) they don’t have the infrastructure to provide shelters and rescue missions or food stamps etc. (yes rescue missions are often privately funded but they are supported by tax exemptions and grants from the government) What I’m saying is – people in the US have options. They have ways to get back on their feet – to survive….. yes it is hard and many many many people are struggling – but there are options. Other countries don’t even HAVE these options.

    Now – Farmer’s Wife gave shoes to a kid down the street. That’s legit. I’m not suggesting she should have said “f-you little american kid – I’m sending these shoes to Africa.” BUT – at the end of the day – the parents of that kid have options. NOW – with kids it is different b/c they are at the mercy of their parents. BUT – FW may have just put a bandaid over a deeper problem – if she really wants to help this kid she may need to call DHS – make sure that child isn’t being neglected- that the parent(s) aren’t using money that should be used for taking care of the child for liquor and ciggies. But again…and this brings us full circle… is FW just going to let that kid go shoeless until DHS gets around to making a housecall? No. Give the kid some shoes – b/c there is no guarantee that 1. you’re going to be able to whip the parents into shape or 2. that more money or more guidance will actually effect and reach the kid.

    And yes – why don’t ngo’s and such work together. Internationally a lot of them do. in a crisis response or poverty response there is generally a UN director over the country and they break the needs down into different segments (this is all uniform) Women/Children, food, housing, water, sanitation etc. Then the NGO’s that fit into each category are gathered and organized so there is no overlap. This is done globally as well. It’s not a perfect system but realize these kinds of things are relatively recent in the history of the world so there is a learning curve the global community is on.

    As for Day w/out Dig. v. TOMS – it’s an important conversation to have if you found a way to do one local assistance – like tutoring at a battered women’s shelter – helping women and children learn to read – and donated $20 to a microfinancing system OR $20 to a program that helps Palestinian refugees in Syria learn to read – you’re covering your bases … AND if you wanted to be citizen of the year – you could get involved with an organization like Stand for Children that works to make LOCAL systemic change b/c our school system sucks and kids in KC are illiterate and dropping out of school etc.

    Okay – that is all.

  12. aaronmitchum

    Hey Audra – since I am the co-worker you mention I will respond. Thanks for your thoughts, they are great! I do find myself disagreeing with many of them though. I’d like to propose three counter points to what I took to be major themes in your post.
    1. You mentioned in the beginning that TOMS and other BOGO are helping people become globally aware, but at what cost? If they are hurting more than helping does that effort seem worth it?
    2. You mentioned that any ol’ joe cannot help change governments or clean up water supplies. I disagree in that, any ol’ Joe can research and give independently of a purchase to a credible aid organization that is doing those things. It seems that helping well does cost; it can cost time, money, effort,etc. but that those are things any ol’ joe can do.
    3. You mentioned that you feel aid is vilified when it is classified into categories of good and bad. Again, I disagree. Take for example something that happens in Kansas City; if someone was doing community development in your urban neighborhood but didn’t live there, and didn’t understand the consequences of their actions and if some of their actions were hurting more than helping I believe most would call that bad development, not good. No one would be making judgments on peoples hearts, they would be judging on objective situations. I believe it is similar with aiding in foreign countries. Because TOMS for example is not forthright with how they work with local economies and because they only come in and drop off gifts and then take off they run many risks of hurting more than helping.

    Thanks again for your thoughts, lot’s of comments!

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