“We were happy in our village before you folks told us we were poor. We didn’t have many things, but happiness doesn’t come just from having more material things. What makes you think we want to become just like you?”

The audience, a group of American donors and development leaders, looked bewildered as Emily, a community development worker from Liberia, took her seat. Finally, one of the U.S. donors spoke up. “Yes, of course we share your goals, Emily. That’s why we keep on bringing you more capital and technology.” Emily listened helplessly, realizing that her message had fallen on deaf ears—again.

Americans are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth, and we coexist with 2.6 billion people living on less than $2 per day. The situation is simply immoral. We must do more, but we must do it differently.

For the past 60 years, the majority of American assistance has flowed out of a materialistic worldview, which assumes that wealth is produced by material things, namely capital and technology. In this view, America is “developed.” We have arrived, and they have not. The assumption is that if we provide them with more capital and technology, they will be able to be just like the U.S.—a country where families and communities are disintegrating, where addictions are on the rise, where mental and emotional illnesses are exploding, and where rampant consumerism is bankrupting all of us.

The need for more capital and better technology persists. People really do need improved access to clean water, better health care, decent education, and a living wage. But they, and we, need something far more profound. Whether we realize it or not, we all are longing for an intimate relationship with God, for a sense of dignity, for community and belonging, and for the ability to use our gifts and abilities to develop creation. The goal is not to turn Kampala into Chicago. The goal is for both Kampala and Chicago to look more like the New Jerusalem.

The practical implications for providing aid are enormous: Spend more resources on supporting people-empowering processes and less on bricks and mortar; help people to steward the gifts and resources they already have; include the materially poor as full participants in selecting, designing, implementing, and evaluating any intervention; build the capacity of indigenous churches and Christian organizations to work in highly relational, gospel-focused ways; promote the use of spiritual tools—prayer, meditation, fellowship, and Bible study—in addition to material tools in all poverty-alleviation efforts; and embrace that both they and we are fundamentally broken and in need of the healing that only Jesus Christ can bring. We are all developing nations. 

Brian Fikkert, co-author of When Helping Hurts

Love Wins