This Friday I am teaching a workshop on international community development and global citizenship at a local secondary school. I believe that I am part of a process to help shift the mindset of a generation and that the students I work with are ready for this change.
We throw around terms like global citizenship and expect students to be contributing members of a global community but we don’t give them the tools they need to critically assess existing programs and charities. Even worse we literally tell them what they should do to support charities- from not eating for a day to used clothing drives- and present them as grand gestures. This year there was actually a secondary school food bank campaign that was marketed as “ending hunger forever.” How ridiculous is that?
We start the workshop with an interactive activity called “wants and needs” where we look at different aspects of a functioning community such as education, jobs, clean water, a police force, and healthy food. I won’t go into the details but through this process students have to decide what is a want or a need, and what needs are most urgent. Throughout the workshop we draw on this activity to discuss aid, community development, and social justice. And by the end of the workshop we should have come up with a series of questions to determine whether a program is truly beneficial and contributes to good community development.
People may disagree with me but I see aid and “charity” to be a short term bandaid solution to a problem. What we hope is that the aid agencies are there temporarily. For this reason their work is not necessarily designed to empower people. It usually involves bringing in outside experts and distributing urgent needs such as medicine, temporary shelter, clean water and food. Long term benefits for a community come instead from community development and a focus on social justice.
When the focus turns from aid to community development we look at ways to empower people, to create sustainable change, and to examine and break down barriers to this change. We ask where will the community be in 1 year, in 5 years, in 20 years.
When aid – especially ill conceived aid- become a long term focus in a community it creates a dependency and destroys rather than supports business development and ultimately prevents self sufficiency and social justice.
I write all of this in response to a grand announcement this week by World Vision that they donated 100,000 shirts, ball caps and sweatshirts to “adults and children in need.” I am having a hard time even determining when donating t-shirts is ever needed. Now indeed I have seen communities where children have shirts with holes in them. But I am sure if you asked those kids what they needed… hell, even what they wanted…, a new t-shirt would be way down their list.
So World Vision before you pat yourself on the back for a job well done maybe it is time to ask yourself these important questions….
- Is there truly a need for this item?
- If yes, then why is there a need for this item?
- Why do you want to donate this item?
- Who truly benefits from this donation?
- Did you ask the community what they really want or need?
- Is this item already available locally?
- Is what you are doing having a negative impact on the local economy?
- Is there something better you could do that empowers the local community and feeds the local economy?
- What are you doing to support long term community development and social justice?
….Because we certainly will be asking these questions too.