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When helping hurts

One thing that I would like your input on is the question of what Empower pays for during our ministry trips in Africa. This is in reference to, “When helping hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor and yourself” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

Sorting out appropriate boundaries for what we pay for while in Africa is an obviously a practical issue as we run programs with limited financial resources. On a deeper level, however, lies the question of how we truly empower people — as opposed to making them even more dependent. The African leaders we are working with struggle with this issue themselves. Some have what seems like a frantic need to provide material resources (which they themselves don’t have) to everyone who asks. This interfers with our working relations as some as less interested in the message than in getting support from us. It also interfers with the work itself.

Men and Shame

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have a very good book called When helping hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor and yourself.  They address an issue that greatly plagues our ministry, Empower, in working in Africa.  Our ministry is not about alleviating material poverty, but we are constantly confronted with it in our journeys.  AFrican poverty is in your face all the time, and the impulse to “help” by handing over money is hard to resist — but simply impossible because the poverty is so vast.  C&F make a point dear to my heart from my consulting:  When we dash in the solve problems of poverty without really understanding the problem, we are very likely to make matters worse. 

It is in this point that Corbett and Fikkert’s book offers more than just practical help in dealing with this particular missionary problem but goes right to the heart of what Empower is trying to do. They base their discussion in part on Bryant Meyer’s work on the brokenness that results from the Fall.  Right up my alley.  Myers writes that in the Fall, four relationships were shattered:  Relationship with God; relationship with others; relationship with the rest of creation (hence material poverty) (okay, I got those in Redemption of Love, and New Man, New Woman, New Life); but also relationship with self.  Among the poor, this shattered relationship with self results in shame and a sense of helplessness, core problems of poverty. Doing things for or giving things to the poor doesn’t do anything to mend these problems, in fact, make the problems worse. 

I don’t completely miss that one, but certainly don’t make all the connections Myers, Corbert and Fikkert do.  More on this later.

Why become a Christian?

Yesterday in the seminar I am taking from S. Scott Bartchy on recent research on Paul of Tarsus, someone asked why people would have become Christians in the New Testament period.  Prof. Bartchy asked me to reply from my experiences in Africa.  I have a paper called “The Church vs. the Spirit” that presents some interviews on how Christianity improves the welfare of women in SSA.  I also mentioned that in such a strongly hierarchical society, the Biblbical teachings that hierarchy is not legitimate is an enormous relief to men.

I just came across another point in Dana Robert (ed) Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers.  In Vietnam, the gospel liberates people from fears of punishments by the local gods/evil spirits for violating taboos. 

Anyone out there with other information about how the Gospel makes life better?


Ministry growth

Given that I have not posted anything to this blog for two years, there probably are not a lot of people out there waiting to read this.    If you don’t know about Empower International Ministries, which I am talking about here, please take a look at the website at

I just read a very good book, “When helping hurts:  How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor and yourself,” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, which talks about how Americans pouring money into developing countries can actually dis-empower the people and ministries there. Corbett and Fikkert write that the “materially non-poor” suffer from “god-complexes”, while the “materially poor” feel inferior.  Both categories believe that the non-poor are somehow superior the the poor by virtue of not lacking in material things.  (I will summarize more of this book in a later post).

As director of EIM, I struggle with these attitudes. Part of the sense of inferiority among the “materially poor” is a belief that someone else has to rescue them from their plight, that they are incapable of doing anything themselves.  For instance, during our 2009 trip, one of our partners in Burundi said that he was praying for God to give EIM a lot of money so that we could give it to him to fund his implementation of our material in Burundi.  While I appreciate the enormous problems of material provision in Burundi, which is one of the poorest countries on the planet, I think the belief that God will only provide through other human beings — in this case, human beings from another the continent — suggests a tragic lack of faith in their own and God’s efficacy.  If God can provide for EIM, he is perfectly capable of providing for Burundi directly.  Part of this provision will not be money.  Part of it will be ideas on how to promote the biblical understanding of marriage and family without it costing anything.  But it is difficult to persuade our national ministry partners of this when many of them have been conditioned to believe that the lack of goodness in their lives is due to lack of money, and that money can only be provided by someone else. 

The apostle Paul did not have a budget to promote the Gospel.  This ministry cannot grow if it is limited to what we can raise money to promote.


Emily Ostler and AIDS in Africa

     Emily Ostler (a Harvard trained economist doing a post-doc at the University of Chicago) has recently scored big in the publicity department with an article in Esquire entitled, “Three Things You Don’t Know about AIDS in Africa” (see or to view a video of her presenting this,  This post is a comment on her reasoning.  She argues that AIDS rates are high in some parts of Africa because not having sex is “like an investment, so you value it more the longer you expect to live.”  That is, people who expect to live longer will take fewer risks of acquiring AIDS by limiting their sexual behavior than people who figure they are going to die soon anyway.   This is especially pertinent in Africa, where the average life expectancy is 40-50 years of age.  Ostler uses data on malaria prevalence and finds exactly that:  people have more sexual partners in areas with alot of malaria than in places with lower risks of death from malaria. 

Here’s the quibble:  Ostler then goes on to point out the we don’t really have very good data on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Africa.  She proposes a different measure of prevalence.  She looks at actual death rates in these countries, and then subtracts the estimated death rates without HIV/AIDS.  This gives her an estimate of the number of people who are dying of AIDS, which she then uses as an estimate of HIV/AIDS prevalence.  She says that these estimates “suggest that the HIV rates reported by the UN are about three times too high.”  She may be right.  I hope she is.  But her first point about malaria and sexual behavior works because people are assuming, rationally, that it is not necessary to curtail their sexual behavior because THEY ARE GOING TO DIE OF SOMETHING ELSE BEFORE THE HIV KILLS THEM.  Just because someone dies of malaria does not mean that they did not have HIV.

Transactional sex in Uganda

The following was written by Patti Ricotta in response to an article about an AIDS prevention program in Kenya. By providing girls with a few dollars to buy their school uniforms, agencies were able to make a big impact on the AIDS infection rates, as girls were then able to turn away from sex with “sugar daddies” — the only source of money for school uniforms previously. (N.B., school children are required to wear uniforms.)

Patti writes:

If I read the research correctly, it was more than the uniforms that lowered the rate of AIDS in Kenya. It was teaching the young girls that older men (the ones who have money to pay them for sex, and therefore, make it possible to buy, among other things, school uniforms) are the ones who are more likely to infect them with AIDS than were younger men/boys their own age. This vital piece of information gave the girls in the study the chance to consider the cost and choose not to take the risk. Of course, being able to have the money to go to school was their main motivation for having sex with older men anyway, so the free uniform helped to remove the primary need for the transactional sex to begin with.

A very big problem in Africa is that husbands/fathers–the ones who control the family’s money, whether they are the ones who earned it or not–are unlikely to pay for a daughter to go to school if money is tight, and he has sons. I have learned that African men often consider educating their daughters to be investing in another man’s property since he will be selling the girl in marriage as soon as possible (when she can bear children.) African men often do not want an educated girl for a wife, fearing she will have big ideas about a life of her own, become less willing to stay pregnant year after year or stay home and keep hot food on the table for him. A man’s daughter becomes part of her husband’s family after marriage, and serves them, not him. If the father was to spend money on her education he will not benefit from that investment. The son remains close to his own parents and helps to provide for them in their old age, so investing in a son’s education makes perfect financial sense to them. In fairness to these fathers, in a world where there is no old age Social Security, and money is nearly impossible to save for the average family, the bride price of the daugher is often what gives parents the money they need to survive old age. A higher bride price will be gotten for a healthy girl, but not necessarily an educated one.

But this cultural reality does not prevent young girls from desperately wanting an education. When their fathers will not pay for them to go to school, they often end up sleeping with older men who promise to pay school fees in exchange for sex. There are large rings of these men who hire a “madam” to find needy girls with ambition who want to go to school but can’t afford to. They prey on bright, young girls and young women who want nothing more than to make the most of their intellectual potential. These madams can easily infiltrate school yards to look for pretty young girls who need money and want to better themselves. Then, they set up the transfer of school fees for sex. Often the girls don’t know what is going to happen to them when they go “to dinner” with a man who has “shown interest in the girls education.”

It seems that the educational piece in this study (older men carry AIDS more often than young boys/men) plus the uniform, is the combination that is lowering the rate of AIDS in Kenya. Since 2003 Kenya has had a free educational system that is working better than the “free”Ugandan education. The only thing a student has to provide in Kenya is a uniform. In Uganda that just isn’t the case, although in theory, the education is supposed to be free there too.

In Uganda and Rwanda, as in many other African countries, the school uniform is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the cost of education. From primary school on, there are school fees every semester. I support a young girl who is in 4th grade in a government sponsored “free” school. It cost me about $200 a year to educate her. That would be a very large chunk out of the yearly income of the average Ugandan family (about $790 per year.) This girl’s mother is not married and also has 2 sons. She is currently paying school fees for the older boy and is saving for the younger one, who is only 3 years old. She refuses to pay for her daughter’s fees. Carrie is sending 3 girls to college at a much higher rate.

Armed with the information in this study, and provided with the money for school fees, many young girls lives would be saved in Uganda too.

Unfortunately, African girls want an education so badly, that they are sometimes desperate enough to gamble with their lives and their own moral standards to get it. Think about it; could you bear to know that your daughter wanted to be able to use her own mind so badly that she felt she had to have sex with an older–very possibly AIDS infected man, just so she could get an education, and the hope of a brighter future for herself? (How ironic.) We, at EIM, don’t think God wants it that way, and with his help, we are going to play our part to make a difference!

Patti Ricotta

Children as status part II

“Dear Abby” (WAshington Post, 7/24/06, B4) printed a letter from a mother whose 8-year old daughter was beating up and verbally abusing a young friend, “putting her down or stopping her in mid-sentence to constantly ‘correct’ her.

The mother was deeply disturbed but also deeply puzzled. This child is “a straight-A student, loved by all of her other friends, their parents, her teachers, our pastor; etc. She’s involved in theater; sings, dance, ice skates competitively, cheerleads, races motocross and plays the piano.”
Eight years old? Ice skating competitively, cheerleading, and RACING MOTOCROSS? In addition to voice, theatre, dance, and piano? Abby suggests that the child may be over-scheduled, and “her friend was the only thing in her life she could control.”

Definitely, but how about another explanation? How about thinking of this child as an extension of her parents’ need for status and accomplishment? These are one show-off activity after another. Maybe she is pushing around her friend because she has learned that she always has to be competitive, always on top, always center stage and loved by everyone. Somehow her friend isn’t giving her what she wants, so the child does what she has been taught — she does whatever it takes to get back on top.

A clue to the parents’ motivation here is found in the mother’s closing paragraph: “The girls are no longer allowed to be friends. This is damaging for us parents because we were all very close and did a lot together. We camped, fished, hung out, etc.” So it’s all about the parents’ desires, in the final analysis.

Children as luxury goods

In the time that the New Testament was written (and still today in the less developed and non-Christian world) people had children because they needed their labor.  This is not to say that people did not love their children, but they would have had them even if they did not, because children were the original social safety net, providing not only critical labor but also care and support in the parents’ old age, widowhood, illness, or disability.  When the apostle Paul writes that fathers were not to misuse their children but instead to use the obedience owed parents to bring their children up in “nurture and admonition (or discipline) of the Lord,” he challenged the sensibilities of the entire ancient world.

People today no longer have children as a source of labor.  Instead, in our age of wealth, children no longer contribute anything to their families economically and require a great deal of expensive education.  One of the ways in which children have become most expensive, however, is in the value of time that parents have to put into their upbringing.  Relative to the ancient and less developed world, children have become scarce, with the birth rate in most developed countries in Europe and Asia falling well below replacement level.  That the birth rate in the United States remains somewhere around 2 per woman is due largely to immigration of people from those less developed countries.

Two items in the newspaper that provide insight into the impact of this trend:

“Toxic Parents,” Marc Fisher,Washington Post Magazine, July 30, 2006 quotes Allan Shedlin, “a former school principal who runs a business in BEthesday coaching parents on child-rearing.  Kids thrive on firm boundaries, Shedlin preaches, but he sees more parents than ever who can’t bring themselves to set limits for children of any age.

“More and more parents are spending less and less time with their children, so when they do spent time, they want it to be free of conflicts.  And they think setting limits produces conflicts.”

So when children are a luxury good, parents cannot be bothered with teaching their child discipline.  Instead, we increasingly expect the schools and other professionals to teach good manners, responsible alcohol or drug use, good sportmanship and sexual ethics.  If what we really want is a nice child we can enjoy — radio show host Scott Wilder suggests that we treat children today almost like pets — we aren’t going to do anything that might make those interactions unpleasant.

The second article is about a new book by Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege (Harper Collins).  (“Sick of expectations:  Pressure to Compete, Not Connect, Leaves Many Affluent Teens Miserable, Says a Psychologist and Author,” Sandra G. Boodman, Washington Post, August 1, 2006, F1, 4.)  Levine, a clinical psychologist who works with the wealthy children of Marin County, California, finds that being treated as a luxury item (my phrasing, not hers) is damaging to children.  “Unabashedly materialistic and disinterested in the wider world, they are both bored and ‘often boring’….A large number suffer from depression, anxiety and substance abuse.  She also gives information that fits my view of parents treating children as a source of status:  teenagers are forced to view their peers as competitors who might score higher on the SATs or get into a better college than they do.  They have little unscheduled free time and hence no “interior” life.

“I just had parents who came into my office with their crying daughter and said, ‘We just wasted $160,000.”  Why did they think that?  BEcause they sent their kid to a private school and she wants to go to the University of Colorado instead of, say, Georgetown,” Levine says.”

“We have smaller families, we have more time to obsess about perfecting each child.  Many parents can’t stand to see their children unhappy or angry or disappointed, which is part of life.”

Other bits of data I’ve come across lately:  Parents are not only much more involved in children’s college admissions process than they were in the past, employers not report parents calling them up to negotiate their children’s job offers.  A comment that children today have no privacy.

So Paul’s advice to parents applies to the modern world of wealthy as much as to his society, in which children were to be used for the parents’ own pleasure.  Although the physical circumstances are very different, we still have to resist the temptation to use children for our own desires for status or an intelligent household pet.  The Christian must use the freedoms of our developed, enlightened age to give his and her children the nurture, structure, discipline and education that is in keeping with a godly life.