By Paul Abbott
Key lessons from 12 years in Africa revolved around three issues:
First, the need to focus on the mind and spirit.
The way the poor “think” (and those who would help them think) is the problem and solution to their poverty. The worldview and hearts of the poor should be our focus. In contrast, we should not focus on the externals of our activity with the community (refer to document “Achieving Excellence Through Internal Motivation”).
Second, integrity with Godly principles.
When any organization or mission authors the poor’s development activities, then damage usually occurs. The damage is often a victim mentality that is unconsciously encouraged, because the poor are not released to author and own their own activities and development process. The donors and members of the organization or mission usually determine what will happen because of their perceptions, fund raising methods and organizational systems.
Third, the necessity of spiritual integrity.
To release the God given potential in the poor, the answer to their poverty must be portrayed and modeled in our approach to the poor. I believe God’s answer to the poor’s problems lie in the hearts, minds and spirits of the poor because He put them there. This answer is also in the minds and hearts of those who would work with God and the poor to help. For example, here’s a contrast of two approaches by evangelical “helpers”:
This approach begins by bringing monetary or physical resources and appropriate technologies as a way to build relationship with the poor. Once this mission of mercy has commenced, the Gospel is often “tacked on” and preached. This approach clashes with the spiritual world-view of the poor, who notice that these “rescuers” put their primary effort into monetary and physical resources as “the answer” to their poverty. The gospel is not integrated. The answer seems strictly physical to the poor.
This approach begins by inquiring about the poor and their hopes and dreams “appreciatively.” Next, “vision building” through faith and relationship with God are shared through appropriate, appreciative methods. Then, practical “how to’s” are shared that release individuals and communities to take small sure steps towards their goals. This approach creates a lasting friendship because Godly principles for living were shared at the start of the friendship. The “in” with people is friendship and faith in the potential God has for them. The gospel is not “tacked on” in this approach. The gospel is the approach, and resembles the positive, appreciative principle of Philippians 4:8. From the first day the poor meet with such a team, they get a glimpse of servant leadership. In this approach, both expatriate and national staff learn how to help the poor focus their faith on what God can do out of his great love for them.
My main lesson then:
Is learning to share the gifts of affirmation and vision from the position of a servant leader and friend (like Jesus). The servant leader approach stand in stark contrast to the paternalistic (Coca Cola development approach) which focuses on giving gifts and doing good for the poor as a giver of physical or technological resources. The key words are sharing ‘with’, verses rescuing, fixing, or doing ‘for.’
I’ve found that when I focus on doing good for others, I subconsciously allow “status” to accumulate.” To date, I continue to live out this process of learning, that what I can “do for the poor,” is not the focus of God’s plan for my life, or for the poor He sends me to. In fact, what I do for the poor simply gets in God’s way to really help the poor.
God is increasingly emphasizing His desire for me to depend on Him to release the potential in others. I actually believe that God is opposed to blessing my efforts to do good for others. I feel like God is saying something like this to me,
“Paul, I will release strength and power in your life to the extent that you allow me to work through you to release the potential in others. But you must focus on relationships with others, and on what they author and own. Do not focus on the good plans that you and your teams have for them.”
Learning about “what we didn’t know” with the gracious Tuaregs of Mali.
Starting In 1984, I worked and lived for over six years with a nomadic pastoral people group, the Tuaregs. The Tuaregs are renowned as being the “Pirates of the Sahara” during the days of the trans-Saharan camel caravans. They are an un-reached Muslim people group. Though largely oppressed today by the black ethnic groups they once pillaged for slaves. For centuries they ruled all trade by camel caravans from Black Africa to Arab North Africa. In Tuareg society, the men wear veils to hide their face, but the women do not wear veils. I was the program director for the World Vision (WV) Menaka team in the eastern areas of Mali. Over the years in this program, we saw God draw Tuareg men to Jesus Christ (in spite of our mistakes). We sent two men to Youth with a Mission in Dakar, Senegal for a Discipleship Training School. Both of these men are now working are working full time in ministry with others, seeking to share the gospel with their people. This project was viewed as a success, yet I did not feel we were really successful. I had a hard time understanding why I felt this way. I’ll try to explain why. . .
Most Tuaregs lost their livelihood (camels, goats, sheep and cattle) during the severe drought of 1984-85. As a response, we invested millions of dollars in direct project aid for these people. At first we simply saved lives and handed out food. We then learned to used innovative “food for work” activities. Later on, we even learned to solicit their participation in holistic projects we designed with them. Unfortunately, we did not learn about two very important principles, called “authorship” and “ownership.” The lack of these principles in our projects showed up whenever Tuaregs asked us “what will you do next for us?” And, when our Malian WV employees asked “What will happen with us after the project is finished?” These questions ate at me, and caused me to prayerfully rethink our approach, goals, vision and purpose.
Learning lessons from the Tuaregs with the “Nomads” of the Sahara.
The “Nomads” (their real name withheld for security sake), like the Tuaregs, were once a proud nomadic pastoral people. Once they influenced other parts of North Africa and even parts of Spain. However, after the drought they too lost their livelihood.
A spiritual response to the physical and social needs of the poor.
After the Gulf Crisis, I was asked to leave the Tuaregs and to restart the WV program as country director. In this country, the Lord used lessons from Mali and Kenya (the Masaai Peoples’ Program) to begin a new work that was different from the projects in Mali and this country. During these five years with the “Nomads,” we gradually concluded that our work with the poor must focus on their hopes, plans and vision. We concluded that only when we befriend and encourage people to learn about themselves, their potential in God and their responsibility to make and keep promises (etc.) do we truly release their potential to progress and develop.
We saw that when we refuse to do good things for the poor, and focus on their God given potential, we effectively demonstrate to them that we are coming from a spiritual perspective. When we come from a spiritual perspective, we prove to them (their perspective) that we really do trust in God for their progress, rather than money, resources or technology (remember, Africans have a spiritual world-view). We were not ignoring their physical needs. We simply saw the truth that when they meet their own needs, their own way and with resources accessible to them, that their potential to act and exercise faith in God is released. In this way, we truly began to point them to God and away from our resources. During this time I also learned that organizations and missions cease to interact on a spiritual level with the poor to the degree that they are “on the look out” for the preservation and development of their own program.
Learning to trust God more than WV.
The effort to keep on a spiritual level, by focusing on what they do, helped very poor “Nomads” to begin to break loose of fatalistic cultural views. It also released them to risk faith in themselves and God. In this country, they saw that we were not focused on what we can do for them. This was a shock for them at first. Some villagers were afraid to accept our friendship as opposed to the acceptance of free resource and appropriate technologies. However, the effort eventually paid off. We chose to believe that it was a necessity for the poor to “author” and “own” all activities. We as a WV team, needed only to affirm, encourage and share. We observed that when we both stuck to our roles, they moved closer to God and us in relationship.
After honoring the principles of authorship and ownership, I was no longer asked as WV’s director, “What is WV going to do next for us?” The WV National staff also stopped asking me what would happen to them when the project was over. Instead, they began to embrace the excitement and motivation that comes from releasing the potential in others and serving the poor. Our national staff became the long term “purpose” to live amongst and serve the poor. Key individual staff have given their lives to Jesus Christ. Conversations with staff about our faith and views (that would bring any “World Christian” to joyful tears) began to happen spontaneously, without any evangelism project being “tacked on” to the project.
What made the difference?
Strategically working in the spiritual realm:
This meant sharing vs. doing good for others. It also means making absolutely sure that each community:
. . . creates its own development process (authorship).
. . . chooses when, how and where it will do each activity (ownership).
We learned that unless there is a communicated vision which focuses on the communities and national staff’s own God given potential and relationship with Him, we would be perceived as “unspiritual” and seeking to build our own status. For us, this meant that we needed to begin to model true servant leadership in the context of relief and development. We had to swallow the bitter pill that God wanted us to do more than just do something “good” for the poor. I felt that God wanted to position us to befriend the poor and be used by Him to start the process of releasing the potential He has given them. We had to start learning how to stop working at our own pace, our way. Our staff and the communities potential before God needed to be in the forefront of our mission statement, vision, goal and purpose; our whole strategy.
Honoring Biblical principles of “authorship” and “ownership” at all levels.
To have spiritual integrity, we learned that our organizational culture needed to be consistent with Godly principles. From the country director to the community development worker, we needed to seek to promote community and staff authorship and ownership for all that we did. We brought this to a personal level, starting to teach and promote personal vision and leadership as well. At the community level, we refused to progress with an activity if the poor didn’t author and own (fully conceive) their actions in partnership with the WV national staff. We didn’t “arrive” at perfection, but we started.
A long-term (30 year) strategic strategy.
An outcome of our effort to work in the spiritual realm was a long-term development strategy. The purpose of WV’s strategy in this country was/is the long-term influence of its national staff as leaders in their community and country. There never has been (nor is there) a Church in this country. However, WV’s Development Strategy aimed to help these leaders set up personal means (businesses, etc.) in their communities so that God could use their lives to develop His church. This long-term strategy radically effected the motivation and vision of the national staff, both Muslim and Christian. Corporate and personal vision provided a sense of “belonging” in the community for the “Nomad” Christians living in the harsh conditions of this Islamic Republic, ruled by Islamic Law.
Here are some more thoughts from Octavia Hill’s book:
The Befriending Leader: Social Assistance Without dependency.
Blindly Scattering Gifts
Now to secure this wise relief, I am convinced you will require good investigation, co-operation on the part of your donors, thought and time given by your wisest men. All these are essential, but I am not going to dwell on them just now; the part of your work I am naturally most interested in is your district visiting. I wonder whether you have among you instances of the solitary, inexperienced district visitor, and can feel for her difficulties? Do you know what I mean? A lady, well born, highly cultivated, well nurtured, becomes convinced that she has duties to the poor. Perhaps some great personal pain drives her to seek refuge from it in Christian service of the poor; perhaps some family loss darkens her whole horizon, and opens her eyes to other forms of sorrow; perhaps some stiffing sermon startles her in the midst of triumphant pleasure, making her feel that she ought to give some slight offering of time to the poor; perhaps weariness of all superficial glitter of amusement makes her seek for deeper interests in life.
Be it what it may-desire to do well, or the urgent request of a friend, or desire to escape pain, she determines to volunteer as a district visitor. She is welcomed by the clergy, and requested to take such and such a district-I really think she has often little more preparation or instruction than that. She does not start with the desire of knowing the poor, but of helping them; help being in her mind synonymous in such cases with temporal help. She does not think of them primarily as people, but as poor people. But though her ideas naturally therefore turn to questions of relief as if these were her main concerns, she has never studied what has been found to be the effect of different ways of alms-giving, she knows little about the earnings of the poor, little of their habits and expenses, little about poor-law relief, little about the thousand and one societies for granting various kinds of help, little about the individual donors at work in the neighborhood, little about distant fields of labor and demands for workers in them.
Now just pause and think of the effect of her actions when she begins-as begin she must by the very fact of her view of her duty-to deal practically with questions of relief; questions which, to say the least, are so difficult to deal with wisely that our most earnest, experienced, and thoughtful men pause in awe before them, advance slowly to practical conclusions, and speak humbly about them after years of study.
Ladies would pause before they went in and offered to help a house-surgeon at a hospital by undertaking a few patients for him, yet are they not doing something like it when they don’t seek advice in district visiting? Gradually, after weeks, months, perhaps years of worse than wasted labor, those who persevere begin to realize the disastrous effect of their action; hundreds who do not steadily persevere never even catch a glimpse of it, and go on blindly scattering gifts to the destruction of the recipients. Pages 67, 68
The Gift of Yourself
By Octavia Hill
I hope you will notice that I have dwelt on the need of restraining yourselves from almsgiving on the sole ground that such restraint is the only true mercy to the poor themselves. I have no desire to protect the purses of the rich, no hard feeling to the poor. I am thinking continually and only of what is really kindest to them–kindest in the long run, certainly, but still kindest. I think small doles unkind to them, though they bring a momentary smile to their faces. First of all, I think they make them really poorer. Then I think they degrade them and make them less independent.
Thirdly, I think they destroy the possibility of really good relations between you and them. Surely when you go among them you have better things to do for them than to give them half-crowns. You want to know them, to enter into their lives, their thoughts, to let them enter into some of your brightness, to make their lives a little fuller, a little gladder. You who know so much more than they might help them so much at important crises of their lives; you might gladden their homes by bringing them flowers, or, better still, by teaching them to grow plants; you might meet them face to face as friends; you might teach them; you might collect their savings; you might sing for and with them; you might take them into the parks, or out for quiet days in the country in small companies, or to your own or your friends’ grounds, or to exhibitions or picture galleries; you might teach and refine and make them cleaner by merely going among them.
What they would do for you I will not dwell on, for if the work is beginning the right spirit you will not be thinking of that; but I do believe the poor have lessons to teach us of patience, vigor, and content, which are of great value to us. We shall learn them instinctively if we are among them as we ought to be as friends. It is this side of your relation to them, that of being their friends, which has given all the value to your work as district visitors; it has been because you have been friends, in as far as you have been friends, that the relation between you has been happy and good.
The gift has often darkened this view of you, and prevented the best among the poor from wishing to know you; when it has absolutely been the expression of friendship, its evil has been reduced to a great extent. But the gift you have to make to the poor, depend upon it, is the greatest of all gifts you can make–that of yourselves, following in your great Master’s steps, whose life is the foundation of all charity. The form of it may change with the ages, the great law remains, “Give to him that asked of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away;” but see that thou give him bread, not a stone-bread, the nourishing thing, that which wise thought teaches you will be to him helpful, not what will ruin him body and soul; else, while obeying the letter of the command, you will be false to its deep everlasting meaning.
My friends, I have lived face to face with the poor for now some years, and I have not learned to think gifts of necessaries, such as a man usually provides for his own family, helpful to them. I have abstained from such, and expect those who love the poor and know them individually will do so more and more in the time to come. I have sometimes been asked by rich acquaintances when I have said this whether I do not remember the words, “Never turn your face from any poor man.”