Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Right Response: Relief, Rehabilitation, or Development?

We've all encountered people on the street who ask for money. And if you're like me, you are really uncomfortable giving it to them, even if you feel compassion. We instinctively know that the money will at best bring short-term comfort (a cup of coffee?), but we fear it will be used to feed an addiction, or somehow extend and enable their poverty. It turns out that our instincts are largely right. 

Not all poverty situations are the same, and therefore not all responses should be the same. There are three responses that must be considered: relief, rehabilitation, and development. (See Steve Corbett's and Brian Fikkert's excellent book When Helping Hurts for more information on this framework.) Applying the wrong response to a situation can actually create more problems than it solves. This framework is extremely useful in determining what our own responses to a given situation should be, as well as in evaluating non-profits in their approaches to alleviating poverty. 

Relief is immediate and urgent assistance in response to a disaster or crisis. A good example is our response to the earthquake in Haiti with provision of food, water, and medical supplies. The goal of relief is to stop the bleeding with external assistance because the recipients can truly not help themselves.

An important principle of relief is that it should be temporary, not a recurring practice with the same individuals or communities over and over again. Relief should be used for emergencies, not regularly occurring dilemmas or short-falls. If relief is continually being called for, this indicates a deeper issue that must be uncovered.

For example, a family who needs emergency rent assistance because of a recent job loss could be a legitimate relief situation. However, if that same family asks for rent assistance several times a year for years on end, then a longer term response such as development is called for. 

Unfortunately, many charities and individuals provide relief when development is more appropriate. Not only is this a waste of precious resources, it can also strip dignity and reinforce a poverty mindset by validating the recipient's belief that they are inferior and incapable.

Rehabilitation seeks to restore people to their pre-crisis situation. An example is the aid given to tsunami victims in Thailand to help rebuild houses, schools, and businesses. In rehabilitation, the immediate crisis has ended and relief has been provided. But now there is a huge hole from which the victims need to rebuild.

An important element of rehabilitation is that it should be done with the affected population, not for them or to them.This builds up their dignity, giving them appropriate levels of resources to rebuild towards their own future.

Development is an ongoing process in which we work side-by-side with the poor to help them improve their own lives and communities beyond where they have been before.  Examples of development include job training programs, training in budgeting skills, as well as a wide variety of community and economic development programs. As with rehabilitation, it is important to include the poor in the process. In fact, it is absolutely critical that the poor own as much of the development process as possible because this is really the only path to empowered, self-sustaining individuals and communities.

Back to the example of the family seeking rent assistance over and over again: one possible development approach would be to meet with the adult(s) in the family and lay out a plan toward economic sustainability. This may include getting some education, skills training, or job finding assistance. It is important in this process that the development personnel allow the poor to define their own future and pathway. This calls for a difficult stance of "leading by stepping back", offering ideas and help where appropriate, without commandeering the situation and imposing our own rules and wisdom upon the poor. Such a participatory development process can actually do more for the poor than the official training or education they receive. The reason is that by empowering them to own their own future and path, their dignity is affirmed and healing to their "poverty of being" propels them forward.  

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Learning empathy for the poor through unemployment

Most people believe poverty is simply the lack of material goods. While lack of food or money is normally the most visible aspect of poverty, there are social and psychological components to poverty that are incredibly destructive but often ignored by those lending aid. Up until the last couple of years, I really didn't understand the psychological and social components of poverty. All those sad faces that I saw were surely the result of bad choices or natural disasters that would pass, and now they needed to buck up and get with the program, right? And then unemployment hit me...

Before we get to that, let's first look at how the poor actually describe their situation. These quotes are from a World Bank study called "Voices of the Poor":

For a poor person everything is terrible — illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.
Blind woman from Tiraspol, Moldova 1997

I feel ashamed standing before my children when I have nothing to help feed the family. I’m not well when I’m unemployed. It’s terrible.
A father in Guinea-Bissau 1994

During the past two years we have not celebrated any
holidays with others. We cannot afford to invite anyone to our house and we feel uncomfortable visiting others without bringing a present. The lack of contact leaves one depressed, creates a constant feeling of unhappiness, and a sense of low self-esteem.
Latvia 1998

So we now feel somewhat helpless. It is this feeling of helplessness that is so painful, more painful than poverty itself.
Uganda 1998

So how do the poor describe poverty? Yes, they mention having a lack of material things but they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms. They talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. When we ignore these vital components of poverty, our good intentions to help the poor will simply fall short.

If you don't have empathy maybe it will be given to you!

So how has unemployment given me empathy for the poor? I have enjoyed a relatively successful high-tech career, always "up and to the right". But I've hit some rocky periods lately, with 2 periods of unemployment during the last 3 years, each around 6 months in length.(I have just found a new job which I will be starting soon, after being laid off from a start-up around 5 months ago.) These periods of unemployment have taught me some very valuable lessons, things that I would never have understand from just reading something in a book. And now as I look at poverty, I realize that God has used these times of unemployment to give me not only understanding, but real empathy in regards to the psychological and social components of poverty.

I have not been forced to live on the streets, and we have kept our home and cars. I in no way mean to minimize the conditions of the poor by comparing them to my own relatively posh existence. But I have encountered darkness during unemployment that is indeed very dark. For example, I noticed that I started to avoid talking to people. I just got sick of saying that I was "looking for work" and explaining how I came to be unemployed. I found it difficult to deepen relationships during this time because I was protecting myself by avoiding conversation. So it doesn't surprise me at all that poor people are isolated and have a hard time engaging with the world around them in productive ways. I pray that I will be more sensitive to this in the future and be more determined and committed to reaching out to the poor, even if they act aloof and unapproachable.

At a deeper level, being unemployed can strip you of dignity and identity. I felt like a failure. I had a hard time answering the question "What do you do?" and often thought about what I was accomplishing (or not) in this life. I tried to stay productive, but at times felt like I just wasn't contributing to the world in any meaningful way. This produces a sort of despair in the core of your being: "I am just a by-product". My faith and relationship with God kept me from the true darkness of despair, because I was continually reminded by Him that I was of tremendous worth, regardless if I received a paycheck or not. But even with this strong and sure grounding, I struggled. What utter darkness for the poor who do not have this assurance of worth! I hope that in the future I can share this good news with somebody who is struggling!

The poor are not "they". The poor are fellow humans who are suffering from a variety of types of brokenness, as we all are. This includes destructive social and psychological factors that tell the poor that they are worthless, inferior, and stuck in despair. If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit our own brokenness, whether in the throes of unemployment, or during other challenges that we face in life, and be more understanding in our interaction with the poor.