Culture At Large

Thorns and Weeds in the Humanitarian Garden

Paul Vander Klay

In the October 11, 2010 edition of “The New Yorker” Philip Gourevitch writes a piece that asks hard and deep questions about the “humanitarian industry.” He sites a host of recent books that are making the case that mobilized humanitarian efforts are not only doing more harm than good but also fueling conflicts and crises around the world. He sites a number of books including Linda Polman’s “The Crisis Caravan” . The charges are dramatic and devastating. Were the brutal mutilations done in the Sierra Leone civil war an orchestrated attempt to horrify the world into mobilizing a more lucrative rescue effort? I’m certainly in no position to establish this claim’s veracity yet it does not strike me as unreasonable. When I lived in the Dominican Republic it was clear that the more deformed or desperate looking a child the more benevolence they could attract begging in the streets. I recently watched Slumdog Millionaire which had a vignette about blinding a child to improve his take from the well-meaning. It is not beyond my capacity to imagine people making this same calculation on a much larger scale.

I first picked up this story after reading Tim Stafford’s blog on the subject and I am prone to come down pretty much where he does. Based on my own experience in the developing world I very easily imagine that these humanitarian efforts do both harm and good. I spent enough time doing church work, development work, and living with people doing a variety of these kinds of things to know that unlike the clarion call propaganda used to raise funds for the industry the reality on the ground is always messy, complicated and too often compromised. The two questions that tear me up are “where do we go from here?” and “what does this tell us about our capacity for self-deception?”

I am not at a point where I can say the world would be better without all humanitarian organizations. Perhaps in the same way the blind beggar outside of Jericho provided a service for a town in need of an outlet for benevolent donations, the humanitarian industry offers the wealthy places of the world some opportunity to share what they’ve got with those who don’t have as much. Even if you simply imagined the humanitarian industry to be some other “for profit” endeavor they do provide jobs both for idealistic westerners who want to do some good and have an adventure as well as providing good jobs to national partners in host nations around the world. Certainly this is a better use of money than cutting down a rain forest or building shiny gadgets or cheap clothing in sweat shops.

The second question is more troublesome. We really do believe that peace on earth is just one more good idea away or one more concerted effort to raise funds and to organize. This is ego-crack for us and we buy into it every time. Saving Haiti is a text message donation away. Refugees will be rescued by supporting one political candidate. Hunger and poverty can be eliminated by the next celebrity benefit or mail-in donation. When we do this we imagine ourselves to be God, and when these books come out showing how our best efforts have not succeeded, and perhaps made matters worse we look for someone to blame for robbing us of our best-intentioned divine mission. Our youthful idealism may decompose into cynicism but part of us can’t shake the dream.

It is no secret that this new revelation of the humanitarian industry has long plagued the church. Part of the irony is that many see the humanitarian industry as kind of an alternative to the church for bringing peace on earth and like many in the church will simply want to close their ears to these results. Both the church and the humanitarian industry have too often been guilty of loving the mission more than the people the mission is intended to serve. Intention is not insignificant and outcomes are important, yet what we see here is that as is true of almost every human endeavor outcomes are simply not within our control.

For me the only answer is the strange dynamic of our simultaneous loss to the age of decay while the resurrection grows within that Paul speaks about in places like 1 Corinthians 4 and 5. We begin the path to helping the other only to quickly realize that it will cost us more than we intended to expend. Even when we over-extend beyond what those around us consider responsible, we realize that other dark motivations and needs were playing on both givers and receivers and in the end often the best accomplishments were incidental. Nothing short of the renewal of all things will heal human history. This is a power we can bear witness to in our decaying flesh yet not employ in the ways we desperately wish we could.

The sum of these prophetic books tells us that our adamic mission of laboring in fields that produce weeds and thorns has not yet come to an end. The imperishable flesh of the second Adam, however might energize us to rise up and fail once more with the hope that not all of this labor will be done in vain.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Evangelism