Monday, August 18, 2014

when "better than nothing" is euphemism for "crap" and 21 things to do about it

There’s a phenomenon that often crops up when privilege awkwardly mingles with poverty. I like to call it the “better than nothing” effect.

 I’ve written about digging through salaula to look for used clothes. What I failed to mention in that post is that many of the clothes in those piles are disgusting. Onesies with poop stains all over them, trousers with large rips down the seams, shirts that are pitted out all icky and brown. The presence of such “clothes” (if you can even call them that) makes me wonder, why did the previous owner not just throw this trash away?  And the answer rings in my head like an obnoxious pre-recorded message: well, it’s better than nothing. (I think I’d rather continue to let Bronwyn run naked.)

AWANA Chums: bless it.
Service projects in poor areas are susceptible to this logic as well. We’ve seen it many times over – buildings thrown up in haste because the team is leaving in a week, paint spattered on walls, teaching materials thrown together with church leftovers that no one wanted. I wonder, is this how the church cares for its own building/members/seekers? And the pre-recorded message plays again: well, it’s better than nothing.

All poor people are always this joyful and content, right?
Lest I be unfair, I must also point out that this dynamic does not exist merely between the American/White/Privileged and the African Poor. This is an “in-house” dynamic as well. Over and over, I’ve attended meetings with NGO workers from Lusaka – Zambian born, yes, but city raised, university educated: privileged and elite. When urban meets rural, the clash of power is always evident. Arriving in vehicles and talking on iphones, the Lusaka folk provide food that they themselves refuse to eat and give bicycles that they themselves would never ride and set up sub-par systems at clinics and schools that they themselves would never take their children too. How is any of this acceptable? Cue tape: well, it’s better than nothing.

I see it. I hear it. And sometimes I do it too. Sometimes my empty water bottle really is the kid next door's new prized possession. Sometimes Bronwyn's hand-me downs are a life-saver for the family whose house just burnt down. Sometimes that scrap paper is destined not to become kindling but rather the next generation of fighter airplanes.

But often times, crap is crap no matter the context context. The rubbish hand-outs and poor craftsmanship and programing that starts three hours late because they are poor and have nothing else to do so they can wait for us... As fancy-dan Zambian government vehicles drive down the road and throw their chicken bones out for the window for the kids waving happily, I cringe, and the lack of refinement unsettles me. The subtle message from the powerful to the weak, from the rich to the poor, is, you are not worth more than this. You are not worth more than polluted water and rags for clothes and long-enough-to-die-in lines and crowded classrooms and janitors diagnosing your disease.

How did we get here? Not as a race or an ethnicity but as human beings? How did the subversive better than nothing creep into the story of mankind? I suppose it happened that somewhere along the way we stopped seeing every woman as our sister, every old man as our father, every toddler as our child. Their life and their story became so very far from ours and caring without sacrificing became the norm because it is so easy -  and seemingly so acceptable. The shift towards "us versus them" and “better than nothing” was innocuous when the scale was pitifully small, and "giving to Africa" was not a thing. But now, in the age of BIG AID and development and mercy ministries and poverty ministries and social media calling attention to the needs and plights of the poor next door - people are giving and sending and going and engaging at a dizzying pace… and its time to realign our thinking.

I pray for this every time I sit on an airplane with teams and teams of Americans flying over on some kind of missions trip to Zambia. I pray for this every time I walk into a Government office to ask for any kind of anything. I pray for the dismantling of “better than nothing” and the raising of a standard of excellence based on the premise that this person breathes. To rename “that poor black child” (and please stop saying that), to “my dear friend.” Poor is not a name or an identity; its an economic descriptor - nothing else - and to recalibrate the quality of our kindness based on that word alone redefines a soul’s worth in terms of dollars and no doubt makes the Creator grieve.

Because I think many of these actions are subconscious – more a reflection of cultural shift and mass media than our heart of hearts - might I suggest a few things?

1. Never donate clothes or food that you would never wear or eat yourself.

2. Do not send busted or broken toys or electronics.

3. Give gifts with the same intentionality and delicacy as you would your best friend.

4. Construct, paint, build as you would your own home.

5. Learn names. As many as possible. And stories to go with.

6. Provide what is requested, not just what is convenient or left over.

7. Submit to local authority.

8. Empower without paternalism.

9. Don't assume you understand the real needs. 

10. Improve broader systems and structures as you are able.

11. Slow the giving flow enough to investigate the micro-economic impact.

12. Engage local labor as much as possible.

13. When serving amongst the poor, become poor. Let your heart be broken – for in doing so you will know the heart of God.

14. Give freely.

15. Give prayerfully.

16. Give without expectation or condition.

17. Give sustainably.

18. Give humbly.

19. Keep learning.

20. Keep trying.

21. Live by Psalm 82:3: Defend the rights of the poor and the orphans; be fair to the needy and the helpless.  

Bless and be blessed. 
. . .

what else can you add?

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