Saturday, April 12, 2014

Another Take on the World Vision Question

Last Week I wrote about the controversy revolving around the international Christian charity World Vision and its decision, quickly reversed, to employ same-sex married Christian couples.  I wrote about the issue in terms of real, living children overseas who have developed long-distance relationships with their sponsors, and I will not back off my stance that breaking off such a relationship once it is formed is wrong. Regardless of the fact that the child will still receive World Vision benefits through his or her community, Christians should not abandon or reject kids they have started a relationship with, even if it's a very long-distance one.

But Rod at the Political Jesus Blog has added an important perspective to the discussion that needs to be taken seriously.  He asks the question: Are African, Indian, South American children being used as pawns in the White Culture Wars?  

The thing is that in focusing on the gay-marriage issue here in the United States and fighting among ourselves over it (with non-white children overseas caught in the middle as both sides accuse each other of not doing what's best for those kids) Christians in the white majority culture on both sides of the issue may be blind to our own self-centeredness.  And we seem to be missing the bigger question: Are World Vision and other Western-created charities actually the best way to give to poor children in other nations?

The problem is that as white American Christians, we have a weakness for falling into what the By Their Strange Fruit Blog calls a "white savior complex":
The 'white savior complex' is a perception that white folk have that they are the benevolent benefactors of helpless 'others.'. . The 'white savior complex' is particularly strong when it comes to white aid in Africa. . .Often church missions have a concept of the 'poor starving children of Africa' and very little understanding of the self-empowerment and independence that can thrive in our absence.
As Rod at Political Jesus put it:
Both sides (in their blog posts), were more than eager to press this story as one where we had to “save the children.” At no one point were the problematic practices of World Vision, its advancement of White Saviorism through its advertisements or its questionable method of “child-sponsorships” (but not really child-sponsorships) ever put under scrutiny. . . African and other nations populated by darker skinned people are represented time and again as the passive recipients of white benevolence. This “help” however, is just a re-hashing of old Western-style colonialism brought to those countries by missionaries. [Emphasis in original]
 To be fair to World Vision, they are aware of this weakness and have published an online paper about improving their accountability in this and other areas:
A related mistake is to ignore our ‘inbound’ accountability to listen and learn from the poor. The good news of Jesus implores us to seek only the best for the other. Ministry approaches which breed dependency, or which are patronising, or paternalistic, or which treat the poor as our “clients” diminish the Good News. All parts of our global family must be respectfully and sensitively engaged.  It has been wisely observed that “The Christian gospel has sometimes been made the tool of imperialism and of that we have to repent.”
Other Western Christian charities, such as Kinexxus, seem to have done their homework on this issue and are striving to overcome it:
Mission organizations and humanitarian agencies that operate from the same misguided assumptions that Africans are too poor or incapable of doing anything significant to bring about development to their communities only reinforce a receivership mentality. They come to Africa with a heart of compassion and noble intentions to alleviate the suffering of an impoverished people. But if they don’t take the time to understand the community and cultural worldview they are entering or attempt to learn even simple greetings in the local language, these well-intentioned “do-gooders” run the risk of rushing in and unconsciously imposing their will – utilizing material resources to gain control so they can make their project “happen.” The results will be short-lived and often counterproductive. The local community will not own the project, nor will they feel any obligation to maintain it.
Still, as I've been looking into this matter, it seems to me that for those who have not already committed to a relationship with a sponsored child (who need to keep that commitment), the best way to help impoverished people on other continents is to help those churches and other charities that are indigenous to the countries in which those people live, who already understand the issues and problems unique to those regions, and to whose knowledge and expertise we ought to be deferring.

As By Their Strange Fruit goes on to say:
The 'white savior complex' is basically based in pride. It reveals an attitude of superiority and paternalism, . . .Rather than perpetuate the myth that white folk are somehow the world's saving grace, we need to empower others to take the lead.
And of course, when indigenous charities and churches already are taking the lead, the best we can do is get on board to help them.  

For instance, we can contribute to the African Independent Churches that are local to countries we want to help:
Even though the denominational, ritual, and linguistic diversity of these churches makes it difficult to analyze and classify, the common thread uniting all of the Christian churches is that they were all established by African initiative rather than by foreign missionary agendas. Even though many of these churches have traditional denominational names and relationships, they are not defined by these traditions. These churches emphasize that they are established and led by Africans. In addition, all AICs place emphasis on the biblical warrant to include African cultural norms into their modes of worship, theology, and practice, though to varying degrees.
A link to the webpage for contributing to African Independent Churches is here. For those who want to help poor people in the Western hemisphere, there is a Pasadena-based ministry which specifically empowers indigenous church leaders in Latin America: Latin American Indigenous Ministries.  Or we can contribute to secular charities whose founders are native to an area we want to help, such as the Wayuu Taya Foundation, which empowers and aids indigenous Latin American peoples in many countries, or Alaffia, which is involved in communities in West Africa.

It's important to develop the humility to see that other people groups are quite capable of helping their own poor, and that God has already provided for leaders there.  Sometimes we white Western Christians aren't meant to be the team captains, but the water carriers; not the heroes, but the sidekicks.

But one thing we want to try hard not to be is the villains.  And historically, too often that's exactly what we have been.  We've got to open our eyes to this and work on breaking the cycle.

The key with overseas charity is to stop talking and begin listening-- to stop trying to teach and open ourselves to learn.


  1. I thought that was what World Vision was doing, at least according to their website: they talk to the communities, build relationships and the community works on the project with them. That doesn't sound like receivership to me.

    On the other hand, the way they collect funds, by offering child sponsorship, feeds into the colonial-rescue mindset. But the best advertising calls on our emotions, for us to want to do some good even if we can't uproot our lives and live amongst those in need.

    BTW, I am a World Vision child sponsor and have also been a part of preparing their AIDS Caregiver kits to send overseas.

  2. Thank you, Kristen, for ending this post by providing us with some realistic alternatives in the way of indigenous groups that accept funding.

    I had never thought about the problem this way before, but what By Their Strange Fruit describes sounds eerily familiar.

    At the same time, I think there are also legitimate motives at play besides the white savior complex when people choose to give. Certainly the WSC is part of it; but apart from believing that white people are benevolent benefactors, there's the simple fact that we in the West have an obscenely huge portion of the world's wealth. I think many Christians (myself included) are convicted that the western world is ignoring the principles of fairness and caring for the poor that the Bible so clearly instructs on time and again. I believe that is also what fuels a large portion of the giving-to-charity mindset.

    But as you point out, it doesn't solve the problem to give to a system that reinforces an off-kilter worldview, and giving to charities that can do the most good should be everyone's ultimate goal. Thank you.