Is helping hurting you?

There was book published in 2009 called “When Helping Hurts” which was about how lots of the development work we in the west undertake to reduce poverty actually does more harm than good.  Ouch. Its particular focus was work done by Christians. A further ouch.

It was familiar territory for Tearfund because we talk about that kind of thing a lot – in an attempt to work in a very different way. The main destructive habits the book identified were:

a) thinking we know what people need better than they do;

b) only addressing people’s obvious physical poverty rather than the more complex web of which it is factor;

c) doing things for people that they could do for themselves;

d) short-term thinking.

When I was in Sierra Leone last year (read the blog here), our Country Rep told me that millions of dollars had been thrown at the problems in the country in the last decade, and little had changed. It’s a tragedy, for the people of Sierra Leone, but also for the people giving that money. (And then I made a little film about a really exciting process that is helping people change their circumstances…)

Bad development hurts more than just people in Africa. It’s bad for all of us. Let me explain.

Last year Bond & Oxfam did a big piece of work around its communications with the UK public.  The Executive Summary of the report says this:

Simply put, people in the UK understand and relate to global poverty no differently now than they did in the 1980s…By many measures [the NGOs] have made amazing strides forward in recent years but the public have largely been left behind.

Maybe that sounds a bit cocky (although I love to think we make “AMAZING strides”), but as part of the process they also did a bunch of research into their own communications, and in fact the communications of many UK NGOs.  They found out that the responsibility largely lay with them (us).  We are telling the same story about the problem of poverty and how we can fix it, even though we might have come to believe a more nuanced and empowering story ourselves.  As a sector we still tell this story: ‘ here is a poor sick child, and here is how much you can give to fix it.’ (forgive my generalisations for now…)

So then there’s a big practical problem of how long are people going to keep believing you when the problems aren’t disappearing despite the cash invested.  And there’s an integrity problem in organisations not telling the same story as the one they’re outworking in communities.  And these sit alongside the already-identified problems of when organisations just do things badly, despite all their good intentions.

BUT, and here is my point, I think it diminishes the humanity of everyone involved when we buy into shabby stories about how the world changes.  For someone living in poverty, wherever they are in the world, it diminishes them when their circumstances and the behaviour of people around them tells them that they are worthless, and powerless, and can only hope for somebody else to give them a handout.  But it also diminishes us when we believe that ‘just £10 can change this child’s life forever’, or that the circumstances that keep people in poverty are independent of us – our consumer choices and the trade laws of our own country, for example.

No-one gets to move forward by believing shabby stories.

So let’s all believe a better one, please!  (Further posts may expand on that. Do tell me what you’d like to hear about).

it’s all happening in west africa

I had hoped to be blogging live from Sierra Leone but it turns out that posting a blog was a stretch too far for my wavering internet connection in Freetown. And to be honest when I wasn’t out and about I was generally collapsed in an exhausted, sweaty heap. So let me tell you retrospectively about my adventures.

Ginny sporting life jacket for perilous crossing from Freetown airport to city,


I was there because of an initiative with the unsexy title of CCMP, or Church & Community Mobilisation Process.  It has its home in the world of development, that complex and flawed industry in which I work, and in essence it involves working with a local church (there are plenty about) to get them excited and inspired about working with their local community (rather than emphasizing their separateness) in identifying their own needs and looking to their own resources to meet them. It’s not brain science, but in the world of development it’s quite radical.  I was with one community who told me that their goal was that by 2014 they would be self-reliant, and not need any help from outsiders like the major British & American charities.  And this was a community which currently has no access to its own supply of clean drinking water, to name one major challenge.

Does that sound like blind optimism in the face of endemic African poverty?

I guess it remains to be seen, but I heard some small but beautiful stories from the people I talked to.

I met a small, irrepressibly passionate man called Muhammed, who showed us round the villages of Konta, Mahdina and Mayorgbor in northern Sierra Leone.  3 years ago his organization decided to send him on a pilot course to train as a facilitator in this strange new process of CCMP. He didn’t seem like a promising candidate. When the group first met, he was so insecure he could hardly speak, and yet today he is loved and respected in 30 communities in the region, and has helped to facilitate concrete change in their lives.  There are new wells and schools, seed-banks and clinics, and he hasn’t set up any of them.  What he has done is to help the communities discover their own resources.  The story I heard repeated by men and women, Muslims and Christians, young and old, was that their way of thinking was changing.  They weren’t waiting for outside help – for NGOs, governments and mission funds – to change their circumstances anymore, but were looking to their own energies, skills and creativity to bring positive change.

One of the things they do very early on in the process in a community survey.  People from the community themselves collate all kinds of information about where they live – how many people there are, what ages, what religions, what facilities there are, what natural resources ( a stream! 6 rice fields!) etc.  They also include information that outsiders would never find out – like how many disabled family members are hidden away indoors. If an NGO comes along and tells the villagers that they’re here to dig a well, the community will get out the report.  They have something concrete to wave in their faces as they say, ‘we know our village much better than you and we’re getting on with improving life here… but we have an idea of a specific thing you could help us with’.

Sierra Leone has had millions of pounds sunk into its development, and today there are still hundreds of projects going on.  But it doesn’t take long driving through Freetown to see that the people are living in all kinds of physical poverty, and nothing is changing very quickly.  Everyone talks about the war and how it destabilised things and broke down the infrastructure, but it was more than ten years ago now.  Why aren’t things getting much better?

Freetown: everyone is very proud of their zinc roofs

Everyone I met and interviewed had a story of having changed their thinking, which started with ‘I used to think we had to wait for help from [insert name of major NGO or church denomination]…’, which suggests that one of the major legacies of all our interventions is simply a paradigm of dependence, a new colonialism. Which is depressing to say the least.  I firmly believe that throwing more money at Africa is not going to change much in a sustainable way, but I also don’t think that pulling out all the investment is it either.

So what am I arguing for?  Just doing it all better? A more empowering form of development? To reduce CCMP to ’empowering development’ is, I think, to miss its heart.  Which is the church.  CCMP starts with a group of people who believe in a God who transforms us totally, and who reaches out in love to the world. Working with churches taps into a rich and deep vein of faith and hope in a better story. And we all want to believe in a better story. Sierra Leone is a majority Muslim country, but the relationships between Christians and Muslims in the villages where CCMP was happening were close. It’s not about the church looking after the church, but it’s a job of re-orientating the church towards the rest of the world (or community).

I remember reading a blog by Matthew Parris a year or two ago, saying “as an atheist I truly believe that Africa needs God.”  The work of “secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts… will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Tearfund is supporting CCMP work in all the regions where it works, so check out their website to find out more.

Or you can just wait a bit and before too long I’ll post the short film I made about CCMP in Sierra Leone.