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To Give, or Not to Give

Before I left for the trip to Congo, Jeff was gathering as much information as possible about the do’s and don’ts of international missions work. He has so many missionary contacts it was easy. One story shared with him was a heartbreaking reality check on the unintended impact of every thing you do on a mission trip.

The friend explained his organization has a policy that nothing is to be given to the local people from participants on trips. They understood that when Americans witness the poverty of developing countries the first response is almost always guilt for the abundant life lived in the United States. This guilt causes the traveler to give away nearly everything they brought with them on their trip or even hand out money to the local people.

While the organization will accept items for donations which they can then distribute through the local churches, they do not want personal gifts to become the norm. Not only does this set up a culture where the visiting missionaries are seen as a source of material items, it can actually leave the locals worse off than before the missionary came.

At one of their locations, travelers are encouraged to employ the services of a laundress – an act which provides an additional customer to one of the local women. “Consider the traveler who hires a local woman to do his laundry. He can easily pay the set fee, and because he wants to feel he’s made a difference he overpays her. $20 USD is nothing to him, and he can leave the country feeling like he had done a good thing. But what he doesn’t realize is that $20 USD is an enormous amount for this woman — she can live on that for two weeks or more, which she does.”

“But when the money is spent, she must return to work. But by this time her regular customers have had to find a new laundress. She now has no money, and no regular customers. Her situation is worse than before the traveler hired her.”

Asking why she doesn’t save the money — continue working and use the money to improve her situation — is to ask her why she is not American. She lives her life working for the money she needs to live every day. If she does not need money she does not need to work.

This concept is so foreign to Americans, but explains in painful detail why culture will change the impact of what you do. Your generous gift may not be helpful at all. To be truly effective at meeting the needs of families in developing countries, you need to be able to look beyond your cultural norms to understand the potential consequences of your actions.

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Jennifer Vanderlaan CNM MPH is the author of the BirthingNaturally.net website. She has been working with expectant families since 2000, training doulas, childbirth educators, and midwives. She has worked with midwives in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest in public health grew in 2010, and she is now a PhD student learning to become a producer of knowledge.

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