Relief Work In A Developing Country

I have a friend who does relief work in a developing country. How deeply do I become involved in the implementation and accounting stages when wanting to give money for his work, especially when he’s not directly connected with a reputable relief organization?

Answered by Randy Alcorn

You raise an important question that is always difficult when we wealthy Westerners (I include all of us) donate or raise funds for comparatively impoverished folks in the “developing world.” Certainly we are right to do what we can to help, and Scripture commands us to do so, telling us to give to the poor is what it means to know God. I know you know this, but I lay it out at Helping the Poor and Homeless; Importance of giving and benevolence ministry in churches: An Interview on Benevolence Ministries and Giving in the Church; 40 Questions to Ask God about our giving: Generous Giving: 40 Questions to Ask God; Issues of our own lifestyles in light of world need: Choosing A God-Honoring Lifestyle; Points 10 and 11 from this article on American’s response to the terrorist attacks relate to the continual suffering of people around the world that we typically ignore and need to be awaked to: Nineteen Reflections on America’s Crisis.

But I do know that accountability to local church leaders there, besides with just himself, is essential. Does your friend have pastors (preferably more than one) or a board of directors and/or wise and character-qualified counselors who know him, the culture and the temptations well enough to hold him accountable? It needs to be someone who knows the Scriptures and can counsel based on full local information. You can certainly give input yourself, but those on the ground locally should provide primary accountability.

If he expects you to be able to evaluate things there, to give input on decisions, I also think it would be wise for you to have someone else in the loop who you can contact as well. A variety of perspectives is important for them there, and also for you as you seek to understand what is being done, and also evaluate whether you wish to personally continue to give or encourage others to give to these projects. When channels of information are restricted to one individual in-country communicating to another from a distance, it is not conducive to true accountability, because there is no objective way to appraise the information being provided. It’s too easy to leave out certain information that would suggest a different course of action would be better. (I don’t mean that this would be done deliberately, it’s just the limitations of a single perspective.) Counsel ends up being limited to “I trust you” and “whatever you think.” You are involved both as God’s steward and as an encourager of others’ stewardship and are therefore accountable not only for the use of funds but for your friends’ protection. (I am often in this same position, and though a privilege, it’s certainly a serious responsibility.)

These are 19 questions I encourage people to ask before giving to any ministry. Not all apply to this situation but most of them do, in one form or another. These are the questions I would ask: Nineteen Questions to Ask Before You Give to Any Organization. Some of them might be reference points and subjects for discussion in this situation.

There is a difference between a carefully designed and planned project and large amounts of money coming in with a very wide discretion about how to use them. It is easy for money to be wasted in such situations, and for personal benefit to be furthered, even though everything begins with a sincere desire to give help wherever needed.

It’s critical to think about the long term effects of any project and above all to avoid, whenever possible, dependence on outside funding. Encourage taking responsibility and ownership, which ideally means local Christians and churches providing income for ongoing maintenance and development of programs and facilities whenever possible. The critical importance of encouraging people to experience the joy and privilege of giving, so that they are givers, not just receivers: Is It Right To Teach Poor Christians In Developing Countries That They Should Give? The fact of this severe present crisis should not obscure this ultimate goal, for the sake of the people.

The biggest failures in missions history are in giving people fish without teaching them how to fish. They eat the fish we give, become dependent on it, and we just keep fishing for them. This is why DEVELOPMENT work is ultimately more critical than RELIEF work. Of course, in the case of disasters, the immediate concern is and must be relief. However, relief often becomes long-term dependence, and this can undermine the dignity and self-respect and productivity of a culture.

Developing long-term dependence is a very serious problem. Ultimately, as the immediate crisis subsides I highly recommend programs such as the following, short term community business loans, which are very beneficial in encouraging people’s initiative and self-respect: Community Banks: An Eternal Investment. Once things get past the initial chaos, if there is anything that can be done by your friend now that still has an ultimate view toward incentives and increasing independence rather than dependence, that would be most helpful. Christians in countries across the world where there has been a history of suspicion and persecution of believers are made very vulnerable targets of their detractors by their dependence on outside funding, especially from the west.

Another problem of western money flowing into certain national Christians is the bitterness of other nationals, e.g. this East Indian nonbeliever who wrote me, claiming that western missionaries take advantage of India’s poor. Included is my response: Do Missionaries Take Advantage Of The Poor In India?

The problems are many. I am aware of an African crisis situation in which free food was brought in by relief organizations over an entire growing season, and then no one bought the available food produced by local farmers, who lost their shirts, and had no incentive to grow crops. (Why work to produce food to sell, when no one will buy it because of free food from the west?) This of course deepens the cycle of dependency.

Though I have no idea exactly how to do this and in some cases it will no doubt be hard, every effort should be made to use the money on things that won’t depend on outside money to continue.

As you’re probably aware, one of the most difficult challenges is to avoid setting temptation in front of national workers. This is true even when, to us, small amounts of money are involved, since gifts even of a few hundred dollars and certainly a few thousand will often exceed the average annual income of recipients. (Like an average American being given $50,000 or $200,000 and being told “find something worthwhile to do with this money-we trust you.”)

Often, the less money someone has had, the more temptation money presents. The larger the amount accessible, the greater the temptation. I have known pastors and other mature Christians here who have succumbed to misuse of church funds. We sometimes do a reverse sort of racism/nationalism in which we think that while western Christians can be corrupted by money, our brethren overseas are too spiritual and humble to be so tempted. This is naive, and we owe it to each other to guard one another from great and unnecessary temptations by building in protections and accountability when it comes to access to funds. (When it comes to temptations, they are no worse and no better than we.)

I know you trust your friend and I certainly trust your judgment concerning his integrity. But many faithful men of integrity have gotten into trouble when large amounts of money come under their control. This is magnified in the case of a crisis, since that may involve not just be hundreds or thousands of dollars, but tens or even hundreds of thousands. Suddenly, if he’s a developing world national, a man is entrusted with wealth far beyond what he might ever had handled in a lifetime, similar to an American being given millions of dollars and tending naturally to rationalize as he spends some of it (even a small fraction is a very large amount) on things of personal benefit to himself and his family.

Also, nationals entrusted with such wealth sometimes tend not only to be resented or suspected by others, but routinely have many people trying to get close to him so they can “get in the dole” (I’m talking about perceptions, but often, tragically, it becomes a reality). A man’s second cousins and their families he hasn’t seen for years show up on his doorstep, knowing he controls the distribution of large amounts of money. This is why it’s very important that a council of qualified men of integrity act as checks and balances for each other.

Certainly your friend’s ministry should have a separate account, completely distinct from his own personal funds. Preferably that requires someone else to sign with him for good sized withdrawals or distributions, assuring others are in the loop. You know more about banking than I do, but accountability is critical both for his sake and also for the sake of his reputation

As I said, this is a universal challenge. There are major relief organizations who have come into crisis areas and began paying salaries to locals which are way more than they could make anywhere else, sometimes twice as much as local physicians might make. Suddenly they are financially benefiting from the crisis, and compared to their neighbors, now wealthy. Similarly, in some areas, one child is sponsored as a Compassion child, but others aren’t. So this child receives not only letters special gifts, including monetary ones, the others in the same family or church or village don’t, and this becomes a formula for divisiveness, pride, envy and resentment.

Every good thing can have a bad effect. The solution isn’t not to sponsor children. We’ve done so with Compassion for twenty years. Likewise, the solution isn’t to never support national ministries (we do that too), but we need to exercise great care. In the case of this huge scale tragedy in SE Asia, our instinct, rightly, is to send whatever funds we can. However, not all of those funds will be used wisely, and some will end up being used corruptly. That comes with the territory. The solution is not to give less, but to give carefully.

In your case, I think honestly communicating such concerns to your friend, and encouraging him to strengthen current accountability or surround himself with others is vital. Otherwise, things could start slipping through the cracks without him realizing it...just as could easily happen to any of us in the same situation. (I shudder to think what it would mean if funds coming to our ministry went into my personal account, or if I didn’t have the counsel of wise brothers, our staff, board and my church pastors, or if we had sudden influxes of large amounts of money in a situation where it was difficult to choose what to do with it next.)

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries