Friday, August 02, 2013

Relief and (Re-) Development: Desparation and Dependency

Good intentions without action don't accomplish much, but what action is needed?.
I recently finished reading the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert Lupton. Perhaps the best part of the book is this one: 2001, six years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and long after the city should have shifted to long-term development projects, churches and mission organizations still "market" the crisis and volunteers continue to flow into the city by the thousands, distributing free food and clothing to "victims." When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.
He quotes Roger Sandberg, former Haiti country director of Medair, in defining a progression from relief to development:
First stop, relief. Relief work occurs during and immediately following an emergency and includes not only life-saving interventions but also the alleviation of suffering.
Second stop, rehabilitation. Rehabilitation follows and overlaps with the relief phase. Rehabilitative work increases the capacity of a local community, enabling them to better respond to future crises. Rehabilitation also seeks to promote projects that restore services or livelihoods to a preexisting or improved level.
Third stop, development. Development interventions follow and overlap relief and rehabilitation phases. Development work is long term. It seeks to improve the standard of living for a population over many years or decades. In the best-case scenario, relief and rehabilitation inverventions are done with long-term development in mind....Very roughly, we might say that relief, rehabilitation, and development phases respectively last months, years, and decades.
This particular distinction between relief, rehabilitation, and development has been on my mind in the last several months in three areas of my life: local, national, and international.

On a local level, as a parish priest I respond to urgent crises through small grants from my discretionary fund--a fund set up by the church to be used at my discretion (hence the name) to address needs as they arise. Most of the time, it is used to do things like provide two quarts of oil and a tank of gas to needy folks heading for San Francisco or a hotel room for a mother and her kids fleeing an abusive husband/father. This is all good to do, but leaves me feeling dissatisfied because I know that I'm simply doing relief work, not solving the underlying problems. It also frustrates and angers me when I see an unending procession of need, sometimes event the same people over and over again. I have the dual feeling of being angry at being taken advantage of and yet ashamed of that anger because i know that ninety-five percent of thse folks have few other options.

On a national level, I've watched with increasing frustration as our national debate regarding cuts to the Supplimental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) between, if you believe the two sides, the heartless, cold-blooded Republicans and the bleeding-heart, dependency-fostering Democrats. Below the partisan posturing is a disagreement about whether (and when) relief of suffering should stop and whether (and when) government should be in the business of rehabilitation and development to help people lift themselves out of poverty and need. There seems to be little discussion of how the government can facilitate increasing the capacity of people to respond to future crises--just whether we should still send checks or not. Additionally, the notion of separating people into "givers" and "takers" strikes me as a profoundly unhelpful way of wrestsling with the need to go beyond relief to rehabilitation and development. Throwing a drowning person a life-ring will not foster dependency. Jumping in and trying to hold them up means that both of you end up drowning.

On an international level, several months ago I spent a week in Haiti. That country is perhaps the poster child (yes, I appreciate the irony of the phrase) for perpetual relief verging on the toxic. Literally billions of dollars have been spent there, often with major strings attached in the name of accountability. At the parish I serve, St. Edward's, we are a part of consortium of churches and a school that have a relationship with St. Patrick's Church and School in LaCorbe, Haiti. Having had a relationship with people there for many years, we are beginning to discuss how to move from continually addressing immediate needs to building the capacity for the community to begin to provide for themselves. There is certainly a tension between what they perceive as their immediate needs and what we hope for as far as long term rehabilitation and development. Part of the challenge is that we have the luxury of taking the long view. A good example is that there is a need for a power source at this fairly remote chruch and school. As enlightened, developed-world folks, we would prefer to set up a small solar installation that would then be self-sustaining. However, our partner in Haiti would like a gasoline generator so that he could haul it around and use it for a variety of congregations and schools. Both make sense in their own way. On the one hand, we don't want to do what so many NGOs have done in Haiti and impose our own will on them. On the other, we don't really want to perpetuate a reliance on expensive fossel fruels. Difficult decisions.

I have no easy answers to any of this, but it does strike me that we need to be having these sorts of conversations at all levels of government and within our churches. Just writing a check, as much as it helps in the short-term, stops at relief without moving beyond that. If we can get to the point of true partnership where we help people to get and stay on their feet, perhaps we can move beyond the gridlock in both government and society.

No comments: