My cool boss, Tony Sheng, who is almost done his Ember sabbatical, recommended a book to me this summer that I’d like to talk about: Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton. Its contents are not widely known in most of the Christian circles that I’m involved in, but I think more people need to give it a read. Lupton makes a lot of points that may make some uncomfortable, but ignorance is not bliss when it comes to missions, service, and volunteer work. If we really want to help people and help our world, there are things that we need to be aware of.
That being said, Lupton’s book is about exactly what the title suggests. It argues that a good percentage of the charity work being done by Americans is actually toxic to those being “assisted,” rather than being legitimately helpful. When I first read this opening argument, I was shocked. “How?” I demanded. “How can you say that charity work is bad?” Lupton explains, saying that charity is “almost universally accepted as a virtuous and constructive enterprise” but its “outcomes are almost entirely unexamined.”
He goes on to tell stories of how short term missions trips can sometimes end up being detrimental to communities. Americans raise thousands of dollars to fly to a foreign country or another state where they do some work that could have been done by the indigenous people. Sometimes, that $40,000 sum would have gone a thousand times further if the short term missions trip had been cancelled, and the money had gone instead towards an indigenous organization. He says that once short term missions teams begin coming to a place and doing the work and then leaving, a sense of dependency is developed among the community being served.
Lupton talks about many other things too, and I really could go on forever, but the toxic effect of short term missions is most relevant to me. Toxic Charity isn’t saying that we shouldn’t help people. It suggests that maybe there are better ways to help people. Maybe if we spent more time understanding the places, people, and communities we are trying to serve, we would be able to develop more constructive charity programs. There are some people who already understand this. For example, me, Measu, CB, and all of our friends and family just completed our water well fundraiser for The Water Project. One thing that I admire about the Water Project is the extensive skill training that they do prior to and after building the well. They teach the community how to use the well for more than just fresh water. They are taught that, since they’re in rural areas, they can use the water to begin small agricultural businesses. They are given basic health training. They are taught how to do minor repairs to their well. The indigenous people learn how to help themselves.
This book taught me that I need to be more futuristic in my approach to helping others. This is why standing on street corners and screaming out Bible verses is simply not effective. That may seem like it’s for Jesus’ cause, but really, you are offending pedestrians who walk by, being disrespectful, and turning people away from what you’re trying to get them to understand. I do believe that sometimes, when there is no other option, it is absolutely justified to help someone in need, even if, hypothetically, they could have done it by themselves. On larger scales though, today’s compassion industry can be toxic. It’s important to be educated about that.