‘We Have Done It Ourselves’

A few years ago I spent the summer working on a farm in Benin, West Africa. I lived with a missionary family who had been in Benin for nineteen years and at the time of my trip they were just about to leave, headed back to the states after a long time abroad. They were turning over their non-profit, their seminary, and their agricultural training center to the Beninese; nineteen years of work was being passed on to men and women with whom they had shared life their entire adult lives. I remember as I left, just days before they themselves were to leave the country, I was talking to Matt, the father of the family and executive director of the non-profit. He said that all along, this had been the plan. The project to which he had dedicated much of his life was never about him, he said. In order for his work to truly make an impact he had to step aside and let the Beninese take ownership of the organization, to be the ones in control. As long as he, an outsider, was in charge, it wasn’t fulfilling its purpose of equipping and empowering the Beninese. Now, a few years later, the project is still running, directed and maintained by Beninese, as it was intended from the beginning.

This story strikes me as quite similar to my experience this summer. While I am in no way implying that I have spent as much time or effort as Matt did in Benin, I do think that Matt’s experience can help inform the view of my work this summer. Here in Durham, I am an outsider. I see myself as an outsider in more ways than one, but most easily as a non-Durham resident. I traveled here from Virginia to work alongside organizations in a specific community, working to empower a specific group of people: Walltown. While I think it is important to fight hard against an “us” vs. “them” mentality, which I may potentially reinforce by calling myself an “outsider”, I think it is still crucial to understand my true position. At our roots, we are all humans, children of God; there can be no “us” or “them.” Yet recognizing that I am myself an outsider, someone who has come to this community from elsewhere, helps ensure that I do not harm the very people I am seeking to serve. I think this is critical to community development.

The question that guided me toward this belief is simply, “how should I interact with the community in order to ensure that my actions have positive consequences?” John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) answer with a Chinese Proverb and I believe it to contain strong words by which to work and live:

Go to the people
Live among them
Learn from them
Love them
Start with what they know
Build on what they have
The best leaders, when their work is finished
Their task is done
The people will need to say ‘we have done it ourselves’

It is the last line that I see as the most important, but also the most difficult to accomplish. What good is our work if we do everything for the very people that we are serving? As an outsider, my role in community development is not to implement, but to empower, to cultivate autonomy rather than dependency. Too often the temptation is to use our knowledge, resources, or power to accomplish tasks for the people we are serving. We look at solving a problem as the desired end and worry not about the specific means used to solve it. As long as the issue is resolved, we have done our work well, even if the “community” in which we are working played no part in achieving it. The danger here is that we end up doing the work for the people we are “helping,” creating a cycle dependency that in can in no circumstances be mistaken for “development.”

If we’re honest, many people practice this view, yet it should not be the approach of community development. What, then, should be? To employ a well-known cliché, community development, simplified, can be equated to teaching folks how to fish. Obviously the approach is more nuanced than this simple analogy, but a community is not developed if outsiders continually bring in loads of fish and merely drop them at the community’s feet. They may be well fed, but they are not developed. Community development is, to continue this analogy, working alongside the people to not only teach them how to fish, but also to work together towards buying a fishing pole, driving to the pond, and digging, together, through the dirt to find some worms. Never once, however, do we do anything for the people that they can do themselves, for that would only hurt the community.

I often wonder what this means for Christianity. For those interested in development, the Bible does not provide too many detailed approaches. There is no commandment that explicitly states how one should walk the fine line between helping too little and helping too much. Rather, biblical advice on aid seems broad and simple. In James, for example, the author writes, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2.15-16). Similarly, in Matthew 25, the righteous give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and clothes to the naked. One could, very easily, use these verses to justify an approach where we, as the provider, do everything for a passive and merely receptive “needy” person or group.

These verses provide a great opportunity for us Christians to truly examine the social consequences of our religious beliefs. To merely provide, without any degree of empowering, creates dependency; it should be avoided at all costs. Can we, as Christians, take these verses and further flesh them out them to better suit development? John Perkins, the CCDA, and many other Christians appear to think so. It seems to me that our responsibility as Christians, especially ones involved in development, is to first understand our purpose. If we are truly seeking to better communities, not by merely addressing surface level issues but by truly desiring for them to thrive, we must do what works. We must equip, and to achieve this we must move beyond away from provision and into development. We must work so that the people can truthfully say, “we did it ourselves.” Through this, I think, we are better displaying our love for these communities, which is, as far as I can tell, the heart of Christianity.

This approach to community development, while deeply necessary in broad circumstances, can be just as helpful in personal, daily interactions. At Urban Hope we focus on business and entrepreneurship. Twice a week my group, made up of fifth and sixth graders, has “economic development,” a time when they learn about various aspects of business and the economy, often with the help of a School House Rock video. Recently they learned about savings and interest, a concept that they can practice with the “Bull City Bank,” a camp bank only for them. Each camper has a job, and each job has a salary. If they do their jobs, they get paid and can deposit and save money in the bank. On Thursdays the campers calculate interest and decide if they want to withdraw or continue to save; the choice is theirs.

Some of our young, aspiring entrepreneurs.

This week, as Thursday rolled around, the time came to calculate the interest earned. Since the campers had just learned how to do this, we decided to let them practice calculating their own interest. Interest is confusing enough to me, but for a fifth grader, it’s beyond tough. As we were sitting around watching them work, the campers would come up exasperated and, dropping their pen and paper in my lap, ask me to do the math for them. As I sat there, I realized how easy it would be to pull out my phone and quickly calculate their 20% interest. We could finish early, the campers would happily have their money, and I wouldn’t have to struggle through teaching them about decimals. But the last line of that proverb crossed my mind, and I imagined the campers crunching the numbers on their own and exclaiming, “we have done it ourselves!” I decided to work with them, not for them, to calculate their interest and after a while we finished. The campers successfully tallied their earnings by themselves and took away at least a slightly broader understanding of how things work in the business world.

I understand that this is a small example of the important approach outlined in the proverb and practiced by many in development, but I believe it points to something bigger. As Christians, we must be mindful of our work. When we go to a community, when we love them, when we learn from them, only then we can hope to help build them up. Yet we must not build them up upon ourselves, for as soon as we leave the foundation disappears, the people come crashing back down to where they were. Rather we must work together to build upon a solid foundation, one that does not disappear, so that when they stand upright and smiling, they are perched upon their own handiwork. When they look back over everything that they’ve accomplished, they can say to everyone who asks, “we have done it ourselves.”