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Why I Don’t Believe in Aid

Africa receives roughly $50 billion in aid annually from foreign governments, and perhaps $13 billion more from private philanthropic institutions. Yet, author Paul Theroux writes in a Barron’s article, “I can testify that Africa is much worse off than when I first went there 50 years ago to te…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Africa receives roughly $50 billion in aid annually from foreign governments, and perhaps $13 billion more from private philanthropic institutions. Yet, author Paul Theroux writes in a Barron’s article, “I can testify that Africa is much worse off than when I first went there 50 years ago to teach English: poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed. It seems that much of the aid has made things worse.”

Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo calls aid a “debilitating drug,” arguing that “real per-capita income [in Africa] today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.”

Matt Patch got an eyeful on the World Race. He responded to Jesus’ command that we love the poor by working in the slums of Kenya. But after three years of trying to help the poorest of the poor, he declares, “I don’t believe in aid. It’s why I don’t believe in helping the poor. At least not how we’ve been doing it…” He goes on to explain why:

Here are a few of my thoughts regarding aid.

1. Don’t start anything you don’t have to.
When we first started figuring this whole thing out we battled whether or not to start a 501c3. A lot missionaries/humanitarians do that. Terrible idea. Go under someone at least for the first 2 years (it’ll take that long to go be a part of the culture, learn the language, etc.). And chances are your plan will change or need adjustment. We had an organization with 20 years of experience that would cover us and offer us a wealth of knowledge and wisdom from those who have gone before us.

2. Jesus didn’t use a business model- why would we?
We issued 7 loans with interest to people selected by the community as the most capable people to pay it back. We did it by the book. All failed. Since then we’ve issued interest free loans to people that we feel led to give to and have a 100% success rate. The gospel doesn’t make sense. So we have to quit trying to make sense of missions (aid). 

3. Be a student.
We’ve been blessed to have Fred Roche and most recently Patricia Miswa join us in ministry. Fred knows his people inside and out. If I don’t have a Fred by my side day in and day out then I’m of no good. Patricia came to us. She has a heart for empowering women. It took us almost 3 years to find her – or for her to find us.

Be willing to be patient and wait for the right people. If it’s one person, go with the one until you find two – or they find you. I made the mistake of appointing leaders and being a teacher. Discipleship to me is more of a community setting where conversations take place instead of a classroom. We have to learn from each other.

4. If Jesus is not the end goal, it will fail.
Jesus has to be the priority. End of story. The business side of the aid may succeed, but look at the stats, people are worse off than they were before as a continent. The Bible isn’t a book of rules, it’s a book of what Heaven looks like if we lived it out. If we teach/live that out, people will prosper.

5. Safari Missions are a joke.
We see a lot of short-term mission teams come in (Christian and non-Christian). If a short-term team doesn’t come in to serve the full vision of the long-term team on the ground then it shouldn’t come.

Short-term teams often come in to help, but then stray away from what the long-term team does to create their own mission. Then they expect those on the ground take care of it. No, no, no, no, no. This is how we enable people in America from having to respond to what God is telling them to do. Be present.

Side note: Adventures is doing a great job in making sure the short-term teams come in to serve. It’s been a priority.

Comments (9)

  • This is one realization that stumped me when I went to Uganda in 2012. I was burdened with knowing that my short exasperated endeavors were of no help to their life long need. I see how much you must give up your life to help at all. I look back on that time sorrowfully because I know that I did what I knew how to do but it only brought health for less than one day.
    I hope one day I can contribute to those places something that will last.

  • Interesting timing as I just finished reading Bill Gates annual letter in which he attempts to debunk 3 myths relating to helping the poor, and the 2nd one is:
    Foreign Aid Is A Big Waste http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/#section=home

    So in his letter he explains the reason he believes in Aid. I’ve read the authors you quoted as well as the one Gates does, and bottom line, y’all (Matt included) are probably not far off. What Matt describes is “smart aid” not “no aid.”

    It’s unfortunate that aid that comes from many Americans is not wise aid, and often does more to build dependence and not only disempower nationals, but destroy their self-esteem/self-worth in understanding their place and value in the Kingdom. When we were helping in Haiti, even though we instructed teams coming about things not to do regarding aid/gifts, many thought they knew better than the long-term missionaries and nationals on the ground, and did what “their heart” told them. Too bad that they were foolish hearts rather than wise hearts, for even though they might have left their short-term trip feeling good about the money they slipped to people, they set back progress by circumventing the methods set up to deliver “empowering aid”. Usually they just created further dependence and cheapened the nationals view of themselves as capable people.

    Anyway, don’t want to be on a soapbox, but this subject of Aid is a minefield in Christian missions, and after 25 years on the mission field I am seriously considering doing my graduate level Thesis on this topic. In the meantine, “When Helping Hurts” is a good resource for short-termers to read.

  • The humanist cries for more education

    The socialist cries for more government

    The capitalist cries for more business

    These but make people smarter to enable them to achieve the power be more corrupt to further pad their own pockets from the misery of others.

    Holy Spirit heart change leads to life change which leads to better decisions which leads to healthier families and ultimately the local culture.

    W/o this, the corrupt governments will continue to use food/foreign aid as a weapon against its own peoples and political enemies.

  • Great points! I am glad you are willing to step up and say throwing money at a problem is not a sustainable or beneficial solution. It might make you feel good but when did helping others become about you?

  • Some additional input here – in 1980, there were about 480M people in Africa while today there are over 1.1B, That basically means all that aid equates to about 15 cents a day. On an extremely positive note, child and maternal deaths have drastically declined, as have deaths from HIV/Aids. More people than ever have access to clean water, health care, education, and electricity, not to mention that 26 nations in Africa have seen positive GDP growth for more than a decade. The best news of all is that Africa has exploded in Christianity. I cast my vote for the aid to Africa to continue as well as the spread of Christianity.

  • Interesting. Having just come back from a short trip to Uganda and Kenya, I have a different perspective.

    I’m not sure what the technical definition of aid, but in my quick tour of two ministries in Africa, I was impressed by how a small, short-term financial gift in the right hands (usually, a local pastor or ministry leader) can literally change a culture.

    In Uganda, I met a woman whose life was changed through child sponsorship. Because of a small financial gift every month, she was given an opportunity to pull herself out of poverty that may not have otherwise existed. She is now a member of the Ugandan parliament.

    I met another man who was also sponsored and now trains pastors and executive leaders all over the country he also sponsors a few children through Compassion International.

    In Kenya, I met a pastor who is bringing the Gospel to a leper camp just outside of Mombasa. With financial gifts from international partners, he has built a school, a medical clinic, and a feeding center.

    He also showed me the detailed plans for how they are currently in the process of making the ministry financially sustainable through businesses they’re starting.

    There were times when I saw situations that made me want to empty my pockets, but I knew that would only meet a temporary need.

    By no means am I qualified to answer the “what Africa needs” question, but I was surprised by the hope I encountered there, the opportunity that some were taking which was due, in part, to foreign aid.

    I’ve heard this argument before and think there is truth to it. But my concern is someone could misuse your and Matt’s words, Seth, to lead to apathy.

    Money is as much an answer to Africa’s problems as it is to America’s problems. It will not solve our greatest needs, but in and of itself, it’s a tool. And a powerful one which we can use for great good or evil.

    Jesus wasn’t shy to talk about money; in fact, he criticized his followers for not being more shrewd and encouraged them to take care of what was entrusted to them if they wanted to see their resources grow. He even told us to use money to gain friends and influence people (sounding a bit like Dale Carnegie).

    In the past few years, I’ve been surprised by people’s honest attitudes about money. Most Christians I meet think money is bad or that it’s wrong to have too much of it.

    I recently heard Rick Warren say that it’s not a sin to be a rich man. “But it’s a sin to die one,” he said.

    I’m eager to hear more of your thoughts, Seth, as you have such a wealth of knowledge and experience on both the micro-enterprise side as well as the missions side.

    Thanks for letting me process here. I like what Ken said about it not being an either/or matter. That rings true for me, as well.

  • Well, I would agree with everything you’ve said here. I gave four years of my life to the proposition that money can make a difference when it’s well invested.

    First investment we made was helping Cambodian refugees become chicken and pig farmers. And then I worked for Opportunity Int’l establishing micro-credit organizations.

    The title “Why I don’t believe in aid” is a little disingenuous insofar as Matt adds, “at least, not how we’ve been doing it.” It’s more of a macro-economic critique, not a micro-economic one. I stuck with the title to pull readers in, but I’ve got strong thoughts about our ability to make a difference thru our generosity.

    It’s the difference between Spirit-led benevolence and welfare. That’s the crux of Matt’s arguments.

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Jeff. I’m a big fan of benevolence, but not of welfare.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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