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6 Hard Lessons from Trying to Serve the Poor

An Oath for Helpers

From talking with a colleague today about a program that connects students to small enterprises in the developing world.

There is a lot of good intention. Many want to make a positive difference. But many desire the feeling of making a difference more than the reality of making one.

I count myself as one of them. Really making a difference? That takes a long-time and a lot of work. In higher ed, the semester ends and we move on. The community does not. In businesses, the money runs out or the plans change and we move on. The community does not.

As we enter the spring semester for colleges and universities, many students will travel abroad and some intend to serve there. In fact, around 350,000 students will study abroad (NAFSA) this year. Add to that around 400,000 Christian missionaries, (The Traveling Team), over 10,000 mostly youth in Teach for America, and around 7,400 Peace Corps volunteers (Peace

There is a lot of good intention out there. We had five terrific Smeal students help to start a small business in Haiti. We received word that the business is facing challenges. Of course! But we have the great photos of the students. We have the story. We will get the kudos and the credit. But we sat in her office and had to ask ourselves, "Is that really the point? Are we committed for the long-haul to really make a difference?" It would be easier to send out the press release and move on. Fortunately, we decided we owe it to our students and the community to commit to seeing it through.

The Feeling of Making a Difference

This is driven by our own agenda, timeline, set of values, and definition of success. By definition this "feeling" we so desire is in us, but the "difference" is in someone else. So it is not possible for us to define the change and drive the change.

Poverty, Inc., a powerful documentary on the aid industry, tells the compelling story of an organization donating eggs to a poor community. The local egg producers went out of business thus destroying a part of the local economy. When the organization's priorities shifted somewhere else, they moved on with a feeling of making a difference. The community was left poorer than before.

Robert Lupton's Toxic Charity Summary click above

The Reality of Making a Difference

This is driven by the agenda, timeline, values, and definition of success of those being served. And don't think it is easily discovered. Poverty can ruin the mind and cultural, gender, psychological barriers can impede the truth.

I am reminded of the line from Goethe, "When we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be."

You walk a tight rope when truly serving. On one hand, you must lower yourself, listen and learn. You must seek mentors and instructors who can coach you about the community, history, culture, language. You must commit. On the other hand, as a unique person and as an outsider with access to resources, you must raise yourself up. You have something special to offer. You have gifts and abilities you never even realized you had. And you have access to resources that could be much needed.

Ultimately, I think what communities want to know is are you in it for the long haul? Are you committed?

I think if we send students out for good feelings of making a difference, we impoverish the world. And we infect the students with a false notion of "making a difference". I am not against short missions or service trips. But I think we need more legacy projects.

Legacy projects are long-term, on-going engagements in communities where faculty and administration is the link over the years and student teams come and go to make their contributions. The community truly benefits and the students learn that making a difference is hard work, complicated and often over a long period of time.

Conclusion - Teaching a Man to Fish

Is this just another "teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish?" No.

What I am saying is that the man might not even like fish. Where do you get off thinking he needs fish?

Or maybe he is not even hungry. Or maybe he is already a great fisherman, but what he needs is legal support, a good carpenter or a new computer.

You will never know unless you put down your fish, tackle, pole, bait, and listen. Listen first and ask questions later.


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