As professors of international development for most of our careers, we have witnessed a sea of change in attitudes towards global service over the last two decades. For most of the 2000s, the field of international development was much acclaimed. Optimistic attitudes were linked with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a strategy associated with eight time-bound and measurable targets for combatting poverty, hunger, disease, and illiteracy by 2015.
Economist Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty (2005) drummed up considerable support for the MDGs. Sachs argued that countries could end extreme poverty through significant increases in foreign aid. In the past, foreign aid hadn’t always worked, but this was because aid levels were paltry or aid was distributed to strategic, moderate-income countries that didn’t need the aid (e.g. Egypt) or to corrupt regimes that squandered it (e.g. Mobutu’s Zaire). If the West targeted its foreign aid to countries that really needed it, poor countries would end extreme poverty and achieve significant gains in economic growth.
The Millennium Development Goals defined a new era in international development. The Global North and Global South, liberated from the straightjacket of the Cold War, could think about development in broader, more holistic terms that embraced markets and governments, multiple sectors of development, and genuine partnership between the Global North and Global South.
Changes in the Christian community paralleled those in the secular community. Pastors like Rick Warren and Richard Stearns, steeped in soul-saving evangelical efforts prior to the 2000s, wrote books urging Christians to spread the whole gospel (word and deed) to the whole world. As prominent evangelicals urged Christians to be involved with efforts at combatting poverty, younger Christians were participating in short-term mission trips (STMs) in unprecedented numbers. In 1989, 120,000 Americans participated in STMs; by 2006, that number jumped to 2,200,000. Christians exhibited an unbridled enthusiasm to “serve the world’s poor.”
It didn’t take long, though, for critics to respond. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s wildly successful book When Helping Hurts (2009) suggested that short-term mission trips, sometimes plagued by poor preparation and questionable tactics (holy shoddy), were often cross-culturally inappropriate and paternalistic. Secular scholars like William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo also weighed in, responding with cynicism to the optimism in Jeffrey Sachs’s work. Easterly and Moyo wrote books arguing that foreign aid didn’t end poverty or spur economic growth; rather, it created dependency and contributed to corruption. Indeed, discussions about the opportunistic and self-serving nature of international development led to a jaded perspective regarding its goals and motives.
So which swing of the pendulum is the more accurate picture of international development? Is the international development enterprise one that causes more harm than good, or vice versa? Can North American Christians, whether through traditional aid strategies or two-week trips, truly help people in poorer countries?
Our new Calvin Short, When Helping Heals, published by Calvin College Press, works through the debates about global service by looking back over the history of international development from the end of World War II to the present. We seek to discover what we have learned over the last 70 years about helping people. It’s surely true that some efforts have been harmful, but many others have been helpful.
The overall message of our Calvin Short reminds Christians of a few things. First, Christians are called to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10: 27). Numerous Scripture references – the story of the Good Samaritan, the reminder that we are extending our hands to Jesus himself when we meet the needs of people who are hungry, thirsty, or in prison (Matthew 25: 34-40), or the vision of shalom and the call to action in Amos 5: 24 to “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” – encourage us to reach across cultural and religious lines to help out our neighbors (wherever they may be) to bring about human and community flourishing.
Second, although we live in a world that has made tremendous progress in terms of combatting poverty and respecting human rights, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. 800 million people still go hungry every day. 30 million people are held as slaves. 60 million refugees have no safe place to be. And numerous countries, from Honduras to South Africa, continue to struggle with unaccountable government. Our world begs for wholeness.
But, finally, if we’re going to be engaged in the world, we need to do it well. A powerful misconception exists that anyone, anytime, anyplace can “do international development.” STM trips have encouraged this idea, but the concept is not helpful or necessarily true. Global service is supposed to be hard work.
When Helping Heals is another attempt at cautioning Christians to take stock of their situation. Like Corbett and Fikkert, we know that God intends us to help our neighbors, but we want to learn how to do a better job of it. So, if your heart is tugging at you to respond to the call of global service, we affirm that call, but we encourage you, among other things, to learn as much as you can about the field of international development and to apply the “best practices” along the way. Today, large-scale programs like the Sustainable Development Goals and grassroots development organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee, World Renew, and the Association for a More Just Society incorporate many of these lessons. Here are a few of them:
- human and social development isn’t only about economics.
- responding to immediate needs is sometimes necessary, but building on people’s and countries’ own assets is ultimately more effective than identifying needs and simply responding to those.
- we must focus on individuals and local communities, but we must also pay attention to larger systems, like judicial systems.
Building on what works and learning from our mistakes will allow us to commit ourselves to working with our neighbors. In the process, we can contribute to building a world where the dignity of everyone is respected, the voice of everyone is heard, and the wellbeing of everyone is assured.