If you have ever attempted to do anything good in the world, sought to create change or reform any broken system, then no doubt you have developed a personal relationship with cynicism. While some of us are better at fending her off than others, if we continue in the work, jadedness will inevitably rear her sly little head.
This is the battle of the world changers; a battle of reason vs. love. Most importantly, it is a battle that we must choose to fight and win should we want to stay in the game.
Yobel International recently returned from a 5 week stint in Eastern Africa. The trip afforded incredible opportunities, primarily the ability to conduct business training for 120 entrepreneurs throughout Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Because this was my 8th journey to this region and a bit of a longer trip, I was confronted with questions that although important, began to lead me down the road to cynicism. Some of them may sound familiar to you:
1). Which development efforts in Africa are most effective?
2). What role should western money play within these nations?
3). Should we continue trying to subsidize change in areas with such corrupt systems that our attempts are often exploited, undermined, or poorly managed?
I choose to share a bit of my process with you here, in case you or someone you know are asking similar questions regarding the import or impact of global development efforts.
It will be helpful if you understand that the word ‘empowerment’ took on new meaning for me this trip. It is no longer a nice sounding nonprofit-y term I often lump into conversations about sustainability along with teaching a man to fish.
Empowerment is literally helping people to access the power they currently lack.
When we lack power, we cannot help ourselves or anyone else. Therefore ‘empowerment work’ describes initiatives that enable people to access the ability to satisfy their own needs and pursue life in abundance.
Each of my friends in the developing world lacks power in varying degrees. Some lack access to the finances required to access basic needs. Others lack education and confidence required to creatively solve problems. Some live in such fear of what others can take away from them that they stop before they start, lacking security. Many live beneath deep-seated oppression due to their race, gender, tribe, or marital status and this keeps them from gaining the social standing necessary to advance -- these lack justice.
I’ve observed that many government leaders of developing nations do not seem overly concerned with empowering their people. These governments are often so focused on maintaining personal power and financial status that they overlook and even exploit the needs of those they rule over in favor of their own advancement.
One such example is that of the former ruler of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko, whose 32-year reign lasted from 1965-1997. This man embezzled between $5-$12 billion of monies intended as aid to develop roads, schools, and medical care. The IMF learned of his corruption and yet continued to lend him money under pressure from Washington because of a perceived Marxist threat from neighboring Angola during the Cold War. Now 18 years later, the nation continues to suffer from a crippling debt resulting in a dearth of quality roads, schools, clean water, electricity and medical care, making it abundantly clear that the greed of one man can impact an entire nation.
When visiting Congo in February, we met Papa Jerome, a native to Congo now in his sixties. Papa Jerome currently serves at a library within the Catholic Mission of Aru, and was willing to share some of his thoughts with us. According to Jerome, the people of Congo have been crying out for freedom for a long time. It was thought that when the Belgians were overthrown and the nation gained its independence in the 1960s, that things would finally get better. However, the Belgians had never bothered to train up the African people in anything other than vocational positions involving menial and physical labor. As a result, there was no knowledge of proper leadership and oversight. According to Papa Jerome:
As a result, people today remain afraid to begin public enterprises and choose instead to operate small businesses from within their homes in hopes of going unnoticed by the local officials who would come and demand taxes that are more than most can earn in 6 months.
I realize that corruption exists in the United States as well – probably at a deeper level than I even want to think about. But to hear of billions of dollars lining the pockets of former African, Indonesian, Cuban, Filipino, and Middle Eastern rulers while I walk amidst hundreds of thousands of villagers and slum dwellers in these nations who are unable to access something as fundamental as clean drinking water, well, it makes you stop and think about our part in it all. These national leaders sit atop vast natural resources and have the privilege of ruling over amazingly tenacious and beautiful people, but instead of stewarding these resources to the benefit of their nations’ GDPs and the well-being of their kinsmen, they plead poverty.
And we in the West buy into it because our bleeding hearts are broken for the poor, who themselves are predominantly innocent casualties of this crime of greed.
If national leaders won’t care for their own, we Americans are willing to step up to the plate and do it for them. Mostly because we have good intentions. But many times because we love the role of savior.
The result is that North America becomes Africa’s welfare system, providing the schools, jobs, trainings, micro-finance, vaccinations, medical clinics, and boreholes that the people so desperately need which are not available to them via national funding. National funding that is instead diverted into the private palaces and personal airfields and air-conditioned hummers driven by their national leadership.
I have asked a question for years now to my friends living in the developing world:
If you were suddenly president and could do anything to help your countrymen and women, what would you do first?
The answer I get EVERYTIME in EVERY PLACE:
“I would end corruption.”
How would you do that?
“It has to start from the top. How do you think the police, the school headmasters, and the village chiefs (LCs) will ever be motivated to act justly if the president and his cabinet are not? It must be modeled from the top down, like in Rwanda.” – Richard, Uganda
“Money is power. If all of the organizations and NGOs bringing money into our nation would get together and use their combined influence to demand that corruption cease and to audit those in power, our governments would have to listen. But you people don’t like to work together from what I have seen.” – Lois, Uganda
What happens when people challenge those in power?
“They die.” -Katie, working in DRC
Katie then proceeds to tell me the horrific story of her friend’s poisoning by local leaders for taking part in opposition to the current Congolese political group in power.
While these experiences and opinions do not form a blanket truth over every political leader in every developing nation, I cannot help but think of Proverbs 13:23 that says:
“There is abundant food in the fields of the poor, but injustice sweeps it all away.”
And again, the cynical spirit rises up and causes me to question why I work in these places. Why I am using American dollars given so generously as a means of propping up nations for which their own leaders don’t care to help?
And many times when we do decide to help in spite of this, we are discouraged at the local level as well. To borrow my friend Katie’s words:
“While working in Africa, I often feel like an ATM.”
Being from the West means that I have money. And while I live on a salary that is less than most in my country, it is true that I have a lot comparatively. As a result, my friends around the world see it as my role to support all my travel in their country, to pay for my stay, my meals in their homes, their food, their transport, their cell phone bills, their time, their programs, and get this – they sometimes want ME to pay THEM to come to the FREE business training that we offer because they are missing work opportunities. What a broken system. What limited vision. This is the result of governments and NGOs setting precedence for this in the past and I refuse to feed into it.
Will it surprise you, then, that some of the most meaningful personal happenings on this last trip were when my friend Richard bought us all sodas on a road trip with his own money? Or when a family attending our training gave us a rooster as a gift for visiting their 2-room home? I have to remember these moments of extreme generosity in the midst of how beaten down I feel from constant requests for handouts.
And yet at the end of the day, I know that I have to keep doing this. I must obey my conscience and calling regardless of the actions of others. I am the one who will be held accountable to the life I have lived while on this earth and the way I steward what has been entrusted to me. And because I love Jesus and he first loved me, I also love the poor.
That being said, I truly believe that grassroots initiatives work. This keeps me from giving up. I know that on a micro-level, change IS happening in people’s lives – in spite of the government and all of its potential corruption. I have the privilege of seeing it in every 6-month follow up survey that comes back to our offices from the field. I have the gift of witnessing it firsthand as I visit the successful businesses of those we have trained. I have been invited into the new homes of my friends that have prospered as a result of faithfully applying the knowledge they have received to the benefit of their families.
I have met the children who get to go to school not because they are lucky enough to have a sponsor, but because their mom and dad can now afford to pay their school fees and see the value of educating their sons and daughters.
Grassroots endeavors fly below the radar and seek out those men and women with integrity who DO want to create change in their nations and see their brothers and sisters lifted up out of poverty. Yobel offers resources and partnership to trustworthy men and women such as these.
It is true that integrity is often in short supply everywhere. At times we will all be disappointed, probably more than once. Our friends in developing nations have practically every reason to give in to the corruption themselves, and frankly, I have seen many an instance where those with good intentions have been tainted by the poison of “easy” money.
But when I see how desperate people are to pursue a greater hope for their futures, I have to respond in spite of our disappointments. As I read survey result after survey result, I find that empowering the nations to create change for themselves through enterprise and financial management absolutely works.
97% of our attendees regardless of education level or business background have increased their income this year.
Nearly all begin or improve existing budgets and savings plans. 40% begin new enterprises, and then go on to build second and third businesses as they continue to see needs within their community that they are capable of meeting.
As a result, their children go to school. Permanent homes are constructed. Nutrition and medical care improve. And best of all, hope is gained. And it is done at such a grassroots level that people’s lives are altered dramatically within the current government systems. And if we keep doing it, I believe that these people, these good-hearted people, will rise up and create schools for themselves, dig their own wells, and fight for social systems that provide for the poor in their midst. And the best part? They will do so without further financial investment from us.
This has led us to the conclusion that if we are going to offer funding to the developing world, it will be in the form of training, equipping and empowerment initiatives alone. If sustainable development is ever to be achieved, we must help people to realize their own power to prosper independent of outside funds.
People will nearly always choose the path of least resistance. If a wealthy parent continues to give their grown child a comfortable living stipend, what is the likelihood of that child ever going out and seeking a job, let alone one that requires hard work? We cannot continue to subsidize initiatives that encourage dependency rather than self-sufficiency.
So we will continue to offer training rather than funding. We will continue to seek out those with hearts for their community. Those who want to stand on their own two feet and not on the backs of the poor nor the pocketbooks of the rich. And we will partner with them to dream dreams, to seek solutions and to mentor future leaders.
“This [Yobel business] training comes at a good time,” says Papa Jerome, “Freedom is coming, and when it does, these people will be ready for it.”
It is because of these precious people, longing for freedom, that we continue to do our work, continue to invite you to join us, and continue to seek the funds necessary to conduct future trainings.
Because our friends around the world don’t have the option to get on a plane at the end of the month. They are there, in it for keeps. And if we don’t choose to come alongside our neighbors as Jesus shows us, who else is coming for them?
So thank you for joining us, for not giving up hope, for investing in the lives of those who are faithful and for helping us to find them. I believe things can and will continue to get better so long as we continue to empower trustworthy men and women of the world to create change for themselves and their communities.
And if you are tempted as I am to give in to a cynical spirit or to just throw in the towel, I would challenge you first to take a step back. Get some distance from the situation and seek out some self-care. Sarita Hartz has written a great blog on recovering from burnout that you can find here.
Next, ask yourself this question: “Where does love lead me? Where does it command my conscience?”
Love triumphs over cynicism if given enough time.
The world needs reformers like you. So take a break. Get around people who breathe life into you. Change your plan of attack if you must. But whatever you do, don’t give up.
We wouldn’t want to do this without you.
Written by Sarah Ray
Photos by Mattea Norman