Although many people confuse the two, Hurricane Matthew has reminded us that there are huge differences between relief and development. We ordinarily do not engage in relief work, but as we learned after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when disaster strikes our partners, our deep and longstanding local connections make us uniquely positioned to respond. However, while relief work helps people to stay alive, it does nothing to change their overall situation or improve their long-term conditions. Continued too long, it can actually be harmful.
It has the potential to undercut development work, as people become accustomed to handouts. This is tremendously disempowering. Recipients grow passive, since what they may have to offer is not valued. In time they will be dependent on the one offering assistance. On one of my earliest trips to Haiti, I met farmers who couldn’t sell their produce because food was being given away as part of an aid program. Many of them didn’t even bother to plant that year because competing with giveaways seemed futile.
Furthermore, relief can never help people to grow out of poverty, no matter how much money you put into it. One of the most common questions I get is, “why, with all the money that was spent on Haiti after the earthquake, is it still poor?” The answer to that is complicated, but the simplest answer is that putting money into relief and expecting an end to poverty is expecting the impossible.
Effective development, on the other hand, can actually help people to move beyond poverty. In fact we see it happening every day amongst our partners. However, unlike relief, it requires the active participation of the people themselves.
All of the elements of the Plant With Purpose model encourage that participation: Bible study curriculum that helps people to understand that work is a gift and that they have talents and a calling; savings groups that depend not on outside donations, but on the savings of the participants; agricultural experiments that farmers themselves run. Efforts to help the poor that don’t enlist them as leaders and employ their talents and resources are missing the most potent ingredient.
Once people become active participants in change, they can both discover and contribute their own gifts. Possibly the most tangible example of this is the savings that people contribute. New participants frequently don’t believe they have money to save, and truth be told; I didn’t really believe it when we started either. However, groups that didn’t think they could save fifty cents a week have saved thousands of dollars, and collectively they have saved and invested millions of dollars into their own communities.
But there are other, less tangible, ways that they have contributed as well, digging up and employing amazing talents in the process of ending extreme poverty. For example, tree planting and watershed restoration are done on a voluntary basis. People begin to serve and care for their neighbors as an expression of their generosity. They become true partners in the effort to redeem communities and creation. We look forward to transitioning out of the relief and recovery mode in Haiti, and back into a mode where we are better able to free people to use their God-given talents and respond to one another in generosity.