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Why Giving Sometimes Hurts

When it comes to charity, we all want to help.

But sometimes our "help" turns out to be more of a hindrance.

When I was young, my church organized an annual clothing drive. Our bulletins announced the collection date, and over the course of several weeks, people added their hand-me-downs to the stockpile.

Charity seemed easy as we prepared various articles of clothing for shipping overseas. All we had to do was provide the old clothes we'd never wear again, and some organization would ensure that our clothes were sent to the needy, and put to good use once more.

But now, I'm skeptical that this was the right way to help. I mean Jesus did say if someone is naked we should clothe him (Matthew 25:36), but I wonder how many people we sent clothing to were actually walking around in nothing.

Earlier this year, my work involved me with a book project in Liberia. Donors from American schools shipped pallets of free text books to our organization to be distributed to Liberian primary schools. It was generous, and that can’t be faulted. But here are a few problems. Aside from the culturally irrelevant content, Liberian educators don’t have the capacity to implement the benchmarks of western curriculum. Handing out free textbooks in a country like this tempts people turn around and sell them, or bribe parents with inflated school fees. A gift like this means disincentive for locals to design curriculum of their own, which would prove far more helpful in the long haul as it would create jobs, be culturally competent and self-sustaining.

What we really do when we send bulk clothing, shoes, books, and other items to poor countries is saturate their market with "stuff." By giving stuff away, we're taught to think we’re meeting needs, and in essence fighting poverty.

What it really means is that many times, we're actually perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Some argue it's not about outcomes; that as Christians our responsibility is simply to give. Many times we think as long as the sender's heart is in the right place, then charitable donations are good. However, I want to challenge us (as senders) to consider is how we might offer more than just good intentions. I want us to consider how we might really help to alleviate poverty.

For starters, it has nothing to do with giving away our old stuff.

Sending poor people our stuff does nothing to solve the problem of poverty. It might solve the problem of “shoelessness” or “shirtlessness,” but it does not address the roots of poverty which are deep-seated in government corruption, inaccess to social power, inequality, racism and intolerance, tribalism, disease, and unemployment.

A flood of charity may actually create famine in terms of the local job market. Sending our stuff strips power from local entrepreneurs and manufacturers, and cripples the local economy. Why buy locally, when one could get something from overseas for half the price or even free? When we try to "help" in this way, local economies and people are not being empowered.

Before we give stuff away, let’s contact local missionaries or churches and ask what is really needed. Let’s ask if our gift will help or hurt someone's job. Let’s ask if it's culturally appropriate. Let’s always be prayerful and ask God to direct our giving.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with giving, the Bible even calls us to, but what and how we give is a reflection of our care for the poor. Let’s make sure we’re giving responsibly.

Steffani Taylor

 Steffani is serving her second year with Samaritan's Purse in Liberia.

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