Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More thoughts on Haiti... and disaster response

I've been thinking more these last few days about Haiti and about "our" response to disaster. I think I've mentioned - probably more than once - a great little book by Sabine Alkire and Edmund Newell entitled What Can One Person Do?. In this book, the authors spell out what they call the spiritual phases of engagement: compassion, responsibility, respect, humility and dependence. A very quick review:

1. compassion is about feeling badly for people who are suffering - it's an important emotional identification, but an entry level response. We watch the news or ads that depict the life circumstances of people a world away and our heart aches for their suffering. These feelings may lead us to pray and to give. We Christians sometimes feel that such actions are part of our Christian duty - that God calls us to be compassionate and so, in praying and giving, we are representing Christ and doing his work on earth. Nothing wrong with this, but remember - it's ENTRY LEVEL...

2. responsibility is about seeing the connection between the suffering of others and the lifestyle of affluence that gives us the luxury of not worrying about where our daily bread will come from, or whether or not our children will have the opportunity to go to school, or whether our house will fall in on us during the night. It's about understanding how the global economy works and how the distribution of resources favors some and exploits others. You may think this sounds like the ramblings of a bleeding heart socialist... Maybe so - but think about it. How else can you explain the incredible disparities between the haves and the have nots of this world? Surely we can't really believe that the billions of people who barely survive on a dollar or two a day, are all just incredibly lazy or stupid?! Responsibility is a tough pill to swallow.

3. respect is really believing that EVERY human being is created in the image of God and is worthy of dignity and life and hope - respect. It's about really and truly loving our neighbour as we love ourselves and doing unto them as we would have them do unto us, if THEY had all the advantages a strong economy provides, and we had the poverty and drought and exploitative market conditions.

4. humility is about realizing that we can't do everything - we can't singlehandedly solve the problem of poverty, or of ignorance, or of greed. We can't do it all, but we CAN do something. We can feel compassion and we can accept responsibility. We can enter into life in a way that respects people as a starting point. We can decide to live simply, justly, and faithfully and we can lean into that decision, content in the knowledge that that is what God expects of us - no more and no less.

5. dependence is about realizing that God is in control. He is building his kingdom. Sometimes we may have a hard time seeing it, but as we learn to train our vision - to look past the immediate and superficial layers of the political, social, economic and ecological order - God is at work. Ok, so seeing it may actually require an a priori step of believing that God IS and that he is good and true to his word. I'm good with that.

So all this is a preface to saying this: I think that we respond to disasters because it lets us slip in, somewhere between phase one - compassion - and phase two - responsibility. You see, an earthquake or a tsunami or a hurricane or even a terrorist attack, is nobody's fault. Natural disasters happen - wrong place at the wrong time and it could be any one of us buried beneath a building or looking for our loved ones in the rubble. Terrorist attacks are a little different, but even so - the victims are random and could therefore be us. So, we rise up - we dig deep into our wallets - we send money - we pray - we talk about it over coffee - we mourn. But here's what I think: we don't feel responsible! We actually let ourselves OFF the hook and focus on just what's in front of us - incredible, heart-wrenching, horrendous NEED.

I just heard the tail end of an interview on CBC radio with a woman who has written a book about disaster responses and she made the point that sometimes the aim of disaster response is to get a situation back to "normal". Normal in Haiti wasn't a particularly good place to be - poorest country in the western hemisphere and all! - so she pointed out that the possibility exists that all of this outpouring of compassion and cash COULD actually aim higher than "normal" and, in the long run, maybe help the Haiti and Haitians that are left to define a new and better "normal". And, come to think of it, isn't that what development is about.

The Sharing Way - and many other faith based development agencies - take our money AND our sense of responsibility - and invest them in the hard and slow work of building capacity, developing leadership, planting and carefully tending seeds of hope, and perhaps most important of all, demonstrating in very tangible ways the love of Christ and the amazing way that his kingdom binds us together across continents and conditions and crises. See http://www.cbmin.org/cbm/hunger-for-change for this year's annual project and for resources to help you understand the need and the response...

So I say again - YES, GIVE TO EMERGENCY RESPONSE FUNDS - but when the media moves on and Haiti fades from our immediate view, keep giving, to the development projects that help the poor find their way out of the rubble of poverty.

And, since poverty isn't just about money and stuff - start weeding your own garden and root out the attitudes and practices that allow you to hide behind your affluence and avoid taking that giant step from compassion to responsibility!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti... and thoughts on relief and development

I know that I said my next posting would be on my personal millennium development goals - and I've been pondering how to do that exactly (it's not as easy as you might think!)- but I'm going to defer that until "next time".

Like most of you, I can't help thinking about the unimaginable horrors in Haiti following the massive earthquake on January 10/10 and numerous serious aftershocks. I'm receiving emails - a dozen or more every day - from agencies who are gathering money to help finance the emergency relief efforts in Haiti. I stopped to pick up a few bananas at an Irving gas station yesterday and was asked if I would donate a dollar for the Haiti emergency relief fund and Irving will match that dollar. Our Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is also offering matching grants, up to $50 million, for Haiti. Other groups are organizing fund raising events - from bake sales to benefit concerts - all to help this country which has been touted as the poorest country in the western hemisphere - and that was BEFORE this latest crisis!

So all this fundraising sounds well and good and it really is encouraging to see people respond to the very obvious and critical needs of this battered country. But I can't help wondering if massive injections of money to Haiti at this point is the best response we can give. Yes - Haitians need food and water and medical care, NOW. But there are obviously going to be longer term needs too. And how many points of entry can there be for funds to be used effectively? How can funds be most strategically administered in a country with a severely crippled infrastructure? Will emergency aid, literally dropped into Haiti, cause more problems than it solves? These are not rhetorical questions. And, given persistent and growing concerns about climate change, is there going to come a point when some places in the world are deemed to be "uninhabitable" and rather than rebuilding, efforts will be on relocating survivors to other places? Are we prepared to even think about that?

If we have money to give - and I seriously hope that you do - is this the best option? The best way to give?

PLEASE - before I write another word and before you read the rest of this posting - I want you to promise that you will NOT use this posting as a justification for holding onto any cash that you have thought about donating to Haiti or some other aid or development fund. Seriously. I'm in no way suggesting that Haiti is not a worthy cause. But the fact is, Haiti was a worthy cause BEFORE the earthquake and Haiti is but one of hundreds of worthy causes if we want to invest in initiatives aimed at reducing misery.

The fact is, charitable giving is taking a hit with the current economic uncertainties (as if there are ever "certainties" when it comes to the economy!). At Canadian Baptist Ministries, for example, giving to The Sharing Way (our relief and development fund) is down and sadly, innovative and successful programs that we've supported for years are in danger of being abandoned for lack of funding. These are the programs that rely on consistent, monthly - often small - donations. You won't hear about them in the news and most of them don't get matching grants. They rely on our faithfulness month in and month out. And the sad news is that every time an individual or church decides that they can no longer afford to support these programs, the ball rolls back. Hope - for real people - may dim or even be extinguished. As I've written before, hope is an amazing thing and it's often incredibly resilient, but it's a tragedy when hope is kindled through some innovative program and then funding for that program is cut before the program has had a chance to bear fruit.

I guess the bottom line is this: if we have the ability and desire to give, we need to give consistently and strategically and collaboratively - and my hope is that we will also learn to give sacrificially. That is - we will develop a habit of putting the survival needs of other people ahead of things that we might like to have that would make our comfortable lives even more comfortable. Mahatma Gandhi said it well when he said: Live simply so that others may simply live. We need to give for the long haul. And we need to give for BOTH emergency relief AND ongoing development.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

No New Year's Resolutions for me .. just a tweaking of priorities!

Another New Year's Day has come and gone. Out with the old and in with the new. Even time feels somehow disposable. I confess that this year I didn't even give the making of New Year's resolutions a moment's thought. Just as well - if I HAD made any resolutions, I'd likely be feeling guilty - or at least sheepish - for failing already. Why is it that it's so obvious to us what we SHOULD be doing - with our time, our money, our access to food, our health, our relationships, our faith, our LIFE - but so hard to maintain consistency over the long haul? Never mind. I'm sure there are lots of explanations, none of which will inspire me to a better life.

Somewhere in the shallow recesses of my memory, is the answer a young girl gave to a reporter who asked her what she wanted to do in 2010. Her answer - simply to be "nicer". She went on to say that "I'm already pretty nice but I just want to be nicer". I love it! The simplicity and clarity of youth! What if we all resolved to be nicer, and then figured out what that would mean in our day to day interactions and negotiations? It's a pretty vague goal - hard to measure and pretty subjective - but still a goal worth setting, I think.

In fact, as compared to business models that are based on a results based approach, or even an approach to life that is purpose driven, I'd like to suggest that humanity would be well served if we opted instead for a character based approach to life and all its layers. I'm defining character according to qualities like integrity, trustworthiness, loyalty, honesty, diligence, humility, generosity - and yes, general niceness.

If I were to identify a goal for 2010 - and even for the rest of my natural life, however long that may be, it would be to be more fully human. I want to lean in to life - to live in a way that challenges ALL of my senses and ALL of my potential and ALL of my energy. Not recklessly or sporadically, but consistently and sustainably. I want to embrace life and live it in the company of others who also want to embrace it. Embrace it, not milk it or exploit it or deplete it. I want to take out and give back. I want to make the world a BETTER place - a more just place, a more human place. I don't want to waste time feeling guilty - for the advantages that I have inherited - or sorry - for the disadvantages that others have inherited. It's a luxury to be able to choose how I will live. So be it. I HAVE the luxury and I don't want to squander it. To do so when others are literally dying for lack of it would be inexcusable and wrong.

I have spoken about the United Nations Millennium Development Goals before - a set of 8 goals agreed to by 192 Nations at the turn of the century. Goals with specific targets to be achieved by the year 2015, which, if accomplished, would go a long way toward alleviating the most horrendous manifestations of poverty and suffering in the world. Many of us are working away, trying to hold our governments responsible to the commitments that they have made on our behalf. But it's easy to point fingers - maybe a bit more difficult to figure out a way that WE can adjust our living. A way that we can "live simply so that others may simply live." There's a wonderful book by Yann Arthus-Bertrand entitled Home: A Hymn to the Planet and Humanity (2009) (see http://www.yannarthusbertrand.org/). Yann Arthus-Bertrand is famous for his photographs AND his commitment to raising awareness about the challenges facing humanity. It's a great book and there's also a film by the same name (which you can watch online for free at http://www.youtube.com/homeprojectFR#p/f/1/jqxENMKaeCU). At the beginning of the book, Yann says this:

Every day, we are assailed by bad news: hunger is growing, the climate is affected, species are dying out, resources such as water, oil, and metals are dwindling, and we are on the brink of a worldwide economic crisis. And yet most of us have not changed at all. We read the many reports from the scientists and economists, but still we continue down the same path as if we were suddenly struck by some inescapable intellectual blindness. It is as if, although we know about it, we just don't want to believe it.

One of my students at St. Stephen's University - Kyle Jaster - submitted, as his last journal assignment, a tongue in cheek suggestion for some North American Millennium Development Goals. I think he's onto something! Here they are -

Goal 1- Halve Obesity Goal 2- Halve the number of Chains (Restaurants/ stores) Goal 3- Stop exploiting other peoples land Goal 4- Halve the salaries of top 10% of the population Goal 5- Halve the number of lies told in the media Goal 6- All politicians must take ‘loving my international neighbour 101’ Goal 7- Put on 50% more clothing Goal 8- Think about 2 people a day other than yourself

Ok - so chuckle but then figure out how YOU are going to lean into this life you've been given! And maybe spend a little time coming up with your very own Millennium Development Goals. Some wise (and anonymous) person has said that if you aim at nothing you will hit it every time (or something like that!). Seriously, I'm going to begin working on my MDGs - I'll let you know what I come up with next time!