From Dependency to Dignity

Levi Keidel
How can I help people whose dignity and potential are being denied them because of dependency arising from paternalistic giving?

First, I need to terminate any benevolence towards them that fosters dependence on me. This will give rise to accusations that “you don't love us any more.” (In our part of Zaire, such disappointment was coined in a proverb of dismay, using the name of a missionary pioneer famous for his generosity: “Love died with Kuonyi Njila.”)

Thoughtful Zairians today recognize the damage such giving has done. Recently a progressive church leader said, “You missionaries gave us too much. When I bought my car, pastors were begging me to provide them free transportation. I complied. Now the ones whom I helped most are among my strongest adversaries.”

Second, I should help persons find means whereby they can begin to take ownership of their needs. This will help them discover the joy of empowerment that comes with self-reliance.

In Zaire, the husband clears ground for the family garden; then the wife tills the soil, plants and weeds the plot, and harvests the produce. A man with two small daughters came to my house. His wife had died. He had tuberculosis. Would I give him money for food? I complied. Later he came again; I complied. He came again. I needed to break the cycle.

His tubercular condition had not noticeably incapacitated him physically; with regular medication, it was curable. I determined that medication was available for him at the local clinic. I held him accountable to secure it regularly. I learned that a plot of ground was available for him to clear and till. I purchased a hoe and machete for him, and advised him that I wanted to come visit his garden plot, after he had planted the crops. There was no need for him to be shamed for doing the field work of a woman. Zairians have compassion for orphans, and would hold in esteem a man who violated custom to provide food for his motherless children. When his garden began to produce, he no longer needed gifts of money.

On a mission station where we once served, people coming to the local church gave generously. An established church accounting system had engendered their trust. Meanwhile, persons wanting gifts of money were wearing a path to the residences of benevolent missionaries. I asked the local pastor if I could speak with the church council about the need for Christians to care for the poor. He gladly complied. As a result, the church council recognized the need to take ownership of caring for the poor. It established a “box for the needy,” and delegated a trusted deacon to take charge of it.

One-tenth of the weekly offering went into the box. Missionaries were instructed to no longer give money to persons coming to their door, but to direct such persons to the deacon charged with caring for the poor. He could better determine those persons who were genuinely in need. Missionaries were to give their monies either to the weekly church offering, or, if they preferred, as a designated gift directly to the deacon. He gave a monthly accounting of his receipts and disbursements to the church council.

This arrangement assured better stewardship of benevolence funds. It taught believers their biblical responsibility to the needy. It enhanced the self-worth of the church council by taking ownership of its responsibility. It lifted off of missionaries’ shoulders a burden which primarily was not theirs to bear.

Glenn Schwartz, director of World Mission Associates, Reading, England, an organization specializing in issues of dependency and self-reliance, tells about a young African pastor who worked for a North American relief and development agency. He lived in the capital of the country where the organization was seeking to provide food for villagers who did not have a good harvest. The pastor asked the leaders of the agency, “How much do you expect our local people to give towards this drought relief project? After all, the people suffering out in the rural areas are the relatives of those of us who live in thetowns. It is our privilege and responsibility to be the first to be asked to help.” He was told that the agency had a monthly quota to be given away. If it was not, the quota from overseas would be reduced the next month.

The young pastor decided to quit promoting local support for the project. Schwartz says that what happened to that young African is symptomatic of what lies behind the syndrome of dependency in many places where well-meaning Westerners try to help.1

On the other hand, the leader of a denomination in South Africa, while on a fund-raising trip to the United States, responded to God’s word to him that he should not get the money for his church there, but from his own people. At the annual assembly the people gave more than $700,000. When the women made 10 mats, they set aside one for the offering; 20 baskets, two for the church; 30 dresses, three for the assembly.2

In recent years, Christian development agencies have made special efforts to design aid programs in a manner that fosters people’s dignity and self-worth. We who seek to discourage paternalism in our relationships can learn from the programs of such agencies.

One example is the strategy of Medical Ambassadors International (MAI), in existence for two decades, and now active in 19 poorer countries.3

The initiators of an MAI program in a given rural area are a team of trainers, minimally a pastor, a medical person, and an agriculturalist. The training team is organized and prepared by the national director of MAI and an expatriate representative from the home base in California. MAI pays each member of the training team a stipend to cover basic living costs for him and his family, because his responsibilities keep him away from home for much of the time.

The team of trainers, normally accompanied by a local pastor, visits the village chief. They explain to him the program they offer: “We show your fathers and mothers what they can do so that they and their children will have better health. We can help you increase the harvests from your fields. We want to teach you about Jesus Christ, the healer of our bodies and souls.”

If the chief is interested, he calls a meeting of all the people. There the program is explained in detail. If the villages choose to adopt the program, they appoint a local committee of 15 to 20 people. The committee divides the village into areas of 20 to 40 families each. It appoints a trusted, mature person to serve as a Community Health Evangelist (CHE) in each of these areas. The training team requires that CHE appointees:

1. attend intense training sessions two or three afternoons a week for a period of four to six months;

2. model by their own lives what they learn;

3. have their own fields;

4. give one day a week to teach what they have learned to families in their respective areas;

5. report their activities once a month to the village committee;

6. serve without remuneration.

To implement the program, the training team begins regularly scheduled training sessions for the CHEs. They are given all the needed instructional materials. The team teaches them a series of simple lessons in preventative medicine, agriculture, and personal evangelism. It sends them to do practical work assignments in their respective village areas. Normally the assignment of a CHE will be to teach his or her area a social and a spiritual lesson; perhaps, “How to keep a clean kitchen,” and “The origin of sin.” After the CHEs have completed their work assignments, they meet with the team and dialogue about their experiences.

By the end of their training period, their practical work experience has provided them self-motivation. At this time the training team invites the entire village to attend a graduation ceremony where the CHEs are honored, and are awarded certificates. At that point, the village committee takes responsibility for supervising the project. It forwards monthly reports of the CHE’s activities to the training team which is meanwhile introducing the MAI program into othervillages. The training team encourages village CHEs by returning occasionally to give them refresher courses. The regular weekly teaching activities of the CHEs empower people to take ownership of life issues on a personal level.

One training session is devoted to choosing a village project. The training team asks each CHE to hunt for one object which represents a common need that the village people and MAI can work together towards accomplishing. The CHE is to return with this object, and three leaves.

When they reassemble, each CHE in turn, lays his or her object on the ground and explains the need it represents: a water source, a school building, a medical clinic, literacy classes, fertilizer for their communal field, or whatever. Then the CHEs vote by placing their three leaves by the projects they feel are most needed. Then the training team and the CHEs, in collaboration with their villagers, discuss the three projects receiving the most votes, and decide which one they wish to undertake together, first.

For example, where a water source requires damming a stream, MAI might provide two bags of cement; the villagers would provide three bags of cement, carry all the sand and gravel needed, hire persons knowledgeable in dam design and masonry to construct it, and volunteer unskilled labor.

A communal field tilled by members of the village committee empowers them to address a need corporately. The CHEs help the committee members decide where the field is to be located, and those days when they will go together to work in the field. This project generates community spirit and enhances self-worth. It inspires individuals to plant personal gardens around the periphery of the communal plot. Produce is sold, and the proceeds are used to accomplish their previously determined project.

Notice how the strategy of MAI is in keeping with Martin Buber's well-known principle. It avoids one-way giving which fosters an “I-it” relationship. Instead, it enters into the world of needy people, and by sharing their burden, develops a wholesome “I-thou” relationship that leads them towards wholeness of personhood. Thus, people recover dignity, and discover empowerment. They will turn their back on any subsequent paternalistic benevolences.

French ethnologist Marcel Mauss tried to determine why one kind of giving leaves a man in another's debt, disgracing and humiliating him like a bondslave, while another kind of giving raises him to the dignity of genuine personhood. From his study, Mauss formulated what he believed is an inviolable principle: that giving puts in motion a rule by which the thing received is obligatorily returned in kind or intention.4

Dr. John Janzen, a Christian anthropologist who did his doctoral studies in the Congo, says, “Wherever generosity of giving, teaching, and helping is of an unconditional character, the recipient must be able to return the gift or some equivalent in order to remain his own respectable self. Otherwise, he will begin seeing himself as inferior to the giver; his personal sense of worth is downgraded, and instead of being grateful, he will be bitter. This set of forces is very much misunderstood in many missions programs today.”5

Suppose that you, by means of a gift, address an important need in the life of one less fortunate than yourself. Following the above principle, you could help such a person maintain self-respect by suggesting that someday he or she might find occasion to reciprocate the favor. You must be prepared to receive with thanksgiving whatever gift your beneficiary offers. In Zaire this could be produce from a field, two eggs, a pigeon, or being made hero for a day by a big village feast.

For example, while living in a large city in Zaire, I frequently conducted Sunday services in the provincial prison. On one such occasion I met a man from a distant tribal area where I had once lived. He had been involved in the tumultuous events connected with the coming of political independence, and was arrested on a murder charge. He was imprisoned,and apparently forgotten. Now, two years later, he pleaded that I bring his case to the attention of the authorities.

I visited the government's prosecuting attorney. He checked the files and could find no record of this prisoner's case. Inasmuch as there was no reason for detaining the man, the attorney issued an order for his release. Later at my home the man told me, “Speaker, if God hadn't put love in your heart, I'd have stayed in that place forgotten forever.” I suggested that someday when I arrived at his village, we might have a feast of celebration.

He didn’t wait. Some weeks later a stranger arrived at my home in the city. It was my friend’s representative. This man had ridden in the open beds of trucks over rough roads for a distance of more than 200 miles to deliver my gift: a live pig.

In another example, a Zairian chief came to a missionary doctor to ask for glasses. But the thought of how a gift of glasses would indebt him to the doctor threatened his sense of personal integrity. So he was reluctant to make an outright request. After lengthy casual visiting, the doctor came to understand the problem. So he asked the chief to do him a favor. The chief consented. This opened the way for the chief to ask the doctor for a favor in return: a pair of glasses.6

You may ask, Didn't Jesus say to give, expecting nothing in return (Lk. 6:30ff)? How is it that you say we should give, and suggest reciprocation? It seems to me Jesus warned us against a kind of giving that has a selfish motive hidden within it; a kind of giving that is generous only because I expect something in return: a posted bronze plaque, or an identifying name-plate; a kind of giving which is a subtle form of self-serving. He sternly rebuked people for this kind of “showmanship giving” (Matt. 6).

If I suggest the person give me something in return, it is not to memorialize myself. Rather, it is to help preserve the person's dignity and self-worth. A woman of ill repute expressed her love and gratitude for Jesus by washing his feet with her hair in public. Jesus praised and affirmed her (Lk. 7:36-48). Jesus’ giving was never self-serving. His entire public ministry was an abandoned giving of himself to others, in a manner that made them completely whole.

How fraught with potential is a gift! How awesome the responsibility of Western missionaries who serve among less-privileged people! Our well-intentioned efforts to help can either violate people’s right to wholeness by perpetuating their dependency, or can free and empower them, restoring dignity to them.

1. Transition Notes, World Mission Associates, Reading, England, November, 1995.
2. Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January, 1994, p. 36.
3. Medical Ambassadors International, P.O. Box 576645, Modesto, Calif. 95357-6645.
4. Marcel Mauss, Essai sur le Don (Paris: University of France, 1960).
5. Jantzen, op. cit., p. 16.
6. Ibid., p. 14.


Levi Keidel served in Zaire for 30 years with Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. Now retired, he lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This article is a chapter from his book, Conflict or Connection: Interpersonal Relationships in Cross-cultural Settings. His book is available from EMIS at

EMQ, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 42-47. Copyright © 1997 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.
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