“Helping” is a very complicated business

By Guest Writer Haron Wachira

After a week of tours around projects in Kakuma, Turkana, my final thoughts were sombre. “Helping” is a very complicated business, I reflected as I took my position at the front in the hall from where I was to address our staff. These people – our drivers, field officers, office staff — are my heroes of the week.

They brave temperatures of up to 40°C to deliver services to needy refugees and in villages in the host community for days on end and still manage to find the motivation to soldier on in spite of daily witnessing what nearly broke my heart during my short, week-long tour: a solar powered water abstraction and distribution system that has to be guarded 24/7, lest components from the solar pump be stolen for sale elsewhere and the steel as scrap metal; 20 small scale Burundian farmers who now have to water their tiny plots manually, using a foot-peddled pump because their well’s pump was vandalized.

When I asked a biogas operator in one project why scaling up is slow, he’d told me, “Because the beneficiaries do not want to pay Shs 10 per day” (to sustain administration of the feedstock, the leaves of the mathenge (prosopis julisflora) tree. But they pay way more to buy firewood when the gas supply is disconnected for non-payment. Disconnection, to them, is horribly inhuman, because the system was built with donor funds. The service should be free, they argue.

During my week in Kakuma, I also paid a courtesy call to another hero, UNHCR’s Head of Sub-office, Tayyar Sukru Cansizoglu, an insightful Japanese, a man from another country but who is doing a great work in a foreign country. “I am open to (the establishment of) partnerships that extend services to the local community,” he told me.

For example, he said, teaching the host community to make briquettes that they then sell into the refugee camps. That way, the hosts will then recognize the benefit of hosting the camp. All over, I had been hearing the complaints in the hosts’ villages, that refugees are better taken care of than the hosts.

Well, why is it so difficult to help our fellow human beings? Frankly, the answer has to be bluntly this: because they, and us, are all human. Or, as the Bible would more accurately describe us, sinners. Our sinful tendencies complicate all situations. We steal from even the vulnerable.

In town we jump traffic lights. We molest children. We take advantage of the poor. Our policemen and magistrates ask for bribes to help the wicked escape punishment. And at personal level destroy ourselves by smoking ourselves till we die of cancer or take drugs that mill our brains’ capacity.

In my talk to our staff at Kakuma I proposed a three-pronged proposition that I thought could help those working in adverse environments such as Kakuma, a philosophy of service to keep ourselves sane and motivated in spite of the unpropitious reactions in the contexts in which we are seeking positive change.

First, the human factor. 

Don’t seek appreciation or respect from those you are trying to help. Like a drowning man, they will kick, grab, pull, and push. Some may insult you, or think that you are helping with a selfish motive (which may be true for some “helpers”). They are just being human, like you also do in other circumstances. Instead, seek your motivation from God, or from the agency that sent you there.

I first came upon that realisation from Larry Crabb’s The Marriage Builder, in which he argues convincingly that, within the marriage context, spouses who seek to have their partners meet their deepest needs—security and significance—will ultimately be frustrated. To meet those needs, says Crabb, we need to turn to the Lord, rather than our spouse. How true also in every situation where we relate with or serve other people!

Then the envy effect. 

To change the status quo in a social-cultural group, your value proposition must succeed enough to be envied. Imagine a situation where you want refugees to overcome the begging mentality, for example. Focus on a few, carefully profiled individuals or families.

Help them set up a business, or a small, successful farming plot. Involve the whole family: the father & mother (to run the business), children (to start going to school). All seen around wearing shoes with money from their own business will cause envy among neighbours who will in turn want to wear shoes and take their children to school.

Your challenge: finding the time to develop the model, because donors like “quick wins”. But the lesson remains: In community development, instead of mobilising large numbers of people (the mob) who will introduce politics, you are best advised to focus on a small group that you will see through to success. Once envied, they will be copied.

And, finally, the demo effect. This one is for those you want to win as partners. They need to see a finished product, an example, a proof of concept. Banks fund businesses that are proven. Donors want to see the demonstration of a model that can be scaled. Partners want to join in a successful proposition. So, yes, do the donkey work till you have a successful demo, then invite the participation of partners.

There is something else I saw in the camp that I think should inform all our programs. Driving through a long stretch which hosts different communities, each one in their respective section, I could not help noticing how prosperous the traders in the Somalis section were, and how poor their neighbours (other communities) were. Why, I asked: “Because the Somalis know business.” And why can’t the other communities learn from the Somalis? I asked. I got a cheeky smile as a reply. The lesson: All — people and communities — are all different.

Well, then, don’t drive your development, or “helping” agenda with the attitude that if one solution works in one place or among a certain people, it will work the same elsewhere. We can borrow a leaf from The Peace Child, in which Don Richardson tells the story of his missionary work among the Sawi, and how he first got a huge shock when he told them of the story of Jesus Christ and His disciples and Judas connected with them way better than the Lord. Reason: their culture celebrated deceit. Until he found the key to the positioning of his biblical message of Jesus Christ’s merciful offer of peace and salvation.

What was the key? The Sawi had, in their culture, a concept of exchanging a peace child. As long as the peace child lived, there would be no deceit among the parties. He told them that Jesus Christ is God’s peace child to us, a lost and deceitful people in the world, and the Sawi’s responded positively!

My point: Be conscious of cultural and individual differences and explore ways of contextualising your work in the culture accordingly.