The Disempowerment of Charity {The Grove: Poverty}

It is incredibly challenging to talk about poverty well in an online space. I hope you’ve seen the due diligence poured into the discussions from this week as we have talked about disenfranchised communities from a mostly one-sided perspective.

If you are engaging with Velvet Ashes, it’s likely that you are someone with a deep concern for cross-cultural work. That concern is also likely born out of a genuine desire to illuminate Hope and Light among impoverished people groups.

The natural way to practice our good intentions is to assume a charitable platform and use our wealth and privilege to give generously to others. It’s the path of least resistance, it looks great to our supporters, and it is even defended by verses from the Good Book.

Hardly anyone from our home spaces would push back on charity or non-profit work. And honestly, I’m not here to do that either. There are situations where, no matter how many times we’ve read When Helping Hurts, there is someone who needs a hot meal, a few bucks, or a safe place to sleep.

My family’s adoption would have been impossible without charitable giving. A couple of my businesses would have never gotten off the ground without the backing of donors.

Before I go any further, then, please know that I’m not here to shame non-profit leaders or tell you to stop being generous.

What I would like to discuss with you in the Grove, however, is your experience with charity and its effect on the populations among whom we work.

Last year, my daughter came home from her international school with a new pair of shoes. I was curious about them, so I asked her where she got them.

“The teachers were giving out some new shoes to poor kids,“ she said.

I balked.

Was it true that her regular shoes looked like they had been mauled by a lion, run through the mud, and then drug through the streets on a string attached to the back of my car?

Yes. Yes, they did.

But so does every pair of shoes I buy the presh baby child, and I wasn’t going to keep wasting my money on new footwear simply to await its demise.

There was something about the idea of my own kid being a humanitarian project for her school that sent me into a negative headspace, though. I rejected the notion, and suddenly had a clearer picture of what it feels like on the other side of charitable giving.

There is much evidence suggesting that the way we engage with marginalized communities can either mobilize them further, or it can disenfranchise them further.

Poverty is not an indicator of a person’s character, it is not a marker of his or her intelligence, and it does not determine his or her agency.

Poverty is a state of being. And all too often it is a generational state of being because of systemic injustices that have plagued vulnerable populations.

So, then…what do we do? How do we adjust our behaviors among “the poor” to better serve them?

While I was living overseas, I learned how important a safe job is for women and men looking to take care of their families. I saw how diligently people were seeking out good employers and how the need for an income put many of my neighbors at risk of being exploited for cheap labor. 

My route to obedience was leaving the non-profit sector and learning how to start businesses.  I’d never taken a business course in my life, but people needed work and they wanted to work for someone who would protect them. I was called to stand in the gap. Never in a million years would I have expected to launch three companies during my five years on the field. Obedience is upside-down like that.

The gap you’re standing in may be similar, but it may look much different.

How are you seeking to understand your neighbors in financial hardship? In what ways has living in a developing nation changed your perception of poverty?

If you are in a developed country, how have you seen populations threated by systemic injustice?

Do you agree or disagree that there are better ways to serve impoverished communities than charitable aid?

I’m so looking forward to The Grove this week, reconnecting with many of you and meeting some new faces, as we discuss what it means to place the power of choice back into the hands of those in a state of poverty and watch the Father work miraculous things through their lives.

See you in the comments!

The Grove

We invite you to share in The Grove. You can link up your blog post, or share your practices, ponderings, wisdom, questions, ideas, and creative expressions with us in the comments below.

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  1. Stacy October 25, 2019

    I had a similar experience when our foster kids (whom we were working to adopt) received Christmas shoebox style gifts one year filled with basics like toothbrushes, gloves, and pencils. I felt insulted that someone thought I couldn’t provide those things for my own kids. It made me realize how parents whose kids recieve these boxes all over the world may feel.

    For people working in Africa, the book African Friends and Money Matters has been incredibly helpful for me to understand how my friends here understand money and different social dynamics related to it. I reference something I learned in that book constantly, and I’m so thankful I found it.

    Our mission employs quite a few Malawians, which I agree with you is probably the most empowering way to help people. I struggle in my mind sometimes with the fact that we pay them good and generous salaries for here, and they are all very happy with their jobs and wages, but when I convert it to dollars I realize how little it is compared to wages in America. But that’s like comparing wages and cost of living in rural KY to Manhattan, right? it’s apples and oranges. I have to trust that our majority Malawian board of directors knows best.

    1. Lauren October 30, 2019


      Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply, and your resources! I really want to read that book.

      I share the wrestle with you on exactly the definition of a living wage. Happy to sit with you in that tension anytime. <3

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