I recently had a family member ask my advice about how to choose an international organization that has children feeding programs. She felt convicted to set up regular giving, but didn’t know how to go about determining which organization was effective. She located one that provided rice to school children in a developing country. One thing I suggested to her is to ask the organization where they purchase the rice. The country where the school children live is a rice-producing country; if the rice is purchased and packaged in the US (possibly first grown in another country before being shipped for distrbution to the US) , then shipped for distribution to the children in the developing country, that may alleviate the child’s hunger, but what about the rice farmers in that child’s community? Is it wise to give away free rice in a country where families depend upon growing and selling it to feed their own families? In the long run, will that create more hungry children? Former President Bill Clinton learned this lesson, and in 2010, he made a public apology to Haitians for his trade policy of 1995 with Haiti. In an effort to help feed hungry people, he forced Haiti to drop tariffs on subsidized US rice, which ultimately put countless Haitian rice farmers out of business. In his own words, "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake."
This is just one example of the ways well-intentioned giving can go wrong, but just how does a compassionate person know which international organization to give their hard-earned donations? Here are 4 questions to ask before partnering with an international aid organization:
1. Does the organization have an ongoing relationship with those “in the trenches”? (And are the people in the trenches continuing to ask themselves the hard questions?) If significant funds are provided from the US, a high degree of accountability needs to be present. Is there frequent face-to-face contact between those representing the aid organization and those working on the project internationally?
Example: Actually, this example has occurred in various forms more than once–the following is a hybrid of several conversations I have had. A US friend or acquaintance comes to me and says they have met a Haitian while visiting Haiti, and they have communicated since via phone (or Facebook, or email). The Haitian has a [fill in the blank: children’s home, medical clinic, school] that needs funding. “I feel like I should help them. Should I send them money?“ they ask me.
There are opportunists and “ne’er-do-wells” all over the world, and Haiti is no exception. I would ask: have you seen the project? How much time have you spent there? Years? Weeks? Days? Hours? How well do you know the individual in charge? What does the community around this person think of him/her? What is this person’s plan for long-term sustainability of the project? What are this person’s qualifications to run a project like this? If you can’t answer questions like these, it would be better to invest in a ministry run by someone else you know who can vouch for the project with answers to those questions.
2. Has the organization done its homework with the locals? Before beginning a project, there is significant research to be done in the country to be served.
Example: Someone wants to build a medical clinic in Haiti. Sounds good, right? Have they asked the community if this is something they want? That is a good beginning, for sure. But many organizations stop there. If someone in my US neighborhood asked me if I would like an ice cream shop down the road, would I say yes? I do like ice cream! But what about the city planners? What about other ice cream stores in the area–would this put them out of business? In the medical clinic example, has the organization asked the local leaders? What about the governmental department dedicated to health issues (in Haiti, called MSPP)? Has the organization surveyed the area to determine what other medical services are provided nearby, so as not to duplicate? Are there indigenously-run clinics nearby that could use strengthening, rather than building a new one? We recently had another US organization visit our facility. They had funding and were on the verge of building a brand-new clinic, about 100 yards from ours! Unaware we existed, they began asking locals about nearby facilities. Once they visited ours, they decided to use those funds in another way, that building their clinic would be an unnecessary duplication of services. They did their due diligence.
3. Are the key players in the organization qualified for the project? Effective international organizations understand that they need to partner with locals, because the underlying culture and specific challenges unique to that country are not readily understood by foreigners, even those foreigners living in that country for years on end. Add to that a foreign aid worker working outside of their scope? A recipe for disaster, for sure.
Example: Someone visits Haiti and falls in love with the country and loves the children. After several short-term visits, he/she decides to move to Haiti and open an orphanage, because they love children and want to help Haiti. My questions: does this person have experience/education in the field of child development? Do they have experience with the business end of running an organization? Has this person become educated on best practices of orphan care? Gone to conferences, read books, met with experts? Have they had discussions with the child welfare department of the country’s government (in Haiti, called IBESR)? Have they asked the child welfare department in that country what their future goals are for orphan care? What uniquely qualifies this person to carry out this ministry appropriately?
Some might feel that questions like these take the “faith” part out of the equation. Having lived in Haiti for almost three years now, and working from afar for the 22 years prior, I can tell you that there is plenty more you will encounter living in a developing country that will test your faith! But developing sub-standards programs because you have not adequately prepared yourself is a disservice to those you intended to serve.
4. Is the organization investing in indigenous people and developing a long-term, sustainable plan? Does the ministry provide training as needed, and have a plan over time to turn more and more over to locals? Does the mission continue in the absence of US players on the ground, or are the doors open only when there are foreigners present? Is the organization focused on empowerment or dependence? If the foreign aid workers could never return to that country, would the ministry continue or close its doors?
These four questions are merely a starting point; different areas of ministry have their unique nuances, and answers to the questions above must be combined with knowledge of the particulars for that situation. And for sure, with God, all things are possible! Sometimes God calls us to do things that defy logic because He is in charge, and He knows way beyond what our minds can even comprehend. With each of these questions, as a Christian, we must bathe it all in prayer and look to our Maker for guidance!
Every day that we live in Haiti we learn new things. Every day. Many of the new things are culturally related; we could live the rest of our lives here and still learn new things about the culture each day. But we also learn new and better ways to appropriately and effectively serve God and the people of Haiti. If I had written this blog post 2 years ago, it would have looked different. If I write a similar blog post in another 2 years, I will have learned more, and have new insights. We are all on a journey of discovery, of learning who we are in God’s kingdom, and of how best to serve our Maker. This post is my best attempt to share, out of love, lessons we have learned thus far in our journey, about serving abroad in His name. I pray that as each of us learn more and more about how God wants to use us for His glory, that we give each other grace to learn and grow in Him.