There are two ways to approach the devastating needs in the developing world. Each approach carries with it a set of ideas, principles, worldviews, and biblical understanding. These two models are generically titled “relief” and “development.” For much of the nineteenth and twentieth century, missions was operated under the general assumption of relief. Relief work looks at a hungry family and states that the solution is to give them food. The problem is obvious, a lack of food and the solution is obvious, food. However, under the development model, the solution shifts slightly. While the problem is still obvious, a lack of food, the solution is not simply to feed the family. Because, while that is very beneficial today, it does not solve the problem. Tomorrow the family will be hungry again. Instead, development looks for a solution to the problem by asking why the family does not have food. Do they simply lack the money to buy food? Then the issue is money usage, budgeting, etc. Development seeks to offer the family a way of learning about money in a way that provides enough cash to eat daily. Is the issue a lack of agricultural understanding in how to grow food? Then development seeks to offer skillset learning to teach the family how to properly grow the food they need to exist. Is the problem a lack of a job to offer income? Development seeks to offer vocational training so that the family can provide the income needed.
I have been very fortunate to have worked for two African organizations that prioritize development. Currently Namikango Mission’s philosophy is to develop individuals, families, churches and communities, empowering them to help themselves and discover their own solutions without dependency on foreign aid and money. This is evident in our Village Savings and Loans program, which does not offer groups outside money for loans, but asks the groups to discover the money amongst themselves. It is evident in the farming initiatives we undertake around the country, teaching agricultural practices that promise healthier harvests. It is evident in our education initiatives, where we seek to strengthen church leaders to handle the events and problems that arise in their congregations. Development works well, and in the long run offers communities not just another hand out, but a new worldview in which they (and their communities) are strong enough to solve their own problems without us. The joke is that development workers are constantly trying to work themselves out of a job.
However, relief aid cannot simply be cast aside as an antiquated approach, but can be useful in certain situations. For Malawi, a country that is frequently rocked by famine and drought, food can become a scares commodity even in communities that practice good farming. In more recent years, a parasitical worm has invaded the country, decimating healthy fields and leaving large areas of the country exposed to poor harvests. In these cases, development struggles and relief steps up. When people are starving now, classes on how to protect against army worm during next harvest become inconsequential.
A delegation from Eastern Malawi visited the Bible Team last week, bringing news of a small village on the island of Chisi in lake Chilwa. This village has no food, with no prospects for a harvest in the next few months. Already several women and children have died, and the situation is only worsening. Several churches in the East have been sending supplies to the island as they are able, but cannot meet the need in its entirety or indefinitely. After all, their congregations are also entering a period of less food as we wait for the rains to begin another planting season. The delegation asked if Namikango could help in some way to alleviate the hunger on Chisi.
The staff at Namikango immediately swung into action, taking up a collection of food and money for the church on Chisi. Likewise, Thondwe Church of Christ also contributed food to the cause. Finally, the mission agreed to send two trucks full of maize, nearly 5,180 pounds, for immediate relief. On 19 November the two truckloads were taken out to the island and distributed among the villagers there. Each family was given 55 pounds of maize and some salt. The villagers were incredibly grateful, singing songs and shaking our hands as we distributed the food. While happy that we were able to help, we left the island aware that 55 pounds of food will not go far in most families, and that the hunger issues will continue for several more months on Chisi.