When we work in ministry and mission projects cross culturally, it is easy to create dependency. For instance, when we attempt to help a struggling pastor overseas, we can be moved with compassion but actually do more harm than help. We provide “things” for him and his family, but in the process, we create friction in his community and church because we have singled him out for help. We also create a tendency in him to look to us for his support and not to the local church and ultimately God.
So, in our experience, how do we avoid potential dependency issues?
1. Don’t do things for others that they can do themselves.
This sounds simple but it is one of the basic tenets of avoiding dependency. We, the outsiders, are automatically seen as experts. Nationals often expect the government or outsiders to solve their problems for them. When we enter a new area, we always start a mentoring process including prayer, sharing Biblical principles, and community development. Before teaching the tools of community development we are frequently asked, “Well, what can we do? We are poor.” Our reply is, “What would you like to do?” After teaching the tools, the community realizes they can do more than they ever thought. We have found the simple art of asking questions helps others to learn to think for themselves.
2. Involve the local people in the whole project from design to implementation to completion.
Make sure the community owns the project from the beginning to the end. Not long ago, the president of a local community called us and said, “I attended your Community Development Training 1 year ago. I have done everything you taught us to do. Could you come and help us know what to do next?” Her entire leadership committee met with us. They had a very specific plan for a water project! A government engineer drew up the plan and the community was to do all the labor. They only needed resources to purchase the tubing needed.
BGR was able to assist with the resources needed for this water project, but the community leadership supervised, implemented and evaluated the entire process. Afterwards, the community had a large celebration in the rain to celebrate what THEY had done!
3. Learn the local language and culture or work with a trusted local partner.
This will help you avoid statements or promises that would create unrealistic expectations with your target group/community. For example, many indigenous people groups in our area utilize a different decision making process which is often misunderstood by outsiders. Once at a training we asked why one of the indigenous groups did not participate. A young man in the group explained, “We listen, think, and then decide.” A new student, not from the indigenous group, joined this group for a training exercise. She immediately took control and completed the assignment in 10 minutes. Although she was from the same country, she, too, did not understand the indigenous decision making process. This group is reserved and quiet which is seen as indecision by outsiders, causing us to feel the need to take control. As an outsider, we must take time to learn the culture before taking control or making decisions.
We hope that these tips are helpful as you navigate community development among new people groups! Avoiding dependency will create sustainable, life-changing impact in communities.
David and Jo Brown have served as the BGR Americas Directors for 8 years. They work with national partners and US volunteers to implement community development projects in the Americas (Central America, South America, Caribbean and Mexico).