Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Determining motives for giving

I was put into a fairly uncomfortable situation today. Some time ago I received a phone call from a certain pastor in Swaziland who has a lot of connections in high places. He had heard that the Embassy of one of the Asian countries represented in Swaziland was planning to give out food and he wanted to know whether we had the infrastructure to distribute 25 metric tons of food in the area where we work. That’s approximately 55000 pounds. The way that we are working, with different projects in different communities, each with it’s own committee and coordinator, does make it fairly easy to distribute food and clothing within these areas and obviously 25 metric tons of food would fill many stomachs.
It is what happened afterwards that started frustrating me. The 25 tons of food was reduced to 5 tons of rice. We have at the present stage 400 volunteers in our AIDS home-based caring project, taking care of between 1500 and 1600 people. This means, if each volunteer and each client had to receive some of the rice, they would each receive 2.5 kilogram (about 5 pounds) of rice. And without wanting to sound ungrateful (and I do realise that for anyone suffering from hunger, even this small amount of rice will be a huge blessing) – this is not going to make a big difference in the circumstances in which the majority of people in Swaziland are living. But then, the thing that really frustrated me, was the media coverage that had been arranged for the occasion. Obviously, because the ambassador was there, it was considered as a very important occasion. All the newspapers of Swaziland were represented at the occasion (both of them!) and all the TV channels sent reporters (both of them!) to cover this moment when the 167 bags of rice were being handed over to us.
Throughout the entire ceremony I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that this was much more about propaganda than about really caring for the people of Swaziland. I spent a lot of time with the ambassador today, listening to his motives, but without being convinced that this was an honest attempt to really make a difference to the circumstances of the needy people in Swaziland. Hundreds of photos were taken, TV news interviews were conducted. In my own interview I decided to concentrate much more on the story of how God had miraculously provided us with so many things that we had needed up to now and that this ministry has truly become a faith ministry. (We can’t see Swazi TV where we live, so I am wondering how much of this will be shown on TV.)
I’m still trying to sort out my own feelings – the reason why I wrote about this. I’m not unthankful. But I can’t help feeling uncomfortable by the way in which this presentation was handled today. Perhaps it was just too much exposure to something that wasn’t really going to make a difference to people on the long run. I think I’ve seen much more important and life-changing things happening during the past few years, without any media exposure at all.
Possibly my lack of enthusiasm was caused by the fact that there had been absolutely no building of relationships today. And this has always been one of the biggest problems in mission: Handing out material goods to people with whom you have no desire to build a relationship.

Thursday, February 12, 2009 - Posted by | AIDS, Building relations, Cross-cultural experiences, Disappointments, Giving, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Mission, Partnership, Poverty, Social issues, Swaziland


  1. I’m glad you shared this story. It brings up a lot of issues which I’ve seen and experienced as well. It is basically exploitation. But it’s hard because the people doing it probably don’t realize it or don’t understand what they are doing. In the world of increasing media coverage I often wonder if eventually every ministry will need a PR person to DEFLECT media coverage and make sure the message that people hear and see about the ministry is actually what it is doing.

    Comment by Michelle | Friday, February 13, 2009 | Reply

  2. I understand the discomfort. But isn’t the issue of motive something that is for God to deal with? I think about Paul’s words to the Philippians (1:18). I’ve heard many people disparage Oprah and Bono and other celebrities about their humanitarian work, questioning motive. When I hear these things I think God is just as upset by a judgmental spirit (not that your post sounds judgmental Arnau) as He would be with a less than altruistic motive on the part of a celebrity. There are probably many other things that break His heart more. Plus, I think these examples (in America) are celebrities leveraging their influence to motivate the rest of us to get engaged. And that is a good motive.

    With this example, even with a poor motive, does it not publicize the importance of good works? Your ministry shows that even poor Swazi people have very much to give. And even though the providers of the food made no attempt for relationship, the deliverers did (your community care givers). This is who the recipients will remember I think.

    I was recently in a heated discussion with a ministry partner with whom I differ greatly in philosophy of our mission efforts. I mentioned my desire to bring WAPIs to Swaziland (water pasteurization indicators that can show when water has become safely drinkable after sitting for a time in the sun). It happens that a Rotary Volunteer Service Grant might be available to cover the cost of travel if WAPIs are part of our work the next trip to Swaziland. In the heat of our discussion he said “the only reason you are interested in WAPIs is to get a free trip to Swaziland.” His disagreement with my ideas about method didn’t hurt one bit, his questioning of my motive cut to the quick.


    Comment by Wendi Hammond | Friday, February 13, 2009 | Reply

  3. Michelle, I agree absolutely that they most probably did not know that they were hurting people in the process. And it’s so frustrating that you cannot tell someone in the position of an ambassador that they need to rethink their way of giving.

    Wendi, thanks for your remark. I can fully understand why you were hurt by this person’s comment. I was traveling by car yesterday and today, accompanied by our main trainer, who had also been present during the ceremony. I didn’t even realise it, but at one stage the entire group of people went into the church and discussed their work, because they felt that the donors were in any case not interested in them and were much more focused on posing for photographs which would appear in the newspapers. They were really hurt by their attitude. But as Michelle said, they really did not know what they were doing.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Saturday, February 14, 2009 | Reply

  4. […] Tom wrote about this and got my mind going again, my father wrote about this a few weeks ago. Both of them work much closer with the poor, have real relationships, friendships with the poor, […]

    Pingback by rich and poor - thanx Tom! « my contemplations | Tuesday, March 10, 2009 | Reply

  5. Amen and Amen!

    So often it is all about photo-ops. I have many times told our bishop that he should not take old clothes to give away when he is visiting a congregation he had never visited before, to give out indiscriminately so that those who really need clothing never get it. And the next time he comes most of the people he meets will be second-hand clothes dealers.

    Comment by Steve | Tuesday, March 10, 2009 | Reply

  6. I was interested in the discussions here because it is so similar to what I had to process with my community recently, summarized in this letter I sent to the organization:
    Why Did You Do That?

    There is yet another grisly news of mass killing this morning, the massacre at Fort Hood. This week we heard about the serial rapist and killer with his mass graves right in his neighbor’s backyard. The media are in a frenzy interviewing experts who can shed light on the motives of the killers. We like to understand so the act will make sense to us, so we can classify it among the myriad values and attitudes that we have formed, learned from our own life experiences and observations. If we can’t classify it we are bewildered, confused. We won’t be at ease until we peg this action into something familiar, then we can set it aside and move on, satisfied in our understanding. You see, the measure of our understanding is limited by what we are able to process as familiar. Yes, there are experiences that we share as members of a group, a culture, a country, but as individuals, we are only ourselves, and another’s schemata of a good life may be our despair, or the demise of our soul.

    I often wonder about the motives of those who act in the name of charity. We are self righteous in examining the motives of criminals, do we dare examine the motives of those who volunteer in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, those who entertain “senior dependents”, those who volunteer in medical missions, those who feed the children in Africa, those who topple regimes, those who impose political ideology on a people?

    People who do bad things and good things have many things in common, often their motives are the same. Take the father who sexually molests his daughter, his motive is no different from any solicitous father,i.e., to teach his daughter about life. The parents of a pregnant teenager feel right in pressuring for marriage or adoption or abortion, against the preference of their daughter, what is their motive? Often protective, to spare their daughter a life of grief. Or the tourist who gives money or gifts to children in 3rd world countries, they feel sorry for these children and want to give them some happiness. Instead they have conditioned these children to become beggars and opportunists, and now consider them an annoyance in travel. The benevolent motive by the Spaniards of christianizing the Philippines and replacing its indigenous culture with their European civilization, killed the Filipino soul. Do we really understand the people of Iraq and Afghanistan to direct that democracy is good for them?

    All I’m saying is that we should be very clear with our motives, because we can hurt with good intentions. The medical mission volunteer does it again and again because seeing the beaming and grateful faces of charity patients makes him feel good about himself, that he’s doing god’s work. He expects certain behaviour from the recipient of his charity and if he’s not clear with his motive, he might become angry if not forthcoming from his subject, and he might do something to punish them, like labeling them negatively, or changing program acceptance criteria, or changing his manner and behaviour with them , most commonly by becoming condescending, dismissive or authoritarian. What is Fil-Am’s motive in entertaining our senior citizens? Is it for Fil-Am to feel good about itself, to feel appreciated by the community? What is Fil-Am’s attitude towards our seniors? Do we see them as uninteresting, an uncreative group that needs us to provide diversion? Our seniors have a wealth of experience among themselves, living in the Philippines during times of great change and then uprooting themselves and coming to America. That required tremendous strength and resilience, and perhaps some sacrifice from some of them. If we change how we think about our seniors, perhaps we can have programs that are senior-centered, emphasizing their rich life experience and their strength, rather than providing organization-driven services that sees them as dependent and leading monotonous lives.

    “This event is specifically designed to provide our senior dependents the opportunity to gather with their peers and break the monotony of their daily

    “Most of them can’t drive, they take care of their grandkids, and stay home most of the time. Entertaining the “senior dependents” is one of the services that Fil-Am provides to the Filipino community.Please don’t be offended by the message. No offense was meant.”

    Yes, no offense was meant but it sure hurt me and offended me. Hopefully it’s only me who reacted this way, even if as you said, it was not meant for the likes of me.

    Comment by Metty Pellicer | Tuesday, November 10, 2009 | Reply

  7. Hi Metty, it is so difficult to determine people’s motives. Many really want to do good, and they see the shiny faces when handing out gifts and they honestly believe that they have done something great for God, but then it may have been the wrong thing they did. It’s not easy to address these issues in a sensitive way. I, for one, don’t want to chase away people with the right motives, but I do want them to concentrate on building relationships rather than just handing out goods. Thanks for your response.

    Comment by Arnau | Tuesday, November 10, 2009 | Reply

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