2019 News

Helping Can Be Tricky: Oversimplification

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Malla Awa was two-years-old when a food crisis swept through his country of Niger and six others in the region. Sporadic rain was to blame, coupled with soaring grain prices and chronic poverty. At age two, there were a lot of things that Malla couldn’t do much about. His mother, Mariama, didn’t have a lot of options either. There was no hospital in their town, but NGO intervention made a makeshift ‘ambulance’ available, which carried him 160km to a special hospital where his life was saved.

In an article reporting on Malla’s story and that particular food crisis (Why does Africa always have food crises?) the author, Matt Wade, reflects that, “Nearly three decades ago Band Aid and Live Aid aimed to bring an end to African hunger” (Matt Wade, This Child Deserves a Future, Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend Edition, May 26-27, 2012). The article is from 2012 but it could have been written last year.

Why didn’t Live Aid bring an end to African hunger? We can understand sporadic rain being responsible for a food crisis, but why are the grain prices soaring and where did the chronic poverty come from in the first place? Why isn’t there a government hospital in Malla’s home town?

The answers run as wide as the political issues in Niger and the region, to colonialism and the modern grain market, indeed to the global market and the choices of Western consumers, companies and governments – to name a few. It turns out there are some things you can do about sporadic rain. In the end that may be the simplest cause to tackle.

The point is that Malla’s situation, like every situation of poverty, does not have a simple solution. There are multiple and interrelated causes. Band Aid and Live Aid were fantastic initiatives, which changed attitudes and saved lives, but they weren’t a complete solution.

So what does this mean?

  1. We need to recognise that any intervention we make (even Band Aid) will tackle part of the problem of poverty but it won’t be a complete solution. At COCOA, we will do our best with your next donation, but we will need another one after it, and again after that as well.
  2. Be wary of organisations that say they have the complete solution. They are overstating their case. If there was one complete earthly solution we would have solved poverty by now.
  3. Recognise that people in poverty are part of multiple interrelated systems. We are unlikely to change all of the causes that make them poor. COCOA, along with many NGOs, is analysing the systems that communities are part of to try to find the interventions that might make the biggest change. Goats for families at Emmanuel School in South Sudan, for example, have the potential to get children through high school, not just through this year of primary school. System analysis makes our interventions potentially more effective but they are still not a complete solution.
  4. Recognise that the world will not be complete until God’s Kingdom has completely come. Poverty is a symptom of wrong relationships – the wrong relationships that Christ came to put right. The poor therefore wait for the reconciliation of all things with an anticipation that the rest of us do not know.
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