Relief agencies strive to give aid that will generate self-sufficiency, but that is not the way donors spell relief.

The Browns and the Smiths received the same letter today. It sent one family into despair and the other into praise. Why?

Each family sponsors a child in a program of a large, evangelical relief and development organization. Each had been contributing regularly toward the support of a particular child in the Third World. Now, says the letter, the project is finished. Contributions from these two families and thousands of others like them have been applied within the communities of the two children. Conditions have improved significantly, and the children’s families have become economically self-sufficient.

The Browns rejoice at the dinner table this evening. They look forward to channeling their support into the life of another hurting child.

But Mrs. Smith seethes: “This is the worst thing that’s happened to me since Mother died.” Then, with some bitterness, she says, “There are better places to put our money.”

Why is there a difference? And where are the good old days of sponsoring children when “your kid was your kid” for good? In those days, a few U.S. families became so close to their sponsored children that they ended up sending them through college.

Although the organizations practicing relief and development prefer the attitude of the Browns, they would concede that even the Browns may not be aware of the vast changes in thought about the wise handling of “relief” today.

Let us take a look at the world of relief (and now development) generally, and the revolution it has undergone.

Skyrocketing Interest In Relief

Although the donor may not be well informed about the latest thinking on relief, he has been involved in one aspect of change: growth. The number of donors has increased dramatically over the past decade; they are also giving more. Where traditional foreign mission organizations often face flattened revenue curves, relief and development people have steeply rising incomes, aided by widespread secular news reports of desperate conditions.

Traditional organizations have always put part of their effort into giving “a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.” It was not until World War II, however, that the first significantly large organization devoted itself primarily to such work: the War Relief Commission of the National Association of Evangelicals, (today called the World Relief Corporation). Its purpose was to aid World War II refugees.

Two organizations developed out of the Korean War, becoming the first truly parachurch groups in the relief field. The first was World Vision, begun in 1950 by Bob Pierce, and now the largest evangelical relief and development agency: two-thirds of its approximately $130 million income comes from the U.S. The second, Compassion, was begun in Korea two years later.

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Direct and immediate aid to children victimized by that war was Pierce’s primary burden. He had the donor’s heart and knew how to reach him effectively. He urged “sponsorship” or support of individual children in a one-on-one relationship—an approach that led to a high level of emotional involvement. This approach has remained essentially unaltered by the passing years. Confronting the donor with the plight of a lone child is still the main method fund raisers use for all parachurch relief activity in the U.S., whether or not the appeal is to sponsor a child directly.

Disaster relief is another sphere of activity. World Concern was founded by Crista ministry of Seattle to aid such victims.

But regardless of roots or special ministries, organizations practicing relief and development have become part of a unified community. The Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations (AERDO) and its philosophical sibling, the Consortium of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations (CERDO), have fostered this. They have urged a pollination that has speeded up a revolution in thinking. AERDO provides information and coordination among all relief and development member agencies. CERDO establishes program and project standards, and the development of sources to provide money for projects.

Functionally, they describe their work today as “relief, rehabilitation and development.” How child sponsorship and refugee work fits into this remains a matter of individual discretion, but this is the language of their calling that binds the community together and reveals the outlook that has led to revolution.

Why Relief Specialists Changed Their Minds

In the short time since 1970, relief organizations have established a new science, recorded a history, and presented a literature. The science is called “development.” The work that was centered in relief in 1970 is now dedicated to development.

What does this mean? Development is the science of encouraging economic and social progress that is self-sustaining. The credo of development carefully defines its three key terms:

Relief brings to an end the suffering and other effects of a disaster or crisis.

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Rehabilitation returns the community to the stable circumstances prevailing before the crisis (a term used both for the entire field and for the final stages of activity).

Development (a term used not only for the science but also for the final stage in the process) enables the community to better itself and attain a new self-sufficiency.

The development credo says that relief, rehabilitation, and development are a progression. Workers should always move from one to the next. This is because relief, if prolonged, makes the recipient dependent on the practitioner. A sustained relief effort leads easily to the loss of a good reputation in the community of development specialists.

But what about the donor? He probably knows little of such thinking, but that has not undercut his morale. In terms of supporting the work, today’s relief and development donor is increasingly enthusiastic. The number of donors is continually growing. So, too, are the organizations doing this work, as the chart shows.

1USA only 2Fiscal year ends June 30 3Predominantly medical goods.

Those who perceived in all this a new evangelical social conscience have probably not gotten it quite right because of the implication that money is now being diverted away from traditional missions work. We understand the growth more correctly as the result of heavy secular news coverage of the plight of large groups of people, first in Southeast Asia and now in Africa. Of the 15 or 20 million refugees in the world today, half are children, half are in Africa. The plea for support is always much more effective when the organization wants to help in a situation already documented by news reports.

Donors: Duped Or Self-Deceived?

The donor’s situation is this: while he is functioning well in his role, he simply is not getting what he is giving for. Because development (cultivating the ability of victims to become self-sufficient) is better for the recipients than merely continuing relief, what the donor is getting for his dollar is actually better than what he thinks he is getting. But should he not be told how things have changed?

Although as a group they are certainly not guilty of conspiring to hide the true state of affairs, the practitioners apparently believe the answer to this question is No! Or at least, not immediately. They see the donor as someone who likes the paternalistic and one-to-one elements of relief and relief-oriented child support. They think he is unlikely to be as enthusiastic about development-oriented work as he is about relief, thus reflecting the old mentality.

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From there the practitioners reason that if the donor knows what the workers know, he would not give so handsomely. It is as simple as that—and I believe they are right in their analysis of the donor’s reaction.

But we need to go a step further. It is not so much that the donor lacks information as that he is unwilling to hear. He clearly prefers the old way; he is emotionally attached to it. Even the Browns looked for a new child to sponsor.

To deal with this state of affairs, many groups have tried to reorient the donor to a wiser development mentality. These groups span the entire relief and development community, not just among evangelicals, because the problem is community wide. Through the Biden-Pell Amendment, Congress last year set aside $500,000 in the U.S. Foreign Aid Bill so that USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) could finance “development education” through voluntary relief and development agencies.

Three years ago World Vision announced a new program called Life Sharing Partners. Much more a vehicle for communicating development thinking than a change in procedure, this program asked donors to take part in “adopting an entire community,” which is something being increasingly done as the dictates of development science take hold. But donors did not take to Life Sharing Partners, so it was changed.

In its literature, Food for the Hungry refers with growing frequency to “every-child sponsorship.” But all the agencies continue to furnish donors with the names of individual children, and provide two-way communication between each sponsor and child. This is the heart of the traditional experience donors continue to crave.

Especially in churches, World Vision uses a half-hour film, A Way of Caring. While it makes clear the problems of prolonged relief and the benefits of development, that is certainly not the film’s dominant emphasis.

The agency undergoing the most dramatic change—largely related to the development revolution—is MAP International (formerly Medical Assistance Programs). In the past it focused on providing large quantities of medicines and medical supplies, mostly donated, to developing areas of the world. But then the revolution in the science of development forced MAP into radical change. New (1979) president Larry Dixon’s commitment to change, however, includes a commitment to candor, facing the fact that, so far, relief sells and development doesn’t. Over the next few years MAP will become more an international health organization, assisting work already in place. It will be less and less an off-loader of dependency-producing goods.

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Dixon further intends that in an even shorter time, MAP’s fund raising will sink or swim on the donor’s growing acceptance of development work as a better use of his money.

The Hick At The County Fair

Many of those observing the relation between donors and relief-and-development agencies find a second area of concern in the “naked children” syndrome. Though relief and development is an area of ministry known for extensive cooperation and little sense of competition among agencies, the fund raisers nevertheless seem locked in combat to find the most heart-rending photos and film footage of malnourished and diseased children trapped in wretched circumstances.

Whether the message is for child sponsorship, refugee work, or hunger relief (the three strongest current appeals), the naked child has become a commonplace in magazine ads, mail appeals, and television specials.

Many criticize the whole process as manipulation of the donor. Others counter that it only makes sense to rely on the appeal that works: it supports more work, and makes dollars spent on fund raising more productive. “If the pictures bother you,” note agency leaders, “you ought to be there in person once. Then you’d know what it really is to be made uncomfortable.”

Despite the force of this retort, the criticism remains. It is not the naked-child appeal itself that offends but its numbing repetition. First, it is pressed into service for the majority of needs—whether for food, child sponsorship, or a well in the child’s village. Also, child sponsorship is categorized as part of development. In that case the donor can easily be left in his mentality of paternalism and prolonged relief. After all, nothing brings the problem up, so nothing calls his attention to the profound changes that have taken place in the way his money is used. His attention is still riveted to that child, and he is really thinking of nothing more than direct forms of relief. So the Browns look for a new child to sponsor.

Because of these procedures, the agencies can on one hand exercise great care in honoring designations of funds (as they have long done), and on the other hand still feel free to use the money for not only individual relief but also for a wide range of development projects of great help to the village and, indirectly, to the starving children.

But the donor will not stand indefinitely like the proverbial hick at the county fair, playing the shell and pea game, handing over his money but never catching on. It is important that he should know now. It would also be better for everyone if the burden of telling him were on someone other than the practitioners.

This writer volunteers.

Formerly special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, Charles W. Colson is now president of Prison Fellowship in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Born Again and Life Sentence (Chosen, 1975, 1979).

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