When Gifts Destroy

It is in the culture of America to give to people in need. I have been on enough short-term mission trips to see countless examples of American generosity. People have always been willing to share whatever they have with people in need. Whenever there is a natural disaster anywhere in the world, Americans do all they can to give to others. Most times, as in the case of a natural disaster such giving can be a good thing. But the indiscriminate giving that typifies so much of aid to the developing world has arguably destroyed more than is has helped. A series of events over the past few years have led me to the conclusion that in the long run the harm done by much of our giving is beyond what we have ever imagined.

A recent trip to western Zambia brought this lesson to light in a tiny village of less than a dozen thatch covered mud huts. A 30-year-old Zambian by the name of Kennedy became a follower of Christ. In the process of getting to know him it was clear that he was both a thinker and a leader in his village. I talked with him, through Bonny our translator, and encouraged him to also be a leader for Christ among his people. He agreed that he wanted to do this but expressed that he had a problem with the Bible.

Me: “Bonny, could you ask him what the problem is with the Bible”

Bonny: “He says he doesn’t have a Bible. But he does have a chicken”

Me: “Ummm are you saying he wants to trade a chicken for a Bible”

Bonny: “Yes”

Me: “Give me a moment” I then quickly spoke to Paul the leader of the mission in Zambia and he assured me that this is how it is done.

Me: “Okay Bonny, Kennedy can take this Bible and when he comes back tomorrow he can bring the chicken”

Bonny: “Kennedy says to keep the Bible and when he comes back tomorrow with the chicken then he will take the Bible”

The next morning it was quickly determined that even though cutting the head off the chicken to make dinner that night sounded exciting, plucking feathers for an indeterminate amount of time was not. Bonny had a further conversation with Kennedy that day making it clear that the white people weren’t sure what to do with the chicken. (I would have loved to have overheard that) So they settled on a small hand-made axe instead. So we exchanged a Bible for an axe.

Now some of you are wondering why we didn’t just give him the Bible. There are two very important reasons. If we would have given him the Bible it would have caused a serious amount of jealousy in the village and created more problems for the Gospel than we could have managed. Secondly, in Kennedy’s culture it is simply understood that you trade for things that you value. He was saying that he highly valued owning a Bible and was willing to sacrifice for it. We needed to honor that.

On the other end of the spectrum, ministries that have gone into places like Zambia and handed out lots of stuff have found that unless they keep giving away stuff, people don’t want to listen to them. A friend reported to me a similar situation on the border between Mexico and Southern California. Ministries from the USA have gotten into a routine of doing weekend mercy ministry trips across the border. These have become so popular that unless you come bringing lots of cool new stuff, you have no audience. It is even reported that some folks don’t even bother doing laundry because a new load of clothing will be given away every weekend.

On a bigger scale, I recently finished reading the book Dead Aid by Dambiso Moyo. http://www.dambisamoyo.com/ Moyo is a Zambian woman with a Master’s Degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in Economics from Oxford. In 2009 Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. That’s the whole world people! Suffice it to say she has the academic chops and the life experience that should make people pay attention. Bottom line of her book is that the forty years of sending aid to the developing world has actually cause it to be less developed than it was prior to all the aid and actually made people’s lives worse. Just one small example gives us an understanding of why. A big time rock star rightly decides that thousands of children can be saved from death if only they had a mosquito net. So said rock start does a concert, enlists some of his buddies,and calls a press conference. They raise money for a million mosquito nets and promptly work a deal with Acme Mosquito Net Company in the USA and send the nets to children throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. They all feel good about it and move on to their next cause. Meanwhile, within a few years, the mosquito nets are worn out and ineffective. The celebrities have moved on and so now the kids need to find their own new nets. But here is the rub. New nets extremely hard to find in Africa even if you have the money and the price has gone way up. Why? Because the influx of a million or more nets a few years ago put all the little mom and pop net makers out of business and they are now having to receive aid from the World Food Program just to survive. Before they had a nice little business employing a handful of people and keeping three or four families alive. How different would it be if the nets had been bought, a dozen or so at a time from all the little mom and pop mosquito net makers in Africa?

What we need to come to grips with is the difference between relief and development. In the old cliché about it being better to teach a man to fish than give him a fish, there is a certain truth. But look, if the man is starving to death you don’t have time to teach him to fish. Give him a fish for goodness sake. But as soon as he is healthy, start the fishing lessons. Additionally, make sure the fishing lessons use equipment and techniques that work in his environment. Don’t show him how to fish with a fancy $400 fly rod that if it breaks he can never fix or replace. Just because that’s what you would use, doesn’t mean that’s what he should use.

But back to the gifts. It is interesting to note that the Bible says in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” There is a principle at work here. It has to do with the dignity of people and the value of working for something. When we always give to people we run the risk of creating a feeling of helplessness and dependency or worse, entitlement, that becomes a vicious cycle that sucks the life out of people. God created us to be people who worked, achieved, strove, and accomplished things in the world. Kennedy understood that even though he had yet to read the Bible.

So do we never give gifts? Of course not. But we must make sure that they are in the context of a relationship and not simply a way of making ourselves feel good, thinking we have solved a problem when in fact we may have made it worse. God gives the gift of eternal life through Christ. The “through Christ” part is critical. It is through a relationship that we receive such a precious gift.

Me and Kennedy


By the way, you may be wondering about the axe Kennedy traded for the Bible. I exchanged 20,000 Zambian Kwacha (about $5) with Paul in order to pay for the value of the axe. It was well worth the trade and it is in my office as a reminder of the value a new follower of Christ placed on having God’s Word to read and study as he seeks to lead his people.

10 thoughts on “When Gifts Destroy

  1. Dan Lacich

    Rob, yes it was. It was in Lohsi which Kennedy could read. Hardly would have been helpful otherwise. 🙂

  2. The book WHEN HELPING HURTS should be a MUST READ for all short term mission teams and especially their leaders. We now ask anyone coming to “help” us to read it first. If they disagree, they should not come

  3. Roland Nelson

    This has shed some light and given me a different (truthful) perspective on giving. Thanx so much…

  4. Debi Kershaw

    Great post Dan, and thank you for sharing your personal encounter with Kennedy. You have given me a lot to think about this evening.

  5. Vrain

    Great lesson – well applied…really appreciate Kennedy – and the wisdom this story brings us. We have grappled with this for years individually and collectively. This simple story brings great truth with it. Thank you for this!

  6. Thank you for sharing.

    I’ve never gone on a mission trip but my heart knows one day I will go. Thanks for helping me with the preparations.


  7. I’ve thought of this issue so many times before, and I am glad to see someone else has hit the nail on the head. We do not want to export the welfare mentality we have in the US to other countries. Thank you for taking a practical, Biblical examination of the issue.

  8. ColdFusion

    I am so glad I found this post. I’ve always wanted to go out and save the world, but without the communication skills* to share the Gospel, I figured any help from me would need to be economic. If I had ignorantly done that the American welfare way so ingrained in my cultural background, who knows what damage I might have caused! Now I’ve got to find an alternate strategy, I suppose…
    I’ve got Ms. Moyo’s site bookmarked for when I’m in a position to buy books.

    *I don’t think I’m just being a prissy Yank when I say I don’t communicate well. My family agrees I have some kind of autism, and ours is the most charitable hypothesis so far. Back when we used to go to restaurants, I’d often get stuck with things I hadn’t been in the mood to eat because it was so hard to order for myself. If that kind of fill-in-the-gaps distortion happened to the salvation message, it would arguably be far worse than economic devastation…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s