Note: Here's some wise advice from a Mission to the World (Presbyterian Church in America's mission agency) missionary, Pastor David Wegener, who is supported by both Christ the Word and Church of the Good Shepherd. David teaches at the Theological College of Central Africa. Write him at mtwafrica dot org.
Let me try and be specific about some of the things I now recommend concerning Christian missions and aid to Africa. I haven't always believed what I'm going to say below; I've learned by making mistakes.
Why have I changed? There have been several factors. One of my bosses at Mission to the World regularly sends out memos and passes on articles that have shaped my thinking. Sometimes I've reacted in frustration: if everything we're doing is wrong, what are we supposed to do? But he has also shown some good models of what we can do.
I've also seen the sense of entitlement in the churches and colleges here. Students think they are owed support by western mission agencies or donors. Churches expect short-term teams and individuals to bring them gifts. Sometimes they even make specific requests before any gift is offered.
Just yesterday, I was riding my bike to campus after lunch and passed a young boy of about 12 years old. Our eyes met and he said to me (quite audibly), "give me your bike." (And my bike is no fancy thing. It's a mountain bike, bought used in the States about ten years ago for $50.) This is a tiny thing, but it is illustrative of the sense of entitlement that we have helped create over here.
Here, then, are some guidelines that I recommend for giving to Africa...
If you are giving to some ministry that seeks to combat AIDS, ask specific questions about what they are doing. Are they teaching abstinence only, or do they recommend abstinence, but also recommend using condoms, even as a last resort? For Biblical, theological and cultural reasons, I recommend that you support ministries that teach abstinence only.
When you give to other projects, only fund the project in part and with guarantees that the rest of the project will be funded with local support and not through other western donors.
Don't initiate projects and then seek out an African church or agency through whom you can work. Rather, find some church or agency or individual that is already doing the work that interests you and then come along side and help a bit with the funding.
Let me flesh this out. If you want to give books to some students, don't give the books to the students. Have them pay a portion of the cost. I've made this mistake.
If your want to establish an orphanage or a school or a youth center, don't decide to do this and then go looking for a church or an individual or a group to make your dream a reality. Here's what might happen if you do.
You'll come in and build some great-looking, top-of-the-line orphanage or school or youth center. What will happen when repairs are needed? Who will pay for the repairs? If there was no local support that went into the building of the orphanage/school/youth center, then there will be no local support to pay for repairs; the donor will do it.
What will happen if the western donor loses interest or dies? What will happen if the western church that funded the project splits? What will happen if the missionary who started the project has to leave the field? The project dies with it. Africa is littered with such projects, some just yards from my doorstep.
Think also of the effect your gift will have on other churches or orphanages or youth ministries in the area. How are they going to compete? The only option they have is to go looking for a western donor, a sugar daddy, to fund them so they can compete with the orphanage down the street. Don't think this doesn't happen. It is exactly what happens.
So this kind of work fuels and builds dependency, rather than building self-reliance and a desire to take on projects within their means.
Instead, I recommend that you find someone who is doing the work already and come along side of them and help. Don't build a top-of-the-line, first-class-all-the-way building that costs tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars. Build something much more modest and insist that thirty or fifty or even seventy-five percent of the funding come from local support. Such a requirement will help keep costs moderate and will also help to show the Africans what they can do on their own.
There is lot's more to say, but this post is already long enough.
-David Wegener (Rev.)