Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Who Is Helping Whom?

Junior Bob helping me across a log bridge. Was I there to help him? Was he there to help me?
---- Yes.

Liberia is scattered with empty school buildings, broken wells, and rusting equipment. These things stand as monuments to the twin failed philosophies of ‘we know best for you’ and ‘money fixes everything.’ So while the immediate crisis in Liberia may have ended a decade ago, the long lasting and pervasive re-development crisis lingers. Why?

"We Know Best For You"

In Ernesto Sirolli’s recent TEDtalk he tells the humorous story of how his Italian NGO knew what was best for ‘those poor Africans’ and decided to show them how to plant their wonderful Italian tomatoes and zucchinis in the fertile soil near their village river. He expressed frustration at how they couldn’t get these Africans to work this farm that was 'for them', and how they actually had to pay them to work it (although many still did not show up to work). In the Western superiority model of ‘we know best for you’ he admits to thinking, ‘thank goodness we’re here to help these people!’ Fully expecting to change public opinion with a wonderful harvest of Italian vegatables, Sirolli’s plan came to a screeching halt one night. Just before harvest, a herd of hippos ate the entire farm!

‘We knew that all along’

Sirolli goes on to say that the villagers were not surprised at this unfortunate event. In fact, while Sirolli expressed surprise at this event the villagers stated that they had known about these hippos all along, which is why they never planted crops in that otherwise fertile soil. When asked why they didn’t let the aid workers know about this they answered, “You never asked.” 

One of the reasons that Liberia is home to so many monuments of failed ‘aid’: Aid workers seldom ask Liberians what is best for Liberians. The philosophy has usually been: ‘we know what is best for you.’

My brother learning the concept: Raised by a Village. :-)

"Money fixes everything"

Another failed philosophy is that money fixes everything. Any absentee father who has tried to win his children’s hearts through the bribery of gifts knows that money is no substitute for real relationship. Whether you agree or not the 2009 book “Dead Aid” by African economist Dambisa Moyo at least brought up the elephant in the room that no one wanted to discuss.

The Elephant In the Room

“Dead Aid” was willing to talk about the fact that trillions of dollars in aid have been spent in Africa for over 50 years and yet Africa is still struggling with wars, famines, unclean water, death from easily treatable diseases, etc. If money were the answer, Africa would be ‘fixed’ by now! Surely Africa would be sitting in a much better position at the worldwide table, but this is not the case. 

What If Bill Gates Wanted to Help You?

The reality is that those receiving aid without input are not dumb. They will say whatever they think the one giving money wants to hear. What would you say if Bill Gates said, “I think we should build a playground in your town for the children.” I’d say “great idea!” Why? Because I think HE is going to do all the work building and maintaining it.  Too often aid workers come in and say, “I think we should build a clinic, or school, or whatever.” And the people respond “Great! Let’s do it!” Why? Because they think the Aid organization is going to do everything and build, staff, and maintain it after completion… empty clinics in Liberia tell us this is not the case.

Now while some will allow ‘aid’ to take advantage of them in order to get some sort of benefit, often people receiving handouts will manipulate the giver as well by playing the game. Once the giver is gone it is back to business as usual. This is why we see weeds growing in empty school rooms in Liberia, aid workers build schools because locals tell them they want it, not realizing that locals tell them that because there are other benefits: pay for construction, meals, small gifts on the side, whatever.  There is no ‘buy in’ from the community, only community meetings where people said, “Please do it!” with hopes of getting something small for themselves. I can’t say I blame them. I’d do the same thing if Bill Gates said, “I’d like to help you.”

My dad helping to dig a well by hand for a school in Liberia. It isn't just about telling people what they should do, but sharing in what the community knows needs to be done. 

Arrogance of Patronizing

So often we hear about people being ‘touched’ by the situation in Liberia. When pressed you often hear that underlying these statements is a sort of patronizing: “Those poor people! If only we could educate them to be smart like us then their problems would go away. If only I would come in and save the day for them by providing health care, clean drinking water, agro-techniques, microloans, or whatever; then their communities would thrive like ours.” While all of these things may be great --- what if the community doesn’t want them? What? People don’t want what I know is best for them? Yes. Anyone who has ever offered advice knows this happens. 

But why is it that aid workers often see those in a time of need as needing hand outs instead of realizing that people in general just want a hand up? It’s because much aid work (specifically 're-development' work) lacks the most important ingredient: deep relationships. In times of emergency it is common sense that people need water, food, medical attention, but re-development needs relationships. More on that in a moment, but first…

What I’m Not Saying

Love is being there in a time of need.
I am not saying that (all) Westerners are stupid and uncaring, nor that money should never be shared with those in need. I am saying that (most) Africans are extremely intelligent and true wealth is not measured in possessions. The fact is that Westerners do know things that could be very helpful to Africans and vice versa. It is also true that while money doesn’t fix everything, it can empower projects that are viable as well. What I believe is needed most in Africa (and every corner of the world for that matter) is for people to love one another; to see past one another’s ‘problems’ and ‘handicaps’and ‘differences’ and view each other as people. You see, sometimes they will be in need, sometimes you will be in need, but we all need one another. Which brings me to this…

The Liberian Handshake. Traditionally one black and one white. Why? Depends on your perspective, but what I see is a desire for deep, genuine friendship between our two cultures. Not one better than the other.

Who Cares? We Have Enough Problems Here

In fact, all of what I’ve said so far comes back to the oft heard statement I get when trying to raise funds for various projects in Liberia: “We should help our own first.”  This misses the whole point on so many levels. First, who are your own? Secondly, those who have said this to me usually aren’t even involved in helping ‘their own’ at the local level. Yes, there is poverty and problems in the US; and yes, we should be doing something about it. If that is what is on your heart just do it! Don’t criticize someone for helping someone who doesn’t look just like you and who sleeps in different GPS coordinates. We all need help sometimes and when it is in your power to help, help! Wouldn’t it be great if we were all too busy providing loving help to those in need that we were unconcerned whether someone else was helping the ‘wrong’ person?

Why I Want To Help In Liberia

Me and my Liberian brothers. To see us 35 years later click here.

The Missing Ingredient

Here is where we get back to the missing ingredient in many Aid Organizations: Deep Relationships. So often what I see in these NGO’s (and short term mission trips for that matter) is a lack of deep relationship. Relationships take more than just concern, they take time. They take more than just annual hugs and handshakes, they take presence. 

NGO’s are corporations and by their very nature can’t have relationships with people. However, people working for them can and I’ve read great stories online about NGO workers who got it and have deep friendships with Liberians.  To you I say, “Thank you for your friend-ya!”

My friend Mark Hubers lending a hand in rolling textbooks shipped from the US to a school in Liberia (c. 1985)

Also, Short-term mission work by its very nature does not allow opportunity for true deep relationships. Surface friendships? Yes, but deep relationships? Just like marriage; it is one thing to date someone, and quite another to live with them. I have great memories and made great contacts on short term trips, but short terming tends to focus on projects, not people, and if they get a well dug or a wall built then it is a success. A success for whom though? It may not really provide any lasting help to the people. The broken wells and empty school buildings attest to this fact. 

A once beautiful school campus that now lies empty in Grand Bassa County, Liberia.

However, some agencies are happy to have some pics of finished projects and smiling faces so that they can raise more money to send more short termers, but what happens day in and day out in the lives of these people they call friends? Most short termers don’t know the daily life and true needs of their ‘friends’ because they’re not there living with them.  Usually when they are there it is a burst of project-focused energy and surface relationship connections. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for short term work, but their main strength comes from reinforcing relationships that are already present on the ground. If short-termers want to participate in those deeper relationships however all they need to do is go on over and live with them! I'm sure you'll hear, "Ya ah welcome!"

Concrete work at a school in Liberia. c. 1985

Not Rocket Science

I don’t want to help Liberia because I think I know what is best for them. I’m not doing it because I feel the need to throw away guilt money towards the people we’ve help impoverish through wanting cheap Firestone tires, or diamonds for brides, or palm-oil based soap, or iron ore, or gold or whatever else we’ve stolen ‘by the book’. I help Liberia because of Liberians. I help Liberians because they are my family. 

My Nephew Alex who just recently graduated with an Associates in Engineering. He fell victim to the recent Entrance Exam/fee scam debacle at the University of Liberia. That is 2 weeks pay ($25 USD) spent for nothing!

Just like every child born in Liberia: I did not choose Liberia, Liberia chose me. What child doesn’t feel a deep responsibility to help their mother or father in a time of need? What about my brother, my sister, my nephew, my uncle, etc. in their time of need? Aid work shouldn’t be rocket science. This desire to provide a hand up should be as simple as breathing and as natural.  There is no formula for correct aid, just like there is no formula for love.
My Liberian mother: Sarah Toe (c. 1985).

My Liberian mother Sarah Toe - Summer 2013

My parents brought me to Liberia when I was 3. I didn’t choose it. I was adopted by several Liberian ladies who I now call Ma. I didn’t choose it. I ate termites in the mud with my Liberian brothers because that is what we did. I didn’t choose it. Liberia chose me. I didn’t ask the people of Zondo to make me a citizen of their village. They chose to do it. I didn’t ask God to make me think about Liberia every day of my life. He chose for me to think of her. I just do it.

When “Helping” Hurts

However, if Liberia hasn’t chosen you, you are probably better off leaving her alone. In fact, I would invite you to go fix some other problems in the world. There are other problems happening than those happening in Liberia. I say this because so much of what is wrong with Liberia is based on people trying to “help” Liberia who really didn’t love her. For example just consider the following “help” that my own US of A has provided for Liberia so far:

  • “Help” freed slaves in the US by purchasing huge amounts of land from Bassa and other tribal chiefs under gunpoint for a few hundred dollars.

  • “Help” those in the US that won’t be able to integrate into society (read freed slaves or “mulatto” offspring of slaveholders) and hide them in Liberia under the disguise of a humanitarian work called the AmericanColonization Society.

  • “Help” these Americo-Liberian colonists who in turn enslaved many of the native Liberians, by sending US warships every time the population rises up against their oppression.

  • “Help” Liberian economy by giving them “jobs” at Firestone after forcing the Liberian government to take a loan it can’t repay and forcing tribal people without a voice off their land (1 million acres).

  • “Help” Liberia by forgiving her “debts” with clauses that force Liberia to accept foreign companies to work there who won’t help provide any community service.

Enough “Help” Already!

I think we’ve already done enough to ‘help’ Liberia! Why don’t we instead simply shut up and listen like real friends do.  Let Liberians tell us what they believe their true needs are. Even today the UN is trying to force Liberians to have ‘needs’ that they themselves could care less about (they often only say they do care because they know the ones who hold the money want them to care about it.) 

A Case In Point

For example, never once did I hear a Liberian say that they wanted same sex marriages recognized by the state until the UN came in and began making this an issue. I'm not sure if these outside voices are aware of it or not but they sound like they are saying that these poor, dumb, uneducated Liberians should wise up and embrace their worldview in order to be properly civilized and worthy of aid.  

I understand there are many issues under the surface here, but when it comes to lending a hand, a guiding issue in my opinion has to be: can any of us love anyone who is different than us? Should I trust a ‘gay’ advocate who preaches others must accept them for who they are in the name of love, while at the same time being willing to withhold love to Liberians who on the whole think differently than Westerners on this and a great many other issues?

Love Embargo?

What sort of ‘love’ would be willing to withhold malaria medicine from a child because his parent’s Poro African tradition holds that homosexuality is taboo? Do you hate African tradition? The child? The parents? Even the main solicitor of international aide, President Sirleaf, has made the following statement concerning homosexuality: "We've got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve." Do you feel that pushback? Is anyone listening to Liberians? So much to say here, but I digress…

In Whose Image?

The bottom line is that I cannot make you attracted or not attracted to the same sex any more than I can make you accept or not accept another person attracted to the same sex. I can't do this anymore than I can make you a believer in Christ, or a Muslim, a Poro initiate, or have you born as a Gio, a Bassa, a Vai, an Americo-Liberian, or a Cajun, Texan, Hillbilly (Ozark boy here!), or whatever else for that matter. My belief is that God made us all and we are all made in His image, you are not to be made in my image any more than I am to be made in yours.

So Who Is Helping Whom?

I care deeply if you are hurting my Liberian family even if you are calling it “help” while doing it. I’m not saying that we won’t ever hurt each other. Lord knows I’ve hurt my Liberian family, but we are family and we work this out. Lord knows I have abandoned them in their time of need. We continue to work this out. Family does that.

My Ma Augusta (RIP). She taught us her recipe for Liberian Shortbread. My mother intends to pay it forward by sharing this recipe with other Liberian women in the bread business.

Buchanan circa 1985 with big brother Omise (RIP) and my brother Emmanuel (Ma Augusta's son)

At the end of the day I’m not even sure that I can actually ‘help’ Liberia, however one thing I do know: Liberia helps me. I’m not sure I have anything to teach Liberians, but one thing I do know: Liberians teach me. I’m not sure I have anything of value to give Liberians, but I do know this: Liberians have given me their very best and I as their brother will try to do likewise.

Junior Bob, wherever you are, I wish you well my friend. 
You helped me cross the bridge. This means more than you may know.


  1. This is thoroughly thought-provoking, brother. I feel it's an important post addressing basic, primal issues this world needs to understand and deal with! I needed to read this. Thank you.

  2. I think this is my favorite post yet! So many great, constructive points...and they really hit home. I've been learning alot recently about being thankful that Liberia chose is quite the privilege! I know, sometimes it's easy to wish that Liberia would have picked someone else, but at the root of it all, it's about putting others before yourself and living a life of love, so that others at least get a glimpse of Hope. [sharing it now...]

  3. "At the end of the day I’m not even sure that I can actually ‘help’ Liberia, however one thing I do know: Liberia helps me. I’m not sure I have anything to teach Liberians, but one thing I do know: Liberians teach me. I’m not sure I have anything of value to give Liberians, but I do know this: Liberians have given me their very best and I as their brother will try to do likewise."

    Beautiful, my brother...

  4. I love your heart for your Liberian family. Thank you for sharing Heath. Good to see you last week.

  5. Well written. However I don't feel the same way you do about Firestone. I lived on the plantation and my father was a superintendent. He was very good to the workers and cared very much for them. I think there were a lot of native Liberians that were better off because they were employed by Firestone.