A Hand Up, Not a Handout

Marcel, a 30-year-old friend from Rwanda, wrote an email stating: “I am not good because there has been a long time without a job. I am still looking for a job. My life is not going well for me.” Marcel was not making a veiled plea for a handout; he truly wanted an opportunity to use his skills and abilities to provide for his needs.

The more time we spend listening to the people we are trying to serve, the more we will hear Marcel’s refrain repeated in various contexts and within various cultures—people living in poverty know a handout is inferior to an opportunity to work and provide for one’s own long-term needs. Nearly every human prefers the dignity that comes from employment to the demeaning dependence of handouts.

In the United States, we often have a skewed view of work. We might complain about our coworkers, the coffee, the cost of health care and the lack of vacation. We might complain about our boss and the buzzing of the lights. With all this complaining, we might start to believe that our job is a curse.

Work is not a curse. God worked as He created the universe. Adam and Eve had plenty of work to do in caring for the Garden. All of this work occurred before sin entered the world. Work is a blessing. If you don’t believe me, ask someone in the developing world who doesn’t have a job. That individual will describe the harm that results from unemployment and how the absence of employment is a much more significant curse than whatever “cursed” job you might have.

Do you remember how you felt when you received your first paycheck? In middle school I mowed elderly Mrs. Johnson’s lawn. She would inspect my work and acknowledge that I had cut close enough to her barn and not missed any sections under her apple trees. Then she would invite me into her house, offer me a cold Tang mixed with her special spices, and pay me for my work. I enjoyed a strong sense of satisfaction as she expressed her pleasure with a job well done.

Charity will never allow an individual to be the way God created humankind to be—productive in caring for the earth and using the strength and skills He gave. And besides, charity isn’t what the poor want.

Drawing on his personal experience with the Waodoni tribe, missionary Steve Saint writes, “We may be the wealthiest nation and the wealthiest Christians on earth, but that is not a good reason to give someone something.” Saint describes the following challenges that come from long-term handouts:

No Value: It is much more difficult to appreciate the value of something that costs us nothing. Consequently, it does not last as long.

Personal Devaluation: If people are always given things, they begin to expect the things, thereby negating personal dreams or aspirations of climbing out of their current condition. Always being on the receiving end encourages indigenous believers to see themselves as incompetent, unable to learn even if they did decide they wanted to learn.

Desire Becomes Necessity: Giving a gift to one person can result in everyone else wanting one as well. Similar but more critical is the possibility that if the first gift proves effective there will suddenly be a legitimate need for many more. And if you cannot give the same tool to everyone, it is better not to give it to anyone. Help make it affordable, and then everyone can buy their own.

So if gifts don’t create long-term change, and handouts tend to keep people on their knees, and if the only lasting solution for the poor is through employment, does that let us off the hook? Absolutely not! We have the potential to play a critical role in advancing employment opportunities and helping the poor dramatically improve their lives.

First we need to understand what it would be like to be born in rural Siem Riep, Cambodia. More than a decade ago, I briefly worked in this town situated a day’s boat ride north of the capital, Phnom Penh, and it provided my first glimpse into rural poverty. Every day after work, I would jump on a moped and speed away to watch the sunset from the pinnacles of the temples of Angkor Wat, the “Asian pyramids.” On my drive there, I would pass farmers wading in rice fields, planting, and I would try to understand what life would be like if I were born into their situation.

In Cambodia, 75 percent of the population works in the agricultural sector, most working on a family farm at a subsistence level. If you were born to a rural farm family and stopped your education at the fourth grade, how could you secure one of the competitive positions of formal employment? How would you even know about job openings? You wouldn’t receive a newspaper. You wouldn’t know about posting your “résumé” on Monster.com. If you weren’t related to someone already inside an  organization that offered formal employment or didn’t have sufficient savings to bribe your way in, you wouldn’t have a chance.

In many developing countries, if you did receive a job offer, you would be required to pay a “deposit.” The practice of requiring deposits is one of the most oppressive systems for poor employees. Outside Pune, India, rural laborers are paid $.85 per day and yet are required to provide a deposit of up to $50 without any documentation or guarantee that these funds will be returned at the cessation of employment.

Consider the reality of life for the poor. What could you do to earn money beyond your meager wages from subsistence agriculture or day labor for an oppressive employer? Your only option would be to create your own employment. What would you do to provide a better life for your children? How would you start? What would you need?

Taken from Poor Will Be Glad, The by Peter Greer; Phil Smith. Copyright © 2009 by Peter Greer and Phil Smith. Used by permission of Zondervan.

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