Twenty: You Can't Cure a Disease by Treating Symptoms
I feel like I need to explain my statement in a previous post that God did not use me in Myanmar. It doesn't mean that God had no purpose for sending me. It's just that I suspect that the primary purpose for this trip was not so much for me to be used by God to save others, but rather for God to teach me. I hope that in sharing what I've learned, however, the trip will have value beyond just my personal enrichment.
This trip felt like a bringing together of several strands of knowledge that I've been learning since a trip to Haiti in 2010, but the short version is this: There is a right and a wrong way to engage internationally to foster justice and fight oppression, and She is Safe does it right.
I saw the results of "aid gone wrong" on a post-earthquake trip to Haiti. Although I couldn't have put my finger on it at the time, I was troubled by a rather dependent mind-set on the part of many (but by no means all) Haitians whose answer to difficult times was to request money or rescue from their wealthier non-Haitian contacts. In hindsight, I believe the attitude is one WE created over decades of well-intentioned but poorly designed efforts to help the struggling nation.
In their book Helping Without Hurting, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert suggest that "helping" can actually hurt the recipient because it too often fails to address the roots of the problem. For example, many programs by churches and humanitarian organizations have the goal of poverty alleviation. However, the programs have an incomplete and unbiblical view of poverty as a lack of material goods or financial opportunity. In this view, the "solution" is too often simply to give the needy the material goods that are lacking.
In reality, this approach is merely treating a symptom of the much deeper and more complex psychological and social roots that lead to poverty. As a result, our well-intentioned handouts have the unintended side effects of creating dependency, undermining the dignity of the materially poor, and perpetuating the underlying causes of poverty.
Corbett and Fikkert prescribe a more biblical and holistic view of poverty as "rooted in broken relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation." Using the Bible as their guide, the authors propose modeling development efforts after God's mission of what they call "comprehensive reconciliation" in ways that restore not just material possessions, but opportunity, dignity, and an appreciation of one's identity as a divine image-bearer.
Applying the perspectives offered by Corbett and Fikkert to the important anti-trafficking work that is much more in the spotlight these days, I can see how I have made similar errors in thinking. When I first learned of the extent of human-trafficking in the world--and particularly sex-trafficking--my response was what I hope most people's would be: "We have got to stop this! We have to rescue the women and children enduring such horrors!"
It's not wrong thinking, but it is incomplete. Yes, we must have programs that work directly to rescue people from slavery and exploitation. However, until we address the underlying systems of thought and culture that foster the treatment of humans as property, until we attack thinking that elevates personal gratification over all else, trafficking will continue to flourish.
Such an approach is a daunting undertaking: It is slow, complicated, messy, and definitely not for the faint of heart. On my trip to Myanmar, I had the privilege of seeing such efforts walked out by She is Safe staff members and their partners in Myanmar. Seeing all of my book-learning walked out in practice in a context that is so ripe with opportunity is why I can say with confidence that my trip was a success despite the fact that I rescued no one.