Wednesday, March 28, 2012

first, do no harm

The Hippocratic Oath is most often associated with doctors. Upon the commencement of a doctor's career, he or she agrees that he or she will practice medicine ethically. The first rule of which is "do no harm."

This phrase has been bouncing around my brain for the past several weeks. I find myself seeking to apply it or at least question its applicability to various situations I am facing. And, no, you did not miss the memo. I am not a doctor, nor do I have any plans to become one. I am talking about development, as in human development, rural development, professional development, global development.

First, do no harm.

I want to preface what I am about to write with an admission of my own ignorance. I do not have all the answers. I am actually quite doubtful that I have any of the answers. I am not an expert. I am not the first person to think these ideas. I do not think myself better than others, though in some areas I do feel I may be more enlightened or informed than some others. Truth be told, I am just a farmer's daughter from rural Indiana who naively hopped on a plane to Cambodia thinking she could make a difference in the world. Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. But, that's not the point.

The point is that I have been spending a lot of time and effort looking at development. My heart's desire is to invest in local people to assist them in creating a greater "toolbox" of skills with which they can create a better environment for their fellow countrymen. And, I would just like to say that is no easy task. It is hard. It requires thoughtful strategy and planning. It requires maintaining a long-term perspective. It requires letting go of my own ideas (which are of course brilliant) in order to defer to a more workable, contextually-relevant model. It requires research. It requires asking questions. It requires listening to the answers to those questions. And, yes, it requires compassion and empathy and a heart for justice.

But, in my observations (I am a natural observer), I have witnessed a lot of people who possess the latter (compassion, empathy, a heart for justice) who have not taken into account any of the former ideals necessary for development. These people come in a variety of forms. Some of them are bulldozers, knocking down everything in their path to the "grassroots" to rebuild something "from the ground up," so that it looks the exact way they want it to. Forget cultural relevancy or long-term sustainability. Some of them are a bit flower child-esque, encouraging everyone to just sit in a circle and "love" away the problems. I absolutely agree that "love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8), but I am not sure sitting in a circle, holding hands and singing is necessarily the epitome of "love." Some of them are simply bleeding hearts, so moved by atrocities and injustices that they can think of nothing else but helping the poor lost and abused children of the world because they need hugs and hope and happiness. (I will admit that this is the category I probably fell into, but I am moving on from that as my perspective has shifted.) I am sure there are many other types as well. And, the truth is that the vast majority of these people are well-meaning and good-intentioned. I do not honestly think that people would intentionally start a "development" project that they believed to be hurtful or harmful or unsustainable or completely selfish.

However, I think many people start before asking any questions and before considering the principle "first, do no harm."

You may be asking, "How can well-meaning, good-intentioned people with bleeding hearts do harm?"

Well, unfortunately, they can do in a million ways. They do it by giving things away for free that local people make and sell for their livelihood. It is pretty difficult to compete with free. They do it by forcing local staff to defer to foreigners for all important decisions. How do you develop decision-making skills when you never get to make one? They do it by exaggerating reality so that unknowing donors will finance their short-sighted projects. And, the truth is that I know I have done it. And, I am sorry for it. I have done harm. Lots of it. Unintentionally. Actually, with the best of intentions, but it turned out for harm, nonetheless.

And, so I encourage you--first, do no harm.
But, if it's too late for that--apologize, repent, educate yourself, and seek to do no further harm. That's what I am working toward...

Friday, March 23, 2012

...and the wind was knocked out of me.

The other day I was browsing the Internet--reading blogs, scanning news article, clicking links...

Have you ever clicked on a link and literally had the wind knocked out of you with what displays on the screen?

Now, I did not click on anything obscene. There were no suggestive pictures. There were no advertisements for products I do not want or need. There was no inappropriate language.

There was just a photo of a child. A photo of a child in Cambodia. A photo of a child in Cambodia who I know. A photo of a child in Cambodia who I know that was being used as an advertisement for a short-term mission trip by an organization.

It made me feel sick inside.

And, what I am about to write will likely be unpopular. I don't care. What I am about to write will likely be a perspective you are not used to hearing. I don't care. What I am about to write I am quite passionate about and may offend you. Again, I don't care.

(steps onto soapbox)

What makes people think it is acceptable to travel to another country, developing or not, and take photos of children (or adults, for that matter) whom they have never met and know nothing about and then post them all over the Internet and use them for advertising? I ask this question, and trust me, I have had to go before the Lord and repent for my ignorance and wrongdoing in falling victim to this very thing in the past. But, my perspective has been shifted.
I would never dream of going to a public park in America (or any other developed nation) and taking photos of a stranger's children who are playing there, and I would guess that most people would agree with me on that. I estimate that it would not take long for a parent to approach me with my giant camera hanging around my neck and ask, probably not so nicely, "Uh...why are you taking a picture of my child going down the slide?" To which I would naturally respond, "Oh, I just think she is really cute with her blond pigtails and wanted to take a picture and post it on my facebook page." I wager that the police would arrive within about 5 minutes, and that parent would drag their confused, pig-tailed daughter to their minivan while giving me a death stare. Why? Because I would be creepy. It is unacceptable. It is weird. People don't do that...unless it is in a developed country?

When I saw the photo of this child being used as an advertisement for mission trips (none of which were actually going to Cambodia), I was livid. I was angry because this child did not know that this photo would be used this way nor did the child's family. I have met this child's family. I have spent time with this child. I know where this child's family lives and what they do for work. I know where this child goes to school and some of the things this child has experienced. And, it upsets me that someone would use this photo to exploit this child by essentially saying, "Look at this poor, pathetic child in Cambodia who needs you to come to the rescue."

Ok, I will stop now, but I do hope that you will think twice when you see the millions of photos used as advertisement for good-intentioned, well-meaning organizations. I hope that you will stand with me in encouraging them to promote dignity in the images they produce and present because really no one should ever have the wind knocked out of them when they stumble across a website with a photo of their friend, their child, or themselves as the poster child of poverty or exploitation or heathenism.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


I have been thinking a lot lately. I tend to do that. Nasty habit. And, not one I am likely to stop any time soon. I have been thinking about living and loving and development and pursuing God and how all those things intersect.

And, as I was reading a textbook for my master's class, I came across a quote by Audre Lorde. She said, "Unless one lives and loves in the trenches it is difficult to remember that the way against dehumanization is ceaseless."

In the trenches. These are the places that living and loving really happen. And, these trenches are everywhere. They are in the aftermath of natural disasters. They are in the rubble of wars that have lasted decades. They are in the tears of a lonely teenage girl. They are in the cries of abandoned babies. They are in the vacant stare of the unsatisfied CEO. They are in the search for meaning by the professional quarterback. They are in the glue-sniffing homeless man who wanders my neighborhood. They are in the slums just down the road from my home. They are in the low-income housing in your city. They are in communities, schools, offices, and even our churches. They are likely even in our own hearts.

In times of war, trenches are dug as a hiding place. But, they are also a fighting place. They are the place we are able to escape our enemies, regroup (hopefully with our comrades), and battle on. So, I challenge you to dive into the trenches. It is where life and love and war all collide. And, take heart because Immanuel, God is with us.

Monday, March 12, 2012


There are days when I am overwhelmed. Yes, it is true. It absolutely does happen. There are days when I look at the tasks before me and realize how completely unqualified I am. There are days when I simply think there is no way I can do this. There are days when I am tempted to simply give up.

There are days when I would love to be a barista.
Now, this is not said to discredit the job of a barista. I am incredibly thankful that there are wonderful people who can make me a good coffee and create art in a cup. And, some days I would love to simply have the task of artfully pouring steamed milk and coffee and brightening someone's morning (or afternoon or evening).
But, most days I realize that I would never be satisfied working behind a counter blending frappes. My heart is too deeply burdened for something else, for someone else. And so, I say thank you to all the baristas who skillfully pour the lattes that alleviate my caffeine headache and propel me in the work before me.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

speaking up

I apologize for my unannounced and unintended blogging hiatus for the last couple weeks. Amongst all my other tasks, blogging just fell off my radar, but I hope that will not happen again. (I understand the annoyance of blog-stalkers who regularly look for updates and are disappointed at the inconsistency at which people update. I, too, am one of these blog-stalkers.) So, I just wanted to speak up and let you know that I do not plan for there to regularly be multiple weeks between my blog posts.

Now, on to a different kind of speaking up.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
and see that they get justice.
Proverbs 31:8-9

These verses have been heavy upon my heart recently. I have had much going on, and there have been many feelings of frustration and discouragement and simply not knowing what to do. God has been incredibly gracious and faithful to me, providing me with great wisdom and strength as I seek to honor Him and to love people well. But, my heart is burdened by injustice. It sickens me. It angers me. And, sometimes it feels like it paralyzes me. It also amazes me that sometimes in efforts to bring justice to those believed to be most oppressed, others are actually tromped on and crushed in the name of promoting justice. I have learned that sometimes those who are "poor and helpless" are not always the ones we assume.
That being said, I find myself struggling sometimes to overcome fear and a seeming paralysis to speak up and call injustice what it is. I sometimes find it exhausting to care so much, but I fight on another day, speaking up for those who are suffocating under the oppression of others. And, yet again, I find comfort in Sara Groves' lyrics...

I have joined the long defeat
that falling set in motion
and all my strength and energy
are raindrops in the ocean

So conditioned for the win
to share in victor's stories
but in the place of ambition's din
I have heard of other glories

And I pray for an idea
and a way I cannot see
it's too heavy to carry
and impossible to leave

I can't just fight when I think I'll win
that's the end of all belief
and nothing has provoked it more
than a possible defeat

We walk a while, we sit and rest
we lay it on the altar
I won't pretend to know what's next
but what I have I've offered

And I pray for a vision
and a way I cannot see
it's too heavy to carry
and impossible to leave

And I pray for inspiration
and a way I cannot see
it's too heavy to carry
and impossible to leave
it's too heavy to carry
and I will never leave...