‘Giving’ or ‘Listening’ – in mission in Africa

Giving is considered a virtue. Surely it is great to help the poor, to rescue the dying, to boost declining economies and generally to use one’s economic advantage in the interests of the less privileged?


Giving (and receiving) have certainly become a preoccupation in the relationship between First and Third World churches. There is a growing awareness of the problems brought by a one-sided ‘giving’ relationship. These are often considered to be problems of ‘dependency’.[1]


I want to reconsider ‘giving’, from a Biblical and practical perspective. Was Jesus a donor? I think the simple answer is ‘no’. There is no record of his making donations to the needy. There is a report to the contrary – that finances may be better used to anoint his body than to relieve the sufferings of the poor (Matthew 26:6-13). Also a report to suggest that a widow contributing small copper coins has actually given more than a wealthy man’s generous contribution (Luke 21:1-4 NIV). Jesus was usually occupied other than by allocating and accounting for the use of funds.


What of other Bible characters? Paul’s collection for the church in Jerusalem is often cited. It seems to me that this was motivated by his desire to unify the Gentile and Jewish churches.[2] The plan seemed to fail. There is some talk of contributions being made to people experiencing famine in the book of Acts (11:27-30). There is little record of financial giving outside of immediate relationship on the part of others in the New Testament. The Old Testament does not, to my knowledge, encourage international or intercultural giving of resources by the people of God.


I believe that there is good reason for the absence in the Scriptures of many of the kinds of ministry that are these days so common – in which donor funds form the basis for inter-cultural relationship. I articulate some of these reasons below.


Donors seem not to realize that their money buys them great power in the relationships that they enter. The missiological literature is replete with exhortations to be humble, to listen, to draw near to the ‘other’, to partner as equals, even to share in indigenous movements. But, how open will the ‘other’ ever be if the foundation for the relationship is that the donor is in charge, and disagreement with him/her can result in a cut in funds?


It is sobering to think that very many Western people in sub-Saharan Africa work closely primarily with those African people who are financially dependent upon them. This may be indirectly – perhaps the presence of the Westerner is used by donors as an assurance that their funds are not being abused. Very often it is very direct – projects require workers, so African people are paid by Westerners to do what is required. Many Westerners have convinced themselves that this is a way of serving in Africa. But I would like to ask: how can one know that one is doing ‘what the people want’ if one has to pay them to participate in it? In reality very often paying people is shutting their mouths; poor dependent people will not want in any way to threaten the one who is the source of their funds.


As soon as we talk about ‘giving’, the question arises; ‘to whom’? Nobody can simply give to everyone. Measures of who is the most deserving are to various degrees arbitrary and not objective. Those who make decisions on giving carry moral responsibility. They open themselves up to corrupt abuses. They often cause fighting, jealousy and tensions between those chosen and those left. Wages that are above free market rates (often very low) result in corrupt competition for lucrative posts.


In Western nations people often choose friends who are economically independent of them. A test of true friendship can be “to remove material considerations from their association”.[3] This makes no sense in Africa, according to Maranz.[4] Friendships are in Africa (almost?) invariably a part of seeking material advantage. That this is the case can be a painful but important lesson for Westerners to learn.


Giving by Western Christians seems to assume that the available pie is endless; but is it? Do people give because someone has cleverly convinced them of a need, or do they give on principle? If the pie is not endless, then money that one person raises to give away, will result in there being less available for another person to give away. This means that for every dollar that I do not ‘raise’ for my particular charity, a dollar will be available for another charity. Not raising funds is then in effect giving to others! Could it be helpful for some missionaries to spend more time in ministry instead of replicating the efforts of other fundraisers? Could there be missionaries to the poor who give away their surplus funds to other missionaries to hand out so that their relationships with African people not be based on financial contributions? This is a part of what we call ‘vulnerable mission’, for details of which see www.vulnerablemission.com


[1] For example see this piece by Glenn Schwartz: http://www.wmausa.org/page.aspx?id=83809

[2] Nickle, Keith F., 1966.        The Collection: a study in Paul’s strategy. Illinois: Allec R. Allinson Inc.

[3] Maranz, David, (2001). African Friends and Money Matters: observations from Africa. Dallas: SIL International. p25.

[4] Maranz, African. p65.