Those odd people who won't go away

Oct 17th, 2008 | By | Category: International

Today’s Guardian carries comment from Matthew Frost, chief executive of Tearfund, the Christian relief and development agency.  Frost writes ‘The church fills the gap when states fail the poor’

It’s here – at the epicentre of food security, famine or flood disasters, at the heart of the Aids pandemic – that the church is having the greatest impact. It is here that the church offers the greatest potential in helping to scale up wider efforts for poverty reduction.

The church is one of the few movements that is both local and global. It draws from an impressive portfolio of highly professional church-based organisations and denominational structures robust enough to fill the gap when states fail in their duty to provide vital services for the marginalised and poorest in society. As an international network it also has the ability to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to lobby policy makers to take up their responsibilities to eliminate poverty and provide those basic rights and services for all.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?  One would expect the leader of a Christian international development agency to say that the people on his team are doing a good job.

But Matthew Frost is not the only person saying this.  Richard Dowden, director of the hundred year old Royal African Society, takes a similar positive view.  Dowden has no romantic view of the churches, complaining they brought their “insane history” to Africa, but conceding that their contribution has been vital:

In colonial times the Churches and their surrounding parishes became powerful centres, political and social as well as religious. When the European missionaries handed over to African priests and nuns that role continued. All over Africa the parish today means schools, health clinics, workshops and an indigenous postal service. In most of Africa the Churches have delivered more real development to people than all the governments, the World Bank and aid agencies combined. Africa’s networks of priests, nuns and Church workers are one of Africa’s more effective organizations. When states like Congo, Ghana, Angola, Mozambique and Uganda itself collapsed, the self­-sufficient parishes used their moral authority to provide protection. Like the monasteries in Europe during the Dark Ages, they kept civ­ilization going.

But why?

Back in 1999, I attended a Christian Aid conference in London at which there were questions about the identity of the organization.  A person in the small group discussions asserted strongly that there was no need to play up the “Christian” identity as everyone present, Christian or not, had a desire for justice.  I struggled to explain that the Christian dimension brought with it not a desire for justice, but an absolute commandment for justice; that this was not a matter of political choice, but a divine imperative – it was to be done, whether or not we desired to do it.

While Western middle class liberals discuss situations at their dinner tables over bottles of wine that cost more than an African’s week’s wages, those odd people, often fundamentalist in their views and equally as often despised by the politically correct, who spend their lives serving the poor, are making a real difference.

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  1. Indeed they are but in times past the Church has also imposed it’s moral high ground on third world peoples and not always to their advantage. Look at our own Stolen Generation – the best of intentions but effective in diluting an indigenous population and forcing assimilation into western culture. I guess it’s a bit different for missionaries ‘on the ground’ in Africa though because they’re not attempting assimilation just providing much needed aid. Good on em! *feels guilty for being a middle class liberal discussing situations at dinner table*

  2. I sometimes wonder if there was more of a ‘I will show you how to do’ than ‘I will do for you’ attitude among ALL those that go to the third world countries to help.
    W e are constantly being reminded of the drought situation in many areas, so helpers go to these areas and dig wells and institute irrigation schemes while the natives of the country stand and watch an learn very little.
    Maybe I have misread the situation, but I feel there is only one answer and that is education in all it’s forms

  3. The churches are indigenous now, and prone to taking their own theological direction, as Anglicans are discovering. A philosopher friend, who is a declared atheist, says that the main group of people preserving minority languages are bible translators! Far from assimilation, the churches seem to be supporting diversity.

    I think people need access to education and resources; what they don’t need are expatriate aid workers who are hugely costly and come with as much ideological baggage as the 19th century missionaries.

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