The Kampuchea crisis in 1979 marked the beginning of my interest in world development. An advertisement on the back of New Statesman prompted me to send £5 from my student grant to assist the aid effort.
The world was, of course, very simple in the eyes of a teenager in the first year at the London School of Economics. There were the people who were right and the people who were wrong – and being right or wrong depended on whether or not I agreed with them.
Solving problems was a simple matter of the right people going in and doing something. What could be more straightforward?
Except the straightforward answer is not always the best answer. In 1998 I visited Tanzania and spent part of the first day at a seminar for development officers from Anglican dioceses. One of them led a Bible study in which we looked at how Jesus responded to problems. During that Bible study he told a story of how solving problems caused problems.
He spent much of his time in very rural villages. He would go and live in the community for a week at a time. There was one particularly problematic village he had been visiting for five years. He would sit and talk with them and asked them what it was that they needed. Finally they agreed, “a school”, they said, “we need a school”.
So they organised themselves. There was a good source of mud for making bricks nearby and a good source for timber. The first classroom was built.
At this point an American Christian aid agency came in and asked the people what they wanted. “A school”, they said, “we have only one classroom”.
So the agency with the best and most sincere intentions built them a very fine school. Five classrooms that were far superior to the classroom the people had built.
“Now what will happen?” said the development officer.
“When the classrooms begin to leak, they will say to the Americans, ‘your classrooms are leaking’. When there is a storm and the classrooms fall down, they will say to the Americans, ‘your school has fallen down.’ They have five new classrooms and five years of my work has been undone.”
The worst of results achieved with the best of intentions! The community ends up further back than where it began, or it becomes a dependant of the agency that constantly has to come back to try to keep things going.
Jesus does things differently. If people are to assume rights and responsibilities for themselves they must have the dignity and the power to do so. Bartimaeus has been a man who was powerless, a man without dignity; a man who sat at the roadside despised by passers by who would have seen his blindness as a curse from God.
Jesus could have just said the necessary words and cured the blindness, but Jesus knows the importance of human dignity, Jesus knows the importance of a sense that we are responsible for our own decisions. How can we fully respond to God unless we have a sense that we have the power and the independence to do so?
So Jesus doesn’t just come in to solve the problem. He asks Bartimaeus what he wants and allows Bartimaeus responsibility for that decision; it is probably the first time in his life that Bartimaeus has made a choice.
Jesus understood what was needed for human development – two thousand years later, some of the agencies are still getting it wrong.