The generosity of people at Christmastime is amazing. There is something about the season that, well, warms the hearts and leads us toward generosity. It is, after all, the celebration of the gift of the birth of Jesus, which led to the greatest single act of generosity ever known.
However, Christmas ought to be a time for strategic and thoughtful giving, not giving that is simply easy or benefits us. Too often, the generosity displayed in the Christmas season actually brings harm, especially in international contexts, because it is not part of a long-term strategy or the collateral consequences are not considered.
I have great confidence that people truly want to do the right thing—they want to be generous—but where should generosity begin? Generosity begins with justice.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Too often our Christmas generosity skips the "act justly" part and jumps straight to the "love mercy" part, and pretty much ignores the "walking humbly" part.
I want to be clear, my goal is to encourage greater Christmas generosity, not less, with what follows. The following is a challenge to be just, love mercy, and walk humbly. From local Christmas hampers to international shoebox drives, I believe we can do better.
For example, for years when I made Christmas hamper deliveries to families, I wondered why the father, despite being on the list, was so often conspicuously absent. After many years of excuses from shy and awkward mothers, it finally dawned on me that the father couldn't bear the shame of someone else blessing his children with gifts and taking care of the family Christmas meal. Everything in this moment of love only communicated shame and failure to those men. I became convinced we had to do this better. How could we work with the parents to transfer the "joy" of the delivery away from us to them? Imagine the scene with the father arriving at the house carrying food and gifts for his family. Even better, invite the parents out to shop for their children with you a few days before Christmas. Either way, yes, we the benefactors miss the joy in the eyes of the children when we deliver the gifts, but what is our ultimate goal? To bless the family. Let's act with justice first, then love mercy, and oh yes, there is that humble part too. A little justice and humility can completely change the story of Christmas for a family receiving a hamper.
Another example: over the past couple of decades, a number of international development organizations have popularized filling up a shoe box with various items during the season of Christmas generosity and sending the boxes overseas to impoverished children. Let me be clear, my critique that follows here is not a criticism of the motivations behind these shoe-box drives, but rather I want to take a hard look at the collateral consequences (justice) of these drives and provide some thoughts on a better way (in humility).
Let's consider the build-up to the average shoe box drive.
- Watch a video in your church or school that yanks at your heartstrings.
- Buy a "wow" toy such as a doll, soccer ball with pump, or stuffed animal.
- Mix together with other fun toys, hygiene items, and school supplies. No guns, knives, or breakable items, and no candy of course because five out of five dentists have advised that candy is bad for the teeth of children in developing countries.
- Include a picture of "us" so the child can see who their benefactor is.
- Do it together with love, generosity, and prayer.
- Be sure to include $10 to pay for shipping, administration of volunteers, and the salaries of North American staff who manage the logistics of 700,000–1,000,000 shoe boxes annually!
So, what is the problem? We feel good! We've brought smiles to a child somewhere in the world. A good humanitarian organization has a tool to do their work. Right?
Let's think about this from the first steps of the process.
Buying stuff "here" to ship "there" violates the first principle of strategic and intentional international development. The first principle of growing capital, the foundation of an economy, is to support local economies. The buy-here-ship-there approach actually destroys local economies. From the toy to the hygienic items to the school supplies, the local economy is harmed by the influx of shoe boxes following the Christmas campaign. Consider the local markets: a seller of pencils or toothpaste knows there will be no business for these items for a few weeks to a few months. His children will not eat. Her business cannot grow. If you can't visualize these local markets, spend a few minutes on Kiva to see what our micro-loans support. Christmas shoe boxes put the businesses we help fund with micro-loans out of business.
Put a different way, any type of buy-here-ship-there charity amounts to importing donated supplies that are distributed freely, which amounts to dumping, which creates dependency and damages local economies. We must be generous, but we must do so in a way that aligns with the market economy and promotes transactions that are dignified.
Second, let's analyze for a minute the buy-here part of the equation. We often go to a dollar store or other low-cost retailers for these products. The industry of cheap toys is akin to the problems we see with cheap clothing. Slave labour, child labour, unsafe working conditions, and low wages are the reality for the human beings who are making the toys "over there" that we purchase and put in Christmas shoe boxes to send somewhere else "over there." The sheer quantity of toys purchased for shoe boxes is its own and damaging economic engine, not to mention the poor quality of the products. The soccer ball and pump will be in the local garbage pile within a few days of its delivery. Safety is also an issue. A quick Internet search reveals recalls that include safety concerns from faulty parts to lead paint. In economic terms, shoe boxes simply dump subquality products into underdeveloped and fragile economies without regulation or consequences.
Third, there is a terrible message in teaching a child that their needs will be sustained by a box that arrives on the back of a truck and is handed out to them by foreigners (if the promo videos are to be accepted at face value). It is precisely this kind of unsustainable and colonial—not to mention patronizing—model that most of the international development community is trying to move away from. Put simply, anything other than emergency aid must be sustainable. If it was just a gift, maybe, but the introduction of "supplies" as a critical element of the shoe box problematically competes with local economies. "Free" is never sustainable from an economic point of view; and worse, free destroys capital, it does not develop capital.
Finally, let's return to the fathers from my experiences with Christmas hampers. I have no doubt the children who receive shoe boxes experience moments of great joy. We all love a gift, right? But like the fathers who disappeared when the hampers arrived, who in that international environment recoils in fear when the truck with the shoe boxes arrives? Who must bear the consequences in ways that we don't think about because we do not seek to "act justly" before we "love mercy"?
If we were to "justly" invest in the economic lives of people in developing nations, should this not begin with truly dignified and strategic plans for engaging with these fragile economic ecosystems?
Is there an alternative?
Yes. In your church, your school, or through your local international development agency, there is another way. Consider this.
If a shoe box has a real cost of $40 to the person who assembles it ($30–$35 for contents and $7–$10 for shipping and distribution), consider donating those funds, as a family, to projects that truly enhance a local economy. If your church can produce two hundred shoes boxes, it could fund the installation of a well for two hundred people in an African community in need of clean and safe water. Eight thousand dollars could fund two to three teachers for a year in any underdeveloped country in the world (actually the number is more like four to five). In these two examples (out of many), people have jobs, communities are enhanced, and capital is injected into the economy, which then produces a positive economic cycle.
But what about those children who don't then receive the "joy" of a shoe box? Well, if I accept that there is true joy in being the beneficiary of a shoe box, why not consider this alternative method? Through a local contact (a church or NGO in a developing country, for example), hire a number of locals to go into the local economy and purchase (with your donated funds) all the elements of a shoe box and put together these packages in country. These people would be paid a living wage of course (think much less than $10 to ship a shoe box); local markets and economies would experience growth and much-needed product turnover; cultural sensitivities would be managed by people in the culture; and the local community would manage who the recipients would be based on a true assessment of need or other factors local to that environment.
Many proponents point to the "positive impact for children." I of course accept that these gifts bring moments of happiness; however, the two alternatives I've mentioned here (and there are many more) provide far greater long-term positive impact on the same child. We need to deeply consider the context we drop these shoe boxes into. Often these are communities that lack education and where clean water is scarce. I could justly ask, who cares if they get a shoe box this month if they die of a waterborne disease next month, or there is no teacher to teach them how to use those fancy North American school supplies?
We need to end the patronizing and colonial aspect of international charity. We have to stop our damage to local economic ecosystems. We need to promote human flourishing through our Christmas charity (in all aspects, from manufacturing to recipients).
Real charity is responsible charity that acts justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly. Real charity, then, is not about us.