Posted by: Titus Presler | November 13, 2009

Small-scale development found effective in Afghanistan – and associated with missionaries

Working on a small scale with local village initiative and control is proving to be more effective for rural infrastructure development in Afghanistan than large-scale projects directed by the Aghan government and international aid agencies, according to a front-page report in today’s New York Times.

The approach echoes the long experience of Christian mission in the Two-Thirds World.  Significantly, villagers in Jurm, the featured village in the mountainous northeastern province of Badakhshan were initially suspicious of the projects, “believing that the people in the groups that introduced them were Christian missionaries.”

The one initiating group cited in the article is the Aga Khan Development Network, Aga Khan being the leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims.  Yet even in Afghanistan, where Christian mission has been severely limited for decades, grassroots development work that takes local initiative seriously is associated with missionaries.

In contrast to the modest results of the billions of dollars spent by the USA and its western allies, much of it siphoned off into administration and corruption, the National Solidarity Program started by an Afghan ministry in 2003 has brought clean water, built a girls’ school, reduced maternal morality, and prompted an agricultural shift from poppies to wheat in the Jurm valley.

The lessons?  “. . . [T]hat small projects often work best, that the consent and participation of local people are essential and that even baby steps take years. . . . Local residents contend that the councils work because they take development down to its most basic level, with villagers directing the spending to improve their own lives, cutting out middle men, local and foreign, as well as much of the overhead costs and corruption.”

This philosophy has long been integral to Christian mission work in education, health, women’s empowerment, economic amelioration, agriculture, and poverty reduction – concerns currently promoted as the Millennium Development Goals.  Churches have never had the billions available to governments.  More important, mission outreach has always been in local communities, with missionaries working on the basis of relationships with people they know in communities that they know.  Further, contrary to their Bible-thumping reputation, practically all missionaries, of whatever church tradition, have been involved in what is currently known as “development work.”

The current micro-enterprise movement similarly stresses small-scale work, actually tiny-scale work.  The movement was catalyzed by the work of Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and it has been embraced by Christians through such mission agencies as Five Talents, which make loans to the poor, most of them women, often in the range of $50-$500, much less than the $100,000 grants cited by the Times in Jurm, Afghanistan.

Ramifications of large church development agencies

Through the growth of large church development agencies – such as Church World Service, Catholic Charities, World Vision, Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), and Lutheran World Relief – churches now aspire to have an impact comparable to that of large foundations and small government programs.  The annual resources of ERD, for instance, were reported to me to be about $30 million, which in these leaner times approaches the total annual budget of the Episcopal Church and thus is exponentially more than any international mission initiative sponsored by the central church budget.  And these agencies do a great deal of very good work.

Disadvantages of large grants made by large church agencies include the depersonalization and bureaucratization that are inevitable in large grants made by distant granters.  Standard problems of accountability and corruption also arise, as in the current case in the Church of South India, where police action and legal proceedings are underway in Chennai (Madras) in connection with the reported embezzlement of about $1.6 million contributed by ERD for relief after the Asian Tsunami of December 2004.

Further, if one values holistic mission – the combination of word and deed, gospel proclamation and human wholeness – large church development agencies tend to stress deed and sideline word.  Philosophically, they’re wary of explicit faith references, erroneously equating simple witness with “shoving the gospel down people’s throats.”  Practically, they often form partnerships with secular groups that are not comfortable with faith references, so their freedom of speech, as it were, can be limited.

There are many exceptions, of course.  ERD stresses working with church groups rather than with secular agencies, so it shares faith commitment with its working companions, and the question moves to how the companions work in their areas.  In one village near the epicenter of the Great Pakistan Earthquake of October 2005, in which 79,000 people died, local Muslims have been so touched by the many-faceted relief effort of the church, assisted by ERD, that they call the local congregation “our church”!  Clearly Christian witness has been expressed authentically in both word and deed by local Christians.  As a fairly evangelical agency, World Vision has tended to be clear about witness in word as well as deed.

The flourishing of large church-sponsored development agencies is contemporaneous with the decline in the number of missionaries sent by mainline churches in the west.  The stereotype of cultural imperialism is one major factor, of course, but the other major one is the rationale that churches in the Two-Thirds World are self-sufficient and no longer need missionaries.  In the emerging missional paradigm of accompaniment, however, this is a non-issue, for the purpose of mission is presence and companionship, not direction.  Just as we value Two-Thirds World companions in mission in the USA, there is no need to be bashful about companionship abroad.

The people of Jurm associate Christian mission with personal, small-scale, grassroots commitment.  That’s a legacy to build on.

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