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September 23, 2010

4

The perils of well-intentioned cross-cultural assistance

by quaesitor

Am in Vlorë, a dusty and concrete port city situated in a beautiful area of southern Albania, for a Langham conference (here’s the sunrise from my room yesterday). All seems to be going really well, which is no small relief.

I was chatting to a friend this morning, who told me about a classic example of good intentions going pear-shaped when crossing cultural divides.

Emerging from decades of suffering under the world’s only officially atheist communist regime, Albania was in terrible shape in 1991. The church was barely existent – and the national economy was a disaster. No wonder, then, that as people came into pastoral work, financial support was a huge problem. And naturally, overseas churches wanted to help. But such help can really backfire, unless there is real care and cultural sensitivity.

My friend told me about a church in a small, relatively remote village, which would have an annual summer camp at the seaside. The venue was very basic, to say the least. Basically a field, without many facilities or toilets etc. But it was a great event, and it was an annual highlight for the church community for several years.

A church in the US (though it could have been from anywhere, since churches from many other countries have done similar things) developed a relationship through this fellowship and sought to help. So a couple of years ago, they kindly sent over a sum of money (not a large amount from an American perspective but huge for Albania). This enabled the church to book a small hotel – and everyone, naturally and wonderfully, had a great time.

But this was a one-off gift. Generous, well-intentioned, but limited. And there was no way that the church could repeat the booking. However, having tasted the (relatively) high life, no one wanted to go back to their field.

Consequently, the church has not had any camps since. Their gain had been great but short-lived; in the longer-term, their loss was huge.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nick
    Sep 23 2010

    interesting case study! Did the donors stipulate what the money was for? If not, then surely the recipient church can only blame itself if no-one wants to go back to the field. But if the donors gave it specifically for the hotel, well, maybe they should have foreseen what would happen. Maybe the lesson is less about cross-cultural relations and more about our fickleness when it comes to being content with what we have?

    Reply
  2. Nick
    Sep 23 2010

    ps. are you also saying that next year’s Cornerstone will be in a field?

    Reply
  3. Nate
    Sep 23 2010

    Good point Nick. That’s exactly what I was going to say in my response. Since you’ve already made the point I don’t need to leave a response. Therefore everyone please ignore this.

    Reply
  4. Sep 25 2010

    Hi chaps – you do both have a point. But of course it’s easy to point fingers at those who are not being content with their lot, when we rarely have to deal with so many of the hardships they have. My understanding is that the donors organised and paid for the week in the hotel – so it was pretty much determined by them.

    The point is – and I saw this go wrong SO many times when we lived in Uganda – that we must be SO careful about what we give and what we give for. For our standards of living are SO different, and the power of our pound or buck is so much stronger in other parts of the world than at home. (And interestingly, the difference between the financial expectations of American missionaries and British missionaries, for example, is very striking – but that’s a whole other story!)

    Our generosity really can have detrimental consequences. Sure there are perhaps lessons for this particular Albanian congregation to learn – but that’s not particularly for me to point them out when I have so much (and would definitely struggle to live in a field with the rest of my church without any facilities at all).

    But then, I’m pretty much a total softie when it comes to camping…

    Which is of course why Cornerstone will definitely NOT be happening in a field (though some hardy types did and can camp if they want to).

    Reply

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