Toxic Charity: Controlling the Lake

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

Lupton begins this section of chapter seven with a good illustration of what it means – or, at least, could mean – when we use the phrase ‘community development’:

Feed a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. It’s conventional wisdom.

But what happens when the fish disappear from the lake due to pollution or overfishing?

Then it’s time for a change of strategy. Someone has to figure out how to get control of the lake: stop the pollutants, issue fishing licenses, put wildlife-management policies in place. Teaching a man to fish is an individual matter; but gaining control of the lake is a community issue. (p. 108)

He adds a few more questions that illustrate the difference between the kinds of help we often offer individuals and the kinds of help needed in communities:

What good is job training if the available jobs won’t enable a man to support his family? Or what benefit is homeownership if the home is in a deteriorating, crime-infested neighborhood? (p. 109)

In both of those cases, and countless others, there are community problems that require community solutions. But the point isn’t just that the community needs to be fixed, it’s that the community needs to come together to make life in the community better. The community needs to be made whole.

He then goes on to provide an illustration through some work done by Focused Community Strategies and Opportunity international in Nicaragua. The farmers in a community in Nicaragua grew enough yucca to feed their families. The problem that these American groups saw was that these farmers could have grown more yucca to sell at market but didn’t do so for two reasons. First, the quality of yucca that they grew for their families wasn’t of the quality needed for the export markets. Second, their yucca began to wither within a few days. If these farmers were going to make any money selling excess yucca to outside markets, they were going to need a higher quality product and a way of preserving it.

For a cost, the farmers could get some starting crops of higher quality yucca and the equipment to give the yucca a paraffin coating for a longer shelf life. Beginning the new practices involved with entering the export market could triple the income of these farmers, but doing so would certainly entail new risks. Moreover, sustaining these practices would require at least forty farmers to make the change. Twelve farmers took the risk and enjoyed some success, encouraging others to consider joining them in the next crop. If success bred success, the farmers wold soon have enough new partners to sustain the operation.

This is an encouraging story and there are countless similar possibilities in other communities: gaining control of a vacant storefront and turning it into a locally owned business, gaining control of an abandoned house and turning it into affordable housing for people in the community, gaining control of the vacant lot and creating a community garden, and so on. As Lupton writes, “Controlling the lake implies ownership by the community of their community.” (p. 112, emphasis original)

But there are some cautions to take here.

First, in the story of the farmers the questions that led to the new practices were brought by someone who wasn’t native to the community but who had worked to become a member of it: she had “moved in with the local peasants and began first to observe and to listen and then eventually ask questions.” (p. 109) An outside perspective can often be a good thing, helping us see possibilities where we hadn’t before.

However, we must also avoid the temptation to force outside views and ideas on a community or create astroturf groups within a community. Knowing about the opportunities that would come with export-grade yucca and paraffin coating equipment, it might be tempting to cajole other farmers into joining the project or launching similar schemes. Community development as Lupton has described it, however, must come from inside the community, even if the idea is initially suggested by someone from outside.

Second, we must recognize the costs of these kinds of projects. Lupton mentions – somewhat offhandedly – that the farmers invested their own savings and took out microloans. The farmers weren’t simply entering the profit side of the larger market, they were also spending their savings and going into debt. They were probably already involved in the shadow side of global capitalism, but this was a larger step in that direction. These details are, of course, related to the first caution: taking on these practices and this debt is fine if the farmers are aware of the risks and making an informed decision. But one has to wonder what would have happened had this project failed… would the organizations that worked to change the way these people farmed have been there if a drought ruined the crop?

But those are merely cautions. Overall, I quite liked the vision of community development that Lupton presents in this section: a community taking ownership of its resources and being empowered to act for its own good.

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