Helpful hints for re-examining how we help
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Mar 06, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

Helpful hints for re-examining how we help

St. Marys Journal Argus

St. Marys Journal Argus editorial

A nice thing about being associated, through corporate ownership, with a series of small-town newspapers throughout Southwestern Ontario is being able to keep in touch with what’s going on in surrounding communities. And that includes the discourse that unfolds on the various newspapers’ Letters to the Editor pages.

Case in point is recent banter in the Listowel Banner examining the merits of overseas humanitarian efforts. Under the headline “No easy answers when going on mission trips,” the latest in this ongoing discussion features Listowel resident George Gracey responding to an earlier letter questioning the value of overseas mission delegations; and, indeed, offering the possibility that such delegations do more harm than they do good to communities in developing nations.

“...On these projects, I too, frequently have concerns,” Gracey writes. Among the potential drawbacks conceded by the letter-writer include taking away meaningful labour from local people; making decisions about construction type and/or project location without local input; moving on to the next project without leaving the existing project with sufficient ongoing support; and the inefficiency of shipping certain materials and goods overseas, when it might be much more cost-effective to instead spend the same money directly in the receiving community.

Contributors to Letters to the Editor in the Banner aren’t alone, however, in questioning the value of such efforts. A Masters of Sociology graduate of the University of Guelph, who grew up on a Wellington County farm and recently launched an online video blog called “Mel’s Prime Beef,” raised similar issues in a new installment entitled “Market Failure?”

“If you send free food to Ethiopia, you just made the local price to an Ethiopian farmer zero,” she says in the video, which can be viewed — along with the rest of her newly-launched series, in which she aims to question many established values and beliefs of Ontario farmers — at “And if we’ve destroyed their local agricultural economies, then we’ve made them dependent on our exports.”

The most succinct challenge of overseas missions, however, may be found — not surprisingly, for anyone who has heard him speak or experienced his previous writings — in “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” the latest book by Virginia-based guru of pastured livestock and resource-efficient living, Joel Salatin.

(Salatin will conduct three separate workshops in Ailsa Craig on March 20, 21 and 22. To find out more, visit

The writer recounts being told by an acquaintance how “several times (during an overseas trip) he watched shipping containers of clothes, sent primarily by well-meaning ... missionary groups, completely destroy village economies ... Everyone mobs the freebies and takes the Western handouts. This collapses the local business and these displaced go-getters (aspiring businesspeople in the receiving community) become the famous warlords we in the West have all learned are the nexus of all those people’s problems.”

Salatin goes on to offer other similar examples of well-meaning but damaging assistance. It sometimes strays into extreme language and extreme possibilities but it mirrors, nonetheless, concerns that are obviously out there, in communities like Listowel and St. Marys.

As Salatin writes, “Help is not always a handout. Help can also be a butt-out.”


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