There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Those were the first words my high school economics teacher uttered in our class. He bounced the idea around for a while and asked students to prove him wrong. The axiom has been around for a long time and with due reason; it’s true. That’s why it is so unfortunate we appear completely blind to the concept when it comes to missions and providing humanitarian relief and charity. When it comes to many evangelical efforts today, you might think we all failed high school economics.
Just think back to the last five missions trips to Africa or Central America you heard about. What were they doing? Building church buildings? Loading up foot lockers full of clothes, medicine, shoes, etc. to give out in villages? Painting orphanages? For some reason we act as if this basic law of economics doesn’t apply in developing countries (or perhaps down the street from our church building).
Now before I get blasted with a dozen emails criticizing me for criticizing mission trips, let me be clear that I am not saying any of these efforts are categorically wrong, just that we are often unwise in how we do them.
For I was hungry…
The Bible commands charity of the church, therefore we must. Truthfully, it should be one of the great joys of the church, to protect and provide for the least of these. However, if our goal is actually to help, we need to count the cost and do so wisely.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matt. 25:35-40)
There is no excuse for Christian indifference to the problems of the world.
No free lunches…
However, we must remember to act wisely. There are many examples where well-intentioned people, especially believers, have made great effort to help out those in poverty only to bring more financial burdens in the end. Remember the high school adage: there are no free lunches. When we just give handouts, somebody typically has to pay the cost for it.
Give a man a shoe, and shut down the market.
A classic example of helping that hurts is the recent criticism of TOMS Shoes. TOMS famous “buy a shoe give a shoe” model made them a household name, especially amongst us evangelicals whose hearts are often bigger than our brains. After all, it sounds like a great idea. We’ve seen enough of those sponsorship videos to know that all those precious little kids are running around in Africa with no shoes on. I felt the same way… until I moved there.
What you don’t see in those videos are all the little stick-built markets in that same village with stalls covered in flip-flops and cheap Chinese-made shoes. Where I lived in West Africa, the flip-flops are less than a dollar. Everyone can afford flip-flops, even the people the West Africans consider poor.
So, TOMS didn’t actually meet a need. However, it did flood villages across the developing world with vastly superior shoes… for free. Now, that may sound good, but remember, there are no free lunches. Somebody had to pay for those free shoes, and in most villages, it was the shop owners. So now, that shop owner’s kid may have free shoes, but so does everyone else in the village and that shop owner no longer has a livelihood.
If we are not careful, helping can hurt.
Toms has since reconsidered it’s own strategy to provide aid, like having the shoes made in those countries, so they can provide jobs instead of giving away shoes. Good for them. We should do the same. In the next post, I will lay out some practical points to consider next time you plan a mission trip or local charity event.
Keelan leads the Peoples Next Door project and is a Senior Church Consultant with the Union Baptist Association in Houston, TX. He is working on a PhD in Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In previous years, he spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the IMB and doing ethno-graphic research in Washington, DC with NAMB.