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Who exactly is it that needs help?

17 May 2013

The giving of Christian aid can be a two-way process, says Peter Graystone

TEN years ago, when I wrote my first column for the Church Times, it was Christian Aid Week. At the time, I worked for Christian Aid. That job, and the visits to some of the world's poorest communities that were integral to it, changed my life. I do not work in international development any more, but, as that week comes round again, I realise how significant those experiences have been.

I wrote that first article because I had just returned from the Dominican Republic. I visited a school in a village where most of the houses had no electricity or running water, and were flooded repeatedly. After a maths lesson, I watched 129 children get their main meal of the day.

Their cook was called Matola. I asked her how much it cost to provide lunch for the whole school. She did some sums, and I worked out the exchange rate: £10 feeds them all rice pudding, and banana. I explained that £10 is about the amount people think of giving when they see a charity envelope. It would be satisfying for them to know that their contribution would buy a day's food for a whole school. A grin spread across her face. She did some more sums, and announced: "On treat days, we give them bread with chocolate spread. That would cost £15."

At the time, I felt that I could not ask churchgoers to give extra money so that children could have chocolate. Now, I wish I had. Why not give children in a poor country a treat? It is what I do all the time for my godchildren.

Since that trip, I have thanked God for my food before every single meal. Ten years; no exceptions. I do not do it because I have become religious. I do it because I have become grateful.

Poverty, however, is about more than hunger. In Mozambique, I met the widow of a man who had been killed by an electrical mishap at a sugar plantation. It was an entirely preventable accident. I had expected to interview her, but I could not write because she held my wrist tightly be- tween her hands. We sat in silence.

Her husband had not died for lack of food, or medicine, but for lack of a risk assessment. Poverty drives people to accept jobs under those circumstances. But it is difficult to ask people to give money to address needs of that kind. Nearly everyone will readily give money to put bread in the hands of hungry children; it is harder to ask people to fund health-and-safety officials, trade unions, and human-rights associations. But those are the systems that make communities strong in the face of natural or man-made assaults.

We need organisations such as Christian Aid so that decisions about funding are not made sentimentally, but to facilitate the long-term strengthening of civil society.

I wish God's blessing on everyone who has knocked on doors this week, asking people to give. It is the most worthwhile thing you will do this month. When you live in comfort, your understanding of what has true worth gets fuddled; in poor communities, life is stripped bare, and you see issues clearly. The value of life becomes plain when you live close to death.

We need aid from the world's poorest communities, in order to understand what matters, and what is godly. We need Christian aid from the world's poorest people.

Peter Graystone develops pioneer mission projects for Church Army.

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