Darrow Miller and Friends

Aid that Increases Poverty? A Case Study in Unintended Consequences

by Scott Wisley

Ask Scott Wisley Why poverty? and he’ll tell you Because of lies.

Papuans were totally self-sufficient for thousands of years so it is a difficult task to convince them that they are hopeless and helpless. But in the last decade well-intentioned outsiders have made significant headway. The Papuans, who viewed themselves as “the people”–strong, free, brave and capable–are becoming dependent on government, mission, and aid organizations.

Beliefs are what shape us. If you convince someone he is poor, he will act poor.

I teach a college class of aspiring teachers about poverty and education. I asked them, “Who convinced  you that you should get everything free?” They blamed the outsiders. I asked, “Who made schooling and medical services free here?” When they named the head politician I asked where he was from. They got quiet because he is a local. I called to their attention the many campaign posters promising giveaways.  I said, “If I came to you and said ‘Oh, you poor Papuan student, I feel so bad for you. You were malnourished as a child and came from a single parent family. This is really hard what you are doing: working and going to school. You can’t do this. I will pay your school fees and I will give you clothes and food and a place to live and spending money. I’ll do your homework for you and take your tests.’ What do I believe about you? That you don’t have what it takes. You are weak and I am strong. You are poor and I am rich. You are stupid and I am smart. Is that what you are?

“What do I believe if I have to come in and put in a clean water system for you and build all your houses and teach you farmers to raise vegetables and take your kids to raise and educate myself? It says that I don’t believe you have what it takes. You don’t know how gravity works and you can’t glue PVC pipe or swing a hammer or farm or raise your own kids. You are helpless and hopeless.”

Anger rose on their faces because everyone hates being pitied and disrespected.

Then we talked about how God views us. He looks at each girl in the room and says,

You are my precious, beautiful, smart and very capable – daughter. I made you to love and live and praise me with your sweet voice. I made you to nurture and care. I delight in you.

He looks at each boy and says,

With me you have what it takes. I made you strong and brave and ready to lay down your life to protect those I love. I made you a builder, a leader, an influencer. You are THE man.

I challenged them to stop believing the lies of politicians and well intentioned AID workers and missionaries. Believe in God and what He says about you. You might not have much money or stuff but don’t take on the label ‘POOR’.”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Grown men and women crying. We all want to be respected, not pitied.

Many well intentioned outsiders are unwittingly bent on convincing Papuans that they are poor. (See Steve Saint’s article, “Projecting Poverty Where it Doesn’t Exist.”) Compassion is a love for the hopeless and helpless. It is the brother of Pity and cousin of Tolerance. That whole family of loves is supposed to serve in the hospice or mental health ward, not venture out into the streets and accost healthy people.

Why don’t we see these peoples’ strengths? Why do we only focus on what they can’t do and what they don’t have? Is it because we have so little respect for them? For me, I believe the main reason is pride. I think I am stronger, smarter, healthier, and richer so I condescend in compassion or tolerance or pity. But are we really that wealthy? Are they really that poor? I asked my Ugandan roommate in Turkey why Development Associates International has such a great cross cultural team. “We respect each other. Each of us brings our strengths to the table.” Then he listed the strengths, and his list was as long as the list the Westerners bring. Wow! We need a lot more of this kind of respect-filled love.

Other villages have asked us to start a branch of our school for their kids. We always begin the discussion by saying they have to provide land, building and houses, and pay teacher’s salaries. We will partner with them and come up with the rest but this is THEIR school so THEY have to PAY for it.  They love being treated with respect but PAYING the price of being respected is a hard choice.

Recently we met with the church and village leaders in Eragaiam in the Walak tribe. (Watch our YouTube video, “4×4 school in Eragaiam”) I shared that I didn’t view them as poor but as strong, wealthy, brave and very capable people created in the image of God. Some tough Walaks started tearing up. They are starving for that kind of affirmation. They said, “We have to give the wood and materials and help to build this school. We have to build a road in. We are ready to pay the teachers’ salaries.” In the 60s the missionaries treated them with respect and thousands of churches, schools, and health clinics were built this way. In those days missionaries lived in the villages with them and saw their strengths and abilities every day. One wrote a great book called The Amazing Danis!: the title says it all. But times have changed. Now missions means a foray. Outsiders jet in for a short trip. They can only see what the people don’t have. Such a practice engenders little respect.

This village had asked us to help them start an elementary school, even though they already had one. A beautiful school building stood 50 meters away from where were meeting. At 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning it was totally empty. It was built and is supported with foreign aid money. The children attend free. But they graduate with a shattered identity and crushed self-worth. Most cannot read, write, or do basic math. The villagers realize this and are ready to pay $60 a semester– in a place that Reuters reports as one of the poorest spots in one of the poorest countries in the world–for their kid to go to school.

In the book The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley, an African father was asked why he sent his child to the private school with its run down facilities when he could send his child to the government school that had great buildings and was free. He answered, “When you go to the market and someone is giving fruit away for free it is because it is rotten. If you want good quality fruit you pay for it.”

The villagers named our school Ob Anggen, “Good Fruit.”

Scott Wisley was born in Thailand to missionary parents, attended boarding school in Malaysia and spent four years in the Philippines. After earning a Masters degree in Third World Economic Development from Eastern University he has served in Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) since 1996. Scott describes his service as “focused on wholistic ministry with a big emphasis on discipleship.” In particular, he helps operate an elementary school, a strategy which “impacts the whole family and community.”

Write Scott at shwisley@gmail.com

print this page Print this page



  1. Tom

    November 9, 2012 - 9:41 am

    This article brought to mind my experiences in Haiti. Haiti is a beautiful Island with wonderful people but exists in abject poverty. Why is that? How much aid and missions work has gone on there yet instead of developing it declines. Could it be that well intentioned governments and individuals have given and given but not provided a sense of dignity and affirmation that the people can resolve their issues with their God-given abilities and collaboration of strengths?

  2. Tim Williams

    December 20, 2012 - 5:51 pm

    Always enjoy reading on this site! Appreciated this article tonight as I try to help lead our modestly sized local church into more substantial efforts to minister and call out the gifts of the economically poor community in our midst! Starting a Sunday/Wednesday Bible study that will be focused on exploring these topics and implementing 3-4 seed projects from January-May. Our first goal is to build and deepen more relationships in this community at our front door. Pray for us and feel free to direct me to any additional articles/books/resources!!

    • admin

      December 21, 2012 - 11:20 am

      We’re always happy when someone finds our material helpful, Tim. Thanks for your response. Kudos for finding a way to implement some of the core DNA principles in your local church ministry.

      Gary Brumbelow