“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.” — Howard Thurman
What’s at the heart of this quote? Individuality. It’s a focus on the individual, on being independent, or on an individual’s pursuit of personal happiness.
I am independent to my core. For as long as I can remember, my parents, teachers and Western society have told me I can achieve whatever I put my mind to; I can become whoever I want. Within the church world, I was given opportunities to take spiritual gift tests and encouraged to ask God for clarity about my specific calling in life. At school and at work, I’ve been required to take personality or strengths tests to discover my unique talents and how to improve upon them because knowing and understanding distinctive aptitudes and gifts can create healthy self-awareness.
But we must also understand that this idea of self-discovery and independence is a highly Western way of thinking. It took me awhile to understand this and even longer to understand that this view of self could slow down progress with international relationships and projects.
Concepts of self from “Helping without Hurting in Short-Term Missions” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
What does all this mean? Many societies in the majority world* operate within “collectivist cultures”— where a group of people’s social norms, role expectations, and interdependence on each other dictates their life choices. For example, deciding on a career wouldn’t be an individual’s choice alone, but rather what the group or its leaders think is suitable.
When an outsider asks local partners in collectivist cultures if they like a proposed project idea to improve their community (or school or church), they may say, “Yes.” Not because they genuinely feel it’s best, but in order to save-face and not embarrass the guest. When asked if an evangelistic effort was worth the time and investment at their local church, again, they may say it was great and invite you back. Even if they thought otherwise, they would rather maintain harmony within the relationship.
So how do WesternersNorth Americans build honest relationships in order to alleviate poverty without hurting in the majority world? We’re glad you asked!
- Take time to learn about the culture you want to serve.
- Go on a research trip. Ask a lot of questions without offering advice or solutions. Listen.
- Be extra careful to honor and respect local leaders.
- Take responsibility in acknowledging how save-face cultures communicate and learn to read between the lines.
- Develop relationships where direct communication can be held in a safe place.
- Learn. Learn. Oh and did we mention, learn? Only then can you begin to propose solutions to alleviate poverty. In some cases, it may be best to use an intermediary partner who has a strong long-term relationship with the selected community to introduce ideas and solutions.
*”Majority world” is a term used to refer to what used to be called the “developing world” in order to move away from stereotypes that countries must “develop” to be more like the West.