toothbrush

Each year, Operation Christmas Child mobilizes millions of people to fill shoe boxes with presents for kids that probably wouldn’t receive presents on Christmas otherwise (especially, since many of them don’t live in Christian-tradition countries). It astounds me how many churches have embraced it, so I’d like to have a few words.

Before continuing, I’d like to say that I really admire and appreciate when people, churches or other organizations have a desire to help, we can’t do it enough. What I’d also like to say, is that sometimes we need to think twice if what we’re doing really helps… because intentions are NOT all that matter. And please let me know if I’m just not getting this Operation Christmas Child right.

This program is part of a “relief organization,” meaning, they don’t seek structural changes to global problems, but rather to temporarily alleviate the symptoms of those problems. People often argue about which system is better. I think both, structural changes and alleviation of symptoms, are needed, but let me explain why Operation Christmas Child doesn’t qualify as a relief program:

  • Relief programs meet the immediate needs of particular groups of people. How does a shoe box full of random stuff qualify as meeting immediate needs, especially when the packer doesn’t even know what country that box is going to end up in? Yes, I’ve also heard the story about the freezing boy from a freezing country among the crowd, who opens his box and pulls out a down jacket just his size. I can’t help but think about two things: 1, how on earth do you fit a down jacket in a shoe box, and 2, the face of freezing kid next to him who only receives a toothbrush, which brings me to my next point.
  • These kind of programs are extremely exclusivist: because of the limited number of questionably useful shoe boxes, they don’t reach everybody in the village so, on top of the down toothbrush next to the down jacket kid, who knows how many other kids don’t even get boxes? Who determines which kids receive boxes, and why? What kind of conflicts does this inequality and exclusivity create, and what happens when the organization leaves the village? Please, don’t get me wrong. 1 kid with a toothbrush is better than 0 kids with a toothbrush, but, at what cost?
  • At an extremely expensive one: the cost of shipping all those boxes full of questionably helpful stuff around the globe. For each box they pack, people are asked to donate $7, which in Nairobi is 3 days salary or 14 loaves of bread.
  • Oh but they evangelize! That worsens things: ok, so kids with boxes get to hear the gospel. What about the kids that don’t get the boxes? No box, no Jesus? But let’s forget for a second about the no-box kid. What about the yes box, yes Jesus kid? What kind of gospel are we transmitting? That of a Santa Claus Jesus? That of white wealthy Christians that give useless presents and then leave? I don’t know about you, but when I was 5, I’d have embraced Zoroastrianism for a present. This blackmail evangelism is not exclusively Christian. Islam has drastically advanced in Africa exchanging food for Allah. Thanks to some Christian missionaries who used the same method in Asia, we coined the term “rice Christians.”

Why is this Operation Christmas Child so popular then? Honestly, I think it’s because it’s too easy. It helps our conscience more than it helps the kids who receive the boxes.

I do not mean this post to be an excuse for not doing anything, since we can’t change the world. And we can’t, but if you agree with me on this one and you’re not sending a $7 toothbrush God knows where, DO SOMETHING ELSE. But what kind of organizations or programs should we support? Charity is always the easy option, but I’d encourage you to look for organizations/programs that seek structural changes, and whose work focuses on:

Why this emphasis on “local” stuff? Because only by empowering local people to improve their communities, will they be able to survive in this dog-eat-dog world. And that’s why Capitalism prefers charity: it’s a paternalizing kinda-help. It is a bandaid that will never solve real problems on its own, ergo, it eliminates competition, it’s safe. If wealth doesn’t change hands, we can keep ruling the world. Don’t misunderstand me, I think that charity can meet urgent needs that can’t wait for the structural change that will make that need disappear, but these are my objections to charity alone:

Inequality objectively exists, and I don’t intend to make a case for it or against it. Throughout history, inequality has given birth to many stories about poor stealing from the rich to give it back to the poor. I don’t intend to make a case for or against stealing either. My case is against this charity that, after having stolen from the poor, they give (some of) it back to them, and expect to be praised for it. History shows us how privileged countries have systematically raped the rest of the world to be where they are. “I don’t steal” you may say. Well, as participants of the economy of these countries, we are (maybe indirectly but still) partners in crime. History is only our fault if we perpetuate it, and as you can see if you turn on your tv, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

My advice (for free!), instead of spending 10 extra minutes at Walmart buying toothbrushes, invest some of your time to research organizations that are making real changes. And when you find them, support them. I know we’re busy, but hey, I though we wanted to make a contribution here. It’s easier to give leftovers, but good stuff comes with a price, so let’s pay it.

Marta


*Disclaimer: Supporting organizations that are creating changes is just the beginning of what we can do to help. I have no personal interest in any of the specific organizations listed above. They’re just examples of the many that are out there making changes. Except for Kiva, they all are Christian organizations, but there are also secular ones, and also others that focus on evangelizing. If you’re looking for that, I always prefer to support individual missionaries I personally know, rather than agencies, but that’s your call.