Monday, September 16, 2013

How to get smarter and do better mission work

Shipping shoes and clothing to Africa as a mission project? Not smart.
This year I gave blogging another try and have been surprised by the results. With so many visitors—especially friends-of-friends-of-friends, I decided to spruce up my digital house and start by pruning back some old posts. In the process, I depublished the entire first four years of this blog. This reminded me of the time my mother told my nearly-deaf great-grandma that she could trim about a foot off the overgrown bushes on the side of the house. You can guess the rest of what has become a classic family joke.

Some of my old posts were cringe-worthy. Not as painful as finding my high school essays or religious kitsch, but enough to remind me that I am evolving—that despite having earned an MA in International Development, I was still extremely na├»ve when I moved to Congo in 2005, and there’s a good chance that future-Taylor will say the same thing about the Taylor of 2013.

I actually find this reminder comforting. It reassures me that if I'm moving towards a healthier missiology (the science/art of do-gooding), then so are many others. The more the merrier in this club. Even newcomers can leapfrog into the conversation through reading, reflection and learning from the mistakes of people who have been at this for years.

I want to argue that rapid learning in the field of do-gooding/mission work is possible—that exposure to a few key books and blog posts on a subject can be transformative. On the other hand, there is something to be said for putting in the hours. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, examined numerous extraordinarily successful people. From athletes to academics to artists, his team found a common denominator between these 'gifted' individuals: they all had put in at least 10,000 hours of training/study in their field before becoming renowned in it.   

I thought about this when recently reading The Trouble With Bright Girls. At the heart of the article was this finding:
Bright girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective learners as a result. Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.
Here it was again in another form: Abilities, even those labeled as intelligence or cleverness, are developed through proactively putting in the hours of research, training and practice. 

Contrary to the widespread Western myth, love is not all you need--especially when it comes to effective do-gooding/mission work. Education and experience are essential too. Thinking that passion + a crash course makes one a skilled expert is an insult to those who have devoted their lives to the subject despite what films like the Karate Kid or Strictly Ballroom have led us to believe. I'm tempted to go off on my soapbox about the mission project failures that could have been prevented had churches done serious research and relationship-building before pouring thousands of dollars down a pit, but the professional anti-poverty organizations as a whole don't have such a great track record either. 

This brings me to the question posed in this post's title "How does one become savvier and more effective in doing good?" Here is my short answer:
  • Always accept the possibility that what you thought you knew about the problem is wrong, and the 'solutions' you've poured your heart into are harming those you want to assist. 
  • Question everything until you find a better answer, and once you find it, consider that it isn't right either. (If you were the one who came up with the answer, that's a major red flag; sustainable solutions require community ownership of both the solution and the problem)
  • Never stop trying to ask better questions. 
The real trick, then, is to not let the knowledge that your future wiser self will criticize your current self’s actions paralyze you into inaction. I'm still struggling with that one.
Donating pig stuffed animals to the Marine's Toys-for-Tots collection in Djibouti?  Not smart on so many levels.

Happy Learning! 

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