When the doorbell rang and I opened the door this afternoon, I was greeted by an enthusiastic young man from Nigeria. This was a pleasant surprise for me. I really enjoy spontaneous conversations with people from obviously different backgrounds than myself. After some introductions we soon discovered that we had both been to Egypt. This got me quite excited and we exchanged some common Arabic phrases. After some conversation and my unintentional distraction from his business, he told me why he was “going door to door under the hot sun.” He was canvassing for World Vision. Having experienced a difficult childhood living in poverty in Nigeria, and now finding himself in a place of freedom and opportunity, he wanted to do this work for World Vision to give others a vision beyond their next meal as well.
As delighted I was about some conversation with this man, these kinds of encounters always make me somewhat uncomfortable. The photos of fly-covered children (referred to in some development circles as “poverty pornography”) and the urgency of the appeal, make me apprehensive. Don’t get me wrong, I affirm what World Vision is doing. However, I wonder whether their vision, their approach to alleviating poverty is the best vision? Or more accurately, whether there isn’t a better vision?
I think that there is. I found it difficult to explain to this young and honest gentleman (who has lived in poverty, while I clearly have not, even though I have witnessed it) that it would not be possible for me to spend $1 a day to alleviate the suffering of one child while I was getting a university degree. It was difficult for me to explain that although I affirmed his vision, and the vision of World Vision, that I had a different one. The vision I have is not simply to support impoverished children through monetary donation. We can do better than that. I have a different vision of charity, in which we do not necessarily strive to bring impoverished children to the places where we find ourselves. My vision is far from striving to achieve the capitalist dream for all people. (This is, of course, not only undesirable, but also impossible, for a number of reasons, which I will not list here at this time). My vision of charity is premised on the belief that my liberation is bound up with yours. That we might participate in each others lives, charitably. That we might encounter and engage difference, conflict, poverty, violence – all these things we think we urgently need to overcome by employing our resources in a particular and effective way. I don’t have a particular and concrete vision in mind with implementation plans. In fact, I want to question such managerial approaches to international development, conflict resolution, and the like. Again, I want to reiterate that I affirm what World Vision is doing. They are doing good things. But I think that we can do better. Lest we think that one NGO, one institution, one vision, is the final and best way to do things. Lest we lose our imagination.