Can the Church show the aid community how it’s done?

Another report on aid, wait a minute one that is actually based on the opinions and experiences of those who receive aid?! Yes I’m talking about the latest publication Time to Listen, which is a refreshing and welcome contribution to the debate about how effective aid really is.

This may not be the first time a report has focused on recipients – the very people it is trying to lift out of poverty  – but I do feel that its release is timely given the recent anti-aid  rhetoric, which  fuel unhelpful media headlines.

Don’t get me wrong it’s important not to look at the role of aid through rose-tinted glasses. Neither is it useful to totally dismiss some of the real and tangible benefits that it can bring just because donor budgets are being stretched due to tough economic times.

We need a more sophisticated and balanced critique of the whole aid system. Scrutiny, when done well, puts the focus on experimentation, feedback and real-time learning. We learn to adapt by making small changes, observing the results, and then adjusting. This open kind of scrutiny both with donor and recipient on how we can make aid work better should become the norm.

That’s why I like this report. It does not shy away from exposing the problems faced on the ground.

Interestingly as I read it, it gets me thinking that the church often does what this book’s calling the aid industry to do such as aid workers to become more rooted in communities, local people to be seen as colleagues and drivers of their own development and collaborative decision making.

Local church meeting. Source Tearfund

Local church meeting. Source Tearfund


In the Western world we can forget that community groups like churches  are among the world’s most powerful grassroots networks, particularly in the global South. They have the ability of bringing people together to agree and work together to achieve a safe, healthy, productive and sustainable future for their village, town or city.

Once the local church is mobilised, it becomes a facilitator rather than the provider. It seeks to envision and empower community members to identify and respond to their own needs, rather than meeting those needs for them. The local church works with rather than for the community.

Sometimes that means digging wells or pit latrines to improve sanitation, sometimes it means providing emotional support to the bereaved. Fundamental to the church community mobilisation process is challenging the injustices of our day as well as supporting the most vulnerable people in the neighbourhood, whoever they may be.

One of Tearfund’s partners Eficor (the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief) in India, run the Poor Area Civil Society programme funded by DFID which monitors the national rural employment guarantee scheme to fund 100 days of work for each person currently living in poverty. That’s a great way to spend aid money; empowering local communities to make sure their government deliver on the work they’ve committed to do.

Self help group in India. Source Tearfund

Self help group in India. Source Tearfund

And the church should not be immune to scrutiny either, we know that it isn’t perfect and that it doesn’t always gets it right. That’s why Tearfund’s church community mobilisation process has a rigorous monitoring and evaluation component – to identify when problems arise and how we can learn from them so that communities are better equipped. We believe that scrutiny is good and it must be done all the time, so we can be very clear about how our money is being spent.

It is clear that aid is not the magic silver bullet to solve poverty. Nonetheless countries like the UK should still stick to their aid commitment to give less than one per cent of our national income to the world’s poorest. Our aid programmes should continue to be reviewed by regulatory bodies such as the National Audit Office and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.

The debate must move towards a more intelligent approach of how we can make aid smarter, looking at additional ways to finance development to avoid dependency and, a bit like the local church, how we can work with poor communities to give them the tools and opportunities to hold their own governments to account in the decisions made that affect their livelihoods for the better.

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