The Yawning Gap

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Justice, respect and fullness of life for all.

 

This is the cultural vision of a NGO. I cannot but read it to have another cultural vision pop into my head; that of the 1950’s comic hero Superman known to stand by “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”. Of course today Superman does not stand by that maxim which has been justifiably modified to “Truth, Justice, and all that stuff” by Hollywood. In her theses, Lauren N Carp proffers the view that what “the American Way” meant in 1952 has shifted so much that a contemporary definition no longer resembles what the line actually means in Superman lore. So “all that stuff” it is! Don’t know about you but I feel… bereft.

In the same vein, when this NGO’s Statement of Purpose proposes to expresses God’s love for individuals, families and communities on behalf of the church from from whence it came, it sounds nobel. But unlike Hollywood’s reinvention of Superman in a secular age, the NGO has not yet caught up with their times. But then, perhaps, I am being unfair – it has been only in the last decade that NGOs have placed themselves at arms length from their 2000 year old parent bodies. The reasons are numerous –  among them being commercial in nature and…well, commercial in nature pretty much covers them all, actually.

It is my personal experience that NGOs have a business attitude similar to that of commercial enterprises insofar as there is necessary chasing of the dollar and the notion of covering costs which equates to services that are economically viable but not necessarily socially viable. Having been in both program management and on the coal-face I understand the reasons for not wanting to dip into church coffers and if the government will provide money for programs why should a NGO have to, right? I can also understand that Royal Commissions into abuses have seen an arm’s length placed between the church and ‘mission’ in marginalised communities. Well… not so much arm’s length than a severing of both finances and faith to minimise exposure to litigation, protect contracts and rebuild any sense of trust left after the bad press.

Don’t get me wrong – I love NGOs and I am pleased to report that according to this NYT article on anti-capitalism, NGOs are not the economic parasite one might think.

So back to expressing God’s love for individuals, families and communities. This NGO goes on to describe said expression:

  • Making a positive difference to quality of life
  • Responding to needs and issues in ways which enhance and protect dignity and integrity
  • Promoting social justice

Last year I was fortunate enough to attend a small private meeting in which Rev Kennedy Dhanabalan, CEO of EFICOR, explained how his church was educating Indian congregations about social justice. In a very brief vignette he described how homilies and soup kitchens were not the answer because parishioners could simply return to their (relatively) comfortable homes and never give another thought until next Sunday. In a change of tack the church convinced members to go into the streets where those suffering extreme poverty, starvation, illness and AIDS had been dumped. At first it was a matter of providing some physical and spiritual sustenance where parishioners met people; starving and ill. As the parish naturally extended their community to include those on the street a transformation took place. That change was social justice; the making of a positive difference to quality of life, a response to needs and issues in ways which enhance and protected dignity and integrity, and the promotion of social justice.

I admit to seeing very little of this from the  NGOs in which I have volunteered and worked. What I have seen is physical, emotional and spiritual neglect perpetrated  by ‘privileged’ volunteers and workers who: deliver what they believe to be social justice, from the top down, by executing their required duties, under instruction of paid management, that are morally vacuous, contrary to social justice principals, in some cases unlawful and, so far as I could determine, in contravention of some pretty basic human rights.

The church may have severed ties of finances and faith but have they learned anything in their apparently self-centred rush to protect their coffers and reputations by creating something that is at best not working or, at worst, yet another exercise of hypocrisy? I think “Justice, respect and fullness of life for all” has proceeded well past its use-by date and it’s time to either be honest about your NGO or get your hands dirty.

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