This is the second in a series of posts unpacking the recent conference I attended at Wheaton called Government, Foreign Assistance, and the Mission of God in the World, hosted by Bread for the World, Wheaton, and the Micah Prayer. The first post is here.
One interesting phenomenon I find is that both "conservative" and "liberal" Christian perspectives often have serious reservations about government involvement in foreign assistance, although usually for quite different reasons. Certain "conservative" Christian voices object because they not only often see it as stealing our money from us against our will but they also see government as instrinsically wasteful. Certain "liberal" Christian voices often see government aid as counterproductive and often doing more harm than good.
There were two "governmental" speakers at the conference: 1) Michael Gerson, who was Bush's speechwriter and who headed up PEPFAR (Africa AIDS initiative) and 2) Tim Ziemer, who first under the Bush administration and now under the Obama administration is the US Global Malaria Coordinator.
Gerson discussed Bush's initiative to get antiviral drugs to communities in Africa that were being decimated by AIDS. If I remember the statistics, the PEPFAR program has turned a situation around from only around 4% of Africans with AIDS being on ARV drugs to now 94%. There are, of course, some critiques of the program. For example, the emphasis was on distribution rather than establishing systems of distribution, which means the program is not self-perpetuating. I also heard some critique of the deals made with pharmaceutical companies.
In case I don't remember later, I have formulated over the course of the week a kind of "dance with the Devil" perspective on Christian-state relationships. I may post on it tomorrow in relation to certain biblical precedents.
Ziemer talked about the US led attempt to elimilate malaria from 15 countries. I guess 3000 people die a day in the world from malaria--completely unnecessary. Here the US has established systems that meet US environmental standards at the distribution of nets with incesticide, spraying, etc. Some have questions about the incecticide, but generally consider it a necessary evil.
Ziemer mentioned several elements the US government brings that small NGOs cannot:
1. level of cash
2. technical/logistical assistance
3. political influence
In short, no local church is equipped to respond effectively to the scale of a Katrina or Haitian earthquake or an Indonesian tsunami. In fact, there is actually a term "badvocacy" for a lot of what is done by well intentioned but as often as not ignorant church groups. They weren't mentioned but I thought several times of the whacko church group that was trying to smuggle orphans into the Dominican Republic.
The CEO of Food for the Hungry had just returned from Haiti and was reminded of the phrase from Judges, "Everyone did what was right in their own eyes." Although the general sentiment was that short term mission trips were generally a good thing, there was also the sense that well intentioned but culturally ignorant Americans can also do great harm. Just because you've been to another country, doesn't really mean that you've been to another country. Often such trips make generally un-self-aware people feel like they're now experts, when they culturally never really left home.
Again, in short, the church is not organized or mobilized enough to get the job done--or barely even started--on matters like AIDS or malaria.
A final word on the appropriateness of government involvement for those who think it is not in the best interest of US citizens for their money to be used in these ways. One thing that both Gerson and Ziemer mentioned is that it has been showed definitively that an overwhelming connection exists between poverty and terrorism. That is to say, it is misguided to think of terrorism as primarily an ideological issue. The evidence more demonstrates that it is economics that drive the ideology.
From what I can tell, there is near unanimous if not unanimous agreement by all experts in government and foreign policy that poverty is the number one cause of terrorism. This implies that it is massively in the public interest for the general welfare of US citizens for the government to address world poverty, especially in the Arab world.