Gospel & Culture blog
Every few years, a story comes out about the discovery of previously un-contacted tribes --- usually in the Amazonian jungle. A few days ago the Guardian reported that photographer Ricardo Stuckert's helicopter was diverted, and his flight took him over one such tribe. Stuckert posted his photos of the Indians (this is how they are referred to in the news story) looking up at the helicopter, bows and spears in hand. In 2014, the Guradian had a similar story about un-contacted Indians who fled their home and crossed into Peru to seek help.
I have become curious about why we are so fascinated by the notion of tribes that have little knowledge about the outside world. I have few hunches:
I think the issue warrants more of our attention than just a lookey-loo at people with brown skin, hand-fashioned weapons and loin cloths. Survival International says there are as many as 100 un-contacted tribes, whose land, way of life, and even existence are threatened. The push and pull factors of modernity and cultural preservation is a complicated issue: How do indigenous peoples balance their desires to protect the land, the need for modern medicine, their interest in modern conveniences, their need to have a political voice at the national and international level. Plus, the interests of the national government and international businesses (loggers, oil companies, etc.) are also at play.
Perhaps, without articulating all of these conflicting interests in a nano-second, it's the extremely complicated nature of all of this which catches our imagination and makes us stop to look at the stories about the discoveries of unknown tribes.
A disturbing story on NPR's "Marketplace" described some awkward culture changes due to the influx of NGOs in Kenya's poverty-stricken slum called Kibera. With so many NGOs operating in the home to hundreds of thousands of people living on less than a dollar a day, aid agencies are now competing with each other for access to constituents that they can train. If your NGO teaches health practices, sewing, or dance lessons, you need people to come get trained-- especially when foreigners come to see the NGO in action, or when you are filming a PR video. The NPR story explained that now Kibera residents are requiring NGOs to pay them so-called "sitting fees" or they will not attend the events. The reporter failed to see it from another point of view: many residents of Kibera are apparently more excited a handout - shrewdly re-branded as a "sitting fee" - than they are about investing in their long term capacity to run businesses.
Either way, the news is upsetting. Because- and the reporter especially failed to mention this - Kibera is still in great need of compassion ministries. On top of poverty come all of the secondary issues related to women, orphaned children and young people living in poverty: rape, dysentery, malaria, AIDS, gang violence, drug abuse. If Kibera's problems don't justify the existence of countless NGOs, then what region does? It's not that NGO destinations like sub-Saharan Africa or India have too many NGOs, it's that the services they deliver are still seen as paternalistic and (bizarre as this may seem) self-serving.
So there are some benefits to the scrutiny of these NGOs. Such negative PR presses them to examine whether they are designing their social action plans- are they really scratching where it itches? Are they addressing needs that local leadership identify? In other terms, the scrutiny creates competition among suppliers of aid. The supply of NGO "goods" (training events) seems to be greater than the demand, so market forces are forcing the product that each NGO offers to be more valuable. In this case, the product must be a mixture of training, compassion, and compensation.
Here's a possible long term fix: What if all the NGOs refused to pay sitting fees? They may avoid the "handout" mentality. And their constituency may temporarily shrink- but only until they re-design their programs in a way that residents find valuable again.
Social justice is an integrative field, taking into account the Creation mandate (to flourish and lead productive lives), the social ethic of the Old Testament (justice, fairness, goodness), Jesus' inaugural address in Luke 4:19-21, as well as contemporary theories of justice and development from the social sciences-- these theories converge where they address social problems, and inform the strategies we use to meet those needs.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor