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Developing the Art of Charity

Junior Zeenya Meherally writes of her experience in Kenya and the difference between development, charity, and aid. 

Over this past summer, high school students from over 20 countries around the world gathered in Mombasa, Kenya. Within the first days of arrival they were challenged to answer the question: What is the difference between charity, aid, and development? Being an American student, these words overlapped in almost every instance of volunteering that I had experienced. And now, with in the next couple of days of arriving in Kenya, I was to learn, master, and apply these approaches to an actual service site.

When my group went to our service site, Irshad Madrasa, of course there was a huge lack of school materials and facilities. To an outsider from a privileged private school in the US, that lights up a red light immediately. Even though we had been given lessons on looking beyond these problems, the students and staff of the school had only received charitable kinds of help in the past. They were used to having items handed to them. These would make everyone happy for the time being, but then once we, the outsiders, leave and the supplies get lost or damaged- they again look for another person to hand them something. The cycle yet again was to reach stage one. Our job was to begin the process of breaking that cycle.

Throughout our time at the Madrasa, we spent a large amount of time conversing with the students and teachers before taking any actions. Upon observing and analyzing the school settings along with the conversations with the students/teachers, we came to the realization of a fundamental problem: the lack of opportunities for students to succeed outside of school hours. Many students would vividly explain their days starting early in the morning to reach school and spending the evening after school working with their families. Teachers also shared how parents are not serious about attending conferences or enforcing the importance of homework, resulting in a poor performance in the classrooms.

After discussing and concluding the needs analysis, we initiated a student-to-student teaching program that fits into the school’s schedule. During this time if any of the students need help on a subject, the older students will be there to sit with and help them. If they felt like they didn’t need the other person for improvement, then they can use this time to meet with teachers or do their homework.

This way, the concern that the teachers have about the lack of importance of education at home, which results in students doing poorly in class, can be recognized and worked on. This is an example of “development.” Until long in the future, there might not be many results from the initiation of this program, but the most important part is that the community is using its abilities to help each other. This new insight on the exchange of capabilities can continue for as long as the community desires to change their conditions. Unlike what many outsiders do, we didn’t show our dominance as an external provider, but raised awareness of the special qualities within the community that can cause a more effective result, rather than just “giving” physical materials.

Development revolves around the construction of self-reliance and improving the quality of life in the long term. Particularly, development models aim towards enabling local communities to take full responsibility of their own future. This means that when you are creating sustainable environment for the people in need, it must reflect the opinions and circumstances of the people themselves. It must convey and incorporate their wishes to improve the conditions around them, not what the “outsider” thinks would be beneficial. In order to achieve such a goal, there are many steps and components. First and foremost, on a more personal scale, it’s important to connect on a personal level and discover through the voice of the people what the non-physical problems are. Go beyond the “tip of the iceberg” problems such as lack of equipment and uncover social, familial, or personal problems.

Charity involves an aspect of giving something physical, for example, the donation of basketballs. Charities, by no means are harmful and their work is highly respected as well, but what happens when those basketballs pop? The community goes back to stage one: there is a deficiency and those who are in need, once again, don’t look within each other to find a solution from their capabilities, but look towards the outside world for a solution. Then comes aid. Most individuals who receive aid have been through a short-term disaster such as tornadoes, earthquakes, landslides etc. Giving aid focuses on having rapid impacts. Assisting in getting help via necessities of life is a primary example. For instance, when Hurricane Katrina hit, many agencies were called to help people get back on their feet by providing the essentials such as food and water. Once the emergency comes to an end, so does their calling.

The acts of development aim to achieve permanent change. Along with that, the plan has to be carried out from the inside. This way the locals gain a true sense of achievement and purpose. Thus, the next time you go to serve your community, think about the type of service are you giving? Charity, aid, or development? If you answer with charity or aid, think about what is causing you to give charity. By no means is charity wrong, but what is the next step?

Photo courtesy of Zeenya Meherally


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