What if the church could lead the world in thinking about trade versus aid for Africa? This was the challenge for 120,000 faith leaders from around the world who gathered this month through the Illinois-based multi-denominational Willow Creek Leadership Summit and linked by video to 400 cities.
This is the crowd that follows the prophet Bono, the rocker who challenged summit devotees three years ago to spend themselves and their resources on Africa's needs. Religious leadership loves to be noticed by important people, so we jumped to do Bono's bidding. This summer, he returned to the summit and honoured our work. "I had no idea the sleeping giant could wake up and run so fast," he told the crowd.
The problem is, the "giant" is evaluating whether it's lumbered off in the wrong direction, caught up in a mindset that aid is always a good thing.
Rock stars have "colonized the African discussion as surely as the African continent was a century ago," historian Niall Ferguson says in his forward to Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo. Ms. Moyo, an African economist, calls the church's aid to Africa "small beer" when compared with aid to African governments but beer that should, for the good of Africa, be cut off within five years.
"Trade versus aid" was the explosive choice church leaders were given at this summit as Ugandan economist Andrew Rugasira relayed his experience in trying to gain access to world markets. As founder and chairman of Good African Coffee, he urged the crowd to "see 900 million consumers and a continent of entrepreneurs waiting to do business." Western aid, he said, was undermining Africa's GDP - we must reconstruct our African narrative.
Even for a giant, that's quite a challenge. The church's defining line is clear on African relief needs: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." This advice, given by a first-century church leader, James, provides no directive that "looking after" has to be self-sustaining or trade-based. But we're pulled into those realities under the challenge of keeping our actions from being "polluted by the world."
The temptations of greed, corruption and dependency have brought staggering failure rates to aid, and the temptation to fatalism that we walk away is immense. So, too, the temptation to seek a magic solution. Is it now trade? It's paramount we listen to the African voices telling us to change our aid paradigm. But to see the church shift its voice to trade issues hardly seems realistic if it means putting the vulnerable at further risk.
Almost all Christian aid to Africa flows directly to African churches and community agencies in close partnerships for accountability. Tackling trade issues means the church must start influencing government leadership for accountability. Former MP John Williams, founder and CEO of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, sees this as the door to creating a civil society that can walk away from being aid dependent. "The church has a responsibility to reach out to the next generation of leaders to instill in them the right values, so when they are ready to step into leadership, there is good governance."
Accountability may just be the next frontier the church should tackle - accountability to new ideas coming from African culture and leaders, accountability to ethics, and accountability that we continue to care for the vulnerable. Not the glamour work likely to get noticed by the rock stars, but the humble work of training hearts in the truths that allow us all to work for the good of our neighbour.
Lorna Dueck is a board member of Samaritan's Purse Canada and executive producer of Listen Up TV.