The Law of Unintended Consequences

A story:

Once upon a time, there was a small village of about 100 people.  For as long as anyone could remember, the population had remained essentially the same.  Each year, on average, seven babies were born, but due to poor conditions five of them died in infancy or early childhood.  Two elderly villagers (those around age 50) also died, so the growth rate was constant — around zero.  This actually worked out, since the resources of the village only supported about 90 people comfortably, and any significant growth would cause tensions with surrounding villages.

One day, some outsiders became aware of the tragedy of infant mortality in the village, as well as the fact that the elders were dying prematurely.  With clean water, some basic medicines, and some rudimentary education, “unneccesary” death could all but be eliminated.  Through the kindness and generosity of these outsiders, the sanitation of the village improved, pain and suffering diminished, and lives were saved.  And everyone lived happily ever after…

…for a brief time.  With elders living longer and a baby boom occurring, the already inadequate resources were stretched to insupportable limits.  Babies survived, but children suffered malnutrition and in extreme cases, boy with gunstarvation.  Some children, generally females, were abandoned or sold.  Boys were set to work (or sold) at young ages.  Tensions between competing villages escalated, often erupting in violence.  Tribal violence transformed into warfare.  Ten, eleven, and twelve year old boys were trained in militia units — many placed there by parents hoping their children would get adequate food and clothing.  It was not unusual to see children walking around with semi-automatic weapons.  Within the village, street gangs formed, fighting for precious resources.  Teenage mortality hit all time highs.  Violence against the elders increased.  All of these things unintended consequences of the kindness and generosity of outsiders seeking to eliminate infant mortality.

This story is a variation of one that a professor of sustainability at Vanderbilt University shared with me in 2007 when we were discussing the “Nothing But Nets” project and the campaign to wipe out malaria-related deaths.  He told of the effectiveness of U.S. religious efforts in the seventies to clean up the water and eliminate childhood diseases, and the subsequent results in the eighties, nineties, and early 21st century of widespread hunger, violence, and instability.  In the past year and a half, I have had three more similar conversations — with professors from Duke and Berkeley and Africa University — all explaining comparable situations.  In every conversation, the main concern is what happens when we treat symptoms without addressing the root causes.  Death by treatable disease is a symptom of dual problems of widespread poverty and poor (and often corrupt) governmental management.  Without addressing poverty and the governing issues, treating the symptom causes as many problems as it solves.

When I wrote this last year, I got criticism from inside the church that I was “against” Nothing But Nets and helping dying children.  This is both unfair and incorrect.  The point I made then and the point I make now is that if The United Methodist Church is going to start down this road, we need to understand exactly what we are getting into and be honest about what it will require.  Denominational officials talk about raising millions of dollars to all but eliminate malaria, but after talking with an economic development officer from Mozambique I gained a slightly different picture.  My new friend, Peter, told me that it costs about $72,500 to raise each child to adulthood, providing them with basic necessities and education.  With our current goal of perhaps saving 7 million lives, the price tag will be (at minimum) approximately $507.5 billion dollars.  You can’t just eliminate infant mortality, then walk away.  There is nothing Christian in that.  Just as the birth of a child is the beginning of the commitment and not the end, so too giving life to a child who would otherwise die is the first step in a lifelong responsibility, not a final step.

singing-and-clappingSo, the point isn’t that we don’t do anything, but that we realize that to do this well and responsibly means that it becomes one of the highest priorities of our church and that we stop doing a lot of other things.  It will take a lot of work — organization, training, investment, advocacy, and sacrifice — to truly eliminate the ravages of poverty and corruption that holds people in such oppressive and degrading circumstances.  Our thinking cannot possibly be Nothing But Nets, because there needs to be a lot more than just nets to not just give life, but to give life abundantly.

I decided to bring this up again because of a very interesting disconnect: leaders inside the church disagree with me that this is an issue, but I continue to receive letters and emails from university professors, development leaders in Africa, and students agreeing that this is an important issue.  I heard from a student at Africa University who read my posts, thanked me for addressing the issue, and wants to know how the leaders of the church are responding to my concerns.  I had to tell him, quite frankly, that they are not responding to my concerns.  In fact, I have been told in no uncertain terms that I’m wrong and that I am looking for problems where no problems exist.  To be honest, I don’t know the whole story — I am merely sharing what people have said to me.  And having an economics background, it makes a lot of sense to me.  Simple solutions to complex problems rarely solve anything.  Is saving lives important?  Of course, as long as you follow through and sustain, support, and improve them as well.

We, as United Methodists, have taken on a critically important work — to save lives.  This is what we should be doing.  But we need to understand that it is a huge undertaking.  A marketing expert who works with non-profit charities around the world helped put it in perspective for me.  He said that he looks for things that will be successful.  Anything with children is pure gold.  Anything that offers a tangible outcome — like malaria, which can be children in Africabeaten — is very attractive.  But he said that the challenge is the American psyche — we don’t stick with anything for very long.  We have a short attention span, and we lose interest quickly.  We need something dramatic.  We want something that tugs at the heart.  Problems that can’t be solved, enemies that can’t be defeated, diseases that can’t be cured — these things are hard to “sell.”  Luckily, The United Methodist Church isn’t in sales, but salvation.  We aren’t about quick fixes and simplistic solutions.  We are about relationships, and we have made a pledge to pursue global health and to fight poverty.  These are amazing promises — ones by which we will be judged for years to come.

10 replies

  1. The quandry continues — before 10 a.m. I received two emails — one from a friend at Board of Global Ministries telling me that I have my facts wrong and that this is a non-issue; another from a professor friend in South Africa telling me how relieved he is that someone in the church is actually paying attention to these critically important issues. I guess we see what we want to see, huh?

  2. Thank you so very much for saying this. I have lost a brother and a sister to violence from over-crowding and not enough food. I am in America now, but I will one day go back. There has been great kindness to my people, but there has not been the kind of help we need to live abundantly. Death to infants has been greatly reduced, but only by shifting it to older children. It has not been eliminated, and mother’s still cry each night for the children they lose. Thank you.

  3. The weapons found in such situations are most likely fully automatic; there are semi-automatic AK-47 variants produced for legal sale to civilians in the West, but the weapons in the African war zones are usually genuine Eastern-bloc military equipment.

    (Feel free to delete this if you think it’s too far off topic.)

    • No, I appreciate the correction — though my main point is how tragic it is that children are trained and equipped with any type of weaponry. My ignorance of weapons is immense, as is my sense of indignation at some of the world’s hidden/ignored injustices.

  4. I have been to Sierra Leone three times working with a village and helping support a pastor through the Central PA Conference UMC Sierra Leone Initiative. We are providing financial support so that the pastor can stay with the church and not seek other employment. This is a 10 year commitment. I agree that we need to do long term sustainable work. Our goal is saving souls, but to do this we must also address the basic needs. From my perspective, there are two fronts that need to be effective in order to make a difference to correct and resolve the health, hunger and warfare issues mentioned in the blog. First, the government needs to be there for the people. Building infrastructure and providing jobs. NGO’s and christian organizations must get beyond the “do gooder” mentality of providing clothing and things. Our best efforts should be directed at helping to establish village businesses (bakeries, weld shops) and provide schools, pay teacher’s salaries. We should be building latrines, providing bed nets, medicines, vitamins and providing education on sanitation. I found that the agricultural skills were in place. The infrastructure to deliver the produce to the major markets was not available and people did not have the money to purchase what they needed.
    These developing countries in Africa are prime for future civil strife if the hundreds of young men are not provided with meaningful jobs.
    I believe the United Methodist Church must be willing to address all the issues. We have many people who are willing to go on mission trips and do “good things” for the people because it is easy and we can afford it. I believe we need direction from knowledgeable people to show us how we can provide long term help to avoid the scenario detailed in the blog.

    • Thank you, Ken. It is great to hear from someone “on the ground” who affirms the long-range view. Poverty and government are what I hear consistently as root causes that need to change. I pray that the people with the knowledge and skill to help us navigate all the many complexities step up and guide us so that our efforts are truly transformative and not just palliative.

  5. “The United Methodist Church isn’t in sales, but salvation.”. What a comment. I wish that was true. Ask any UMC District Superintendent in the US how his “numbers” are doing, and he’ll know immediately. Ask him how many people have accepted Christ in his district in the past month, and you’ll get a blank stare. The UMC is, unfortunately, all about sales. We’re all about snappy acronyms, new programs, catch phrases, and numbers. the only difference between us and Amway is, sometimes, the UMC also occasionally provides a situation where someone may come to know Christ as savior. And that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t interrupt the stewardship drive or the tight schedule between 11 AM and noon on Sundays.

    What we should be doing in Africa is the same thing we should be doing in the US and anywhere else we happen to be: Sharing Christ, explaining salvation, and then moving on. Of course, that would eliminate a lot of “church jobs” that now exist, free up tons of money for spreading the gospel, and put a sliding halt to a lot of the “vacation-mission” trips that are so popular in local churches. No way that would ever get anyone’s approval in the UMC. Way too evangelistic, and not enough concern for the social programs. Nope, that would never work.

    John Wesley sure wouldn’t recognize the train wreck we’ve made of the Methodist Church.

    • Actually, I have met someone who came to Christ through an Amway convention – couldn’t believe it, but true . . .

  6. Allen, I’m confused how you see “sharing Christ, explaining salvation, and moving on” as consistent with John Wesley’s ministry.

    He did the first two over and over. And he moved around. But he did not move on and not look back. He came back again and again.

    He organized schools, hospitals, and homes for widows. He was heavily engaged in social action. Indeed, he taught that works of mercy were a sign of salvation.

    He might be stunned by the wreck we have made of Methodism, but I don’t think he’d be upset because we are too engaged in the world around us. Quite the opposite.

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