When envisioning disaster response efforts in underdeveloped countries, we often imagine a brigade of American do-gooders marching across borders with shovels, blankets, and food to raise poor and disparaged natives from the rubble. When the crisis is stabilized, volunteers clean the dirt off their boots and fly home. This image both makes us proud and haunts us. We have done well for our fellow human beings, for our faith, and for our country’s image so we are pleased, but perhaps we tend to miss the bigger picture. We often focus solely on the positive impacts that aid can provide — immediate relief, the ability to sustain life and a few key ingredients in helping victims start over. Yes, these elements are extremely important in any disaster situation, but they do little to help create a sustainable lifestyle. My question has always been, “What can we do differently?”
When asked why I chose to spend a year of my time volunteering with Lutheran World Relief, (LWR) my initial thought process and response was limited. I had studied International Relations in college and, through that process, had come to realize many injustices that underdeveloped countries endure via the exploitation of richer nations. Most had been put in positions where development and growth were almost impossible without being given certain tools to create positive lasting change. Access to basic education, awareness and necessities like food, shelter and clean water are among some of these. I had been looking for an organization that worked to solve core injustices rather than focus on symptomatic problems like hunger, poverty and inequality, or just hand out aid to those in need. All of those things — though necessary in some cases— seemed like ineffective ways to create lasting change.
My interest was really in helping small impoverished communities create a sustainable lifestyle that worked for them — and even more than that, giving those communities the tools needed to pull themselves out of poverty. The only problem was that I lacked the bridge between my understanding of this problem and the best solution possible. In the past I’ve done short term volunteering projects and missions trips, but I’ve always known that internally I received much more of an impact than I was able to provide.
I chose to spend a year of my life learning from Lutheran World Relief. I wanted to understand how they implemented sustainability — and what sustainability even means. Is it just being able to live and support oneself? Does it include a westernized idea of development? How do we first implement sustainability in a way that doesn’t negatively impact those in need? Or, is it the ability to not only live, but thrive?
I also wanted to better understand why it is important for me to live sustainably and how deeply my individual lifestyle can affect others across the globe. I wanted to spend a year immersed in learning and living such a powerful concept.
Like any organization, LWR has deep values, a mission statement and many goals they hope to accomplish. They focus on three core principles attempting to create a world abundant with justice, peace and dignity, and the end of human suffering. These goals are achieved by meeting and addressing immediate needs then creating long-term sustainable solutions for those in need. It’s clear from the moment that you meet any LWR employee, however that these are not merely words, but practices lived every day and the foundation of each of their projects.
LWR projects are carried out in partnership with organizations who have similar values as LWR and in areas of countries that have great need.There is no disruption of local markets. Instead, LWR innovatively uses a method of community based solutions called accompaniment, where local minds and bodies solve local problems. They offer empowerment by giving the people they serve strong voices in the direction of their own lives. I am captivated by this method. This has the potential to create much more effective change than an outside source coming in and telling communities what they need.
I chose to spend this year volunteering to live simply, and sustainably.
I chose Lutheran World Relief in order to spend a year learning from an organization whose work, methods, and ideals are something that I truly believe in. But mostly, I chose to spend this year active in creating lasting change.
I’ve only been two months and it’s already dawning on me, that one year isn’t going to be enough…