East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

A Guide to Giving and Receiving Aid in Post-Communist Europe

Kathy Rogers and Tina-Joy Kinard

After innumerable trips and millions in finances poured into East European relief, some unpleasant truths have emerged: corruption, wrongly placed relief, donor fatigue, well-meaning but overzealous givers, arrogance from both givers and receivers, out-of-date goods, overworked and overvisited recipients, hoarding, jealousy, and envy. What truly motivates our giving?  Our receiving?  What assumptions and expectations do we have?  What lessons have been learned?

Positive Results
With the exception of Albania, which had no functioning churches and few believers when the country opened, ministry expanded as local churches and individual Christians participated in distribution. A majority of relief was channeled through churches and Christian contacts. Christians were the most organized and best prepared to help. Churches gained new credibility for their role in relief after years of government ridicule and persecution.  In Cluj, Romania, a pediatrician held regular meetings for the parents of his patients, distributing some of the aid he received while educating them on health and spiritual issues.  The old Baptist church in downtown Wroclaw, Poland, suffered extensive damage during floods in 1997. Requests for financial aid to restore the building were met with an overwhelming response. Deciding to tithe, the church  reach[ed] out to the community--providing rent money for a poor family, purchasing coal to heat another family's home, etc.  During [Bosnian] war years in Serbia, one Protestant church, considered a sect to be avoided, broke down barriers by sharing relief not just with members of its own denomination (the usual practice), but with the community at large. The church's generosity profoundly affected its image. Now the pastor is well-respected and considered a leader within the village.

Jealousy and Criticism
Though relief brought joy, it also caused trouble.  The biggest trap in receiving relief is discontent, caused not by what is received, but because someone else receives something better.  More than one church nearly split because people fought over who should receive the nicest things. Westerners, who placed Central and East European Christians on spiritual pedestals during 45 years, may be shocked to learn that a few material things stirred such carnal attitudes.  It shocked Central/East European Christians themselves--"The relief became a mirror for us and revealed what was in our hearts," said Benjamin Faragau, a Baptist pastor in Cluj, Romania.  Christians responsible for distribution became specific targets for criticism. Despite efforts to prioritize aid, national distributors were accused of prejudice and favoritism.

Temptation and Power
Temptation is one of the greatest dangers confronting the relief distributor. Well-known Christians faced this issue shortly after the frontiers opened. Prior contacts with Western Christians and good language skills meant that their homes were among the first reached by relief vehicles. These contacts were often, if not always, living in difficult circumstances themselves. The question immediately arose, "How much are we allowed to keep for ourselves and how much do we give away?"  The character of many Christians was destroyed because suddenly they went from being very poor to being in a position of control, handling all those goods.

Recently, on two consecutive days in Sofia, Bulgaria, there were long lines waiting for relief outside a Protestant church. A visiting Slovak Christian was told that only church members were entitled to receive the aid, often a defining feature of Central/East European churches. Such definition raises questions regarding the real reason people become church members.

Missionaries visiting half a year after the [1989] openings in Romania were appalled to find attics filled with shoes and even baked goods rotting in Christmas ribbons. Having had nothing or very little for so many years, some distributors began hoarding. The pastor's wife in a small town in Poland warned two missionaries who recently brought and distributed children's clothing that they needed to watch the women closely. Otherwise, they would take clothes to "save" for up to five years.

These people groups have strong, historical traditions of hospitality. One of these is the cultural practice of reciprocity.  Receiving a gift, the recipient becomes indebted to return a gift of equal or greater value or to do the person a favor.  The temptation to elevate one's position by use of reciprocity can be overwhelming. This is especially true in countries with chronic shortages in which the only way, historically, to obtain some necessary item is via [personal] "connections."

Many aid recipients are reluctant to criticize the hand that feeds them. Even though national distributors have the most immediate contact with donors and the best opportunity to give valid suggestions, they also are receivers and are thus hesitant to criticize or tell Westerners how to do their job.  However, Western groups need a good look at problem areas apparent to their Central and East European coworkers.

The Need for Organization
Lack of organization on the part of many foreigners, especially during the first few months following the [1989] openings, caused much hardship for in-country distributors.  Strangers obtained names and addresses and arrived unknown and unannounced, sometimes in the middle of the night. Not only was the receipt of the goods difficult; the practical aspects of housing and feeding those who brought it were overwhelming.  Westerners refused to hear that communications and information-gathering might take more time [and that] storage and distribution [would] be more difficult to manage than in the West.

During the initial months of freedom, another typical and difficult problem arose with the receipt of strange foreign goods, such as cleansers, medicines, and even food items.

Prescription medicines were given to ordinary citizens. A transport carrying 80 drums of cleanser arrived with no instructions regarding its use, how to dilute it, or whether it could be dangerous. When Albania first opened, nationals were observed  beating cans with stones; there were no can openers.

The Need for Cultural Understanding
Groups arrived at borders without proper papers. When difficulties ensued, they phoned contacts who felt compelled to come to the border and try to resolve the problems. For the contact, this might require locating a car to use, getting fuel, and taking a day off from work. It was a frustrating situation for nationals who felt bound to help those bringing relief even though they didn't do it in the best way. It was--and still is--hard for them to say no, especially to Westerners.

The Need to Value Relationships
The importance of relationships in these countries cannot be passed over lightly. In Poland, for example, a national will miss a scheduled appointment if, when departing from his front door, a visitor arrives. The visitor will never be told of the impending appointment, nor will his visit be rushed. Westerners who brought relief goods were generally in a hurry. They planned two hours to unload at one place  and left it up to the local contact to discover how and where it should be distributed.  After being isolated from Westerners for so long, it hurt to have foreigners "dump and run."

The Need to Say No
Saying no is difficult for the average Central/East European. Culturally, it is impolite to turn down a request, particularly from a guest. Most will say no to a foreigner only when there is no other choice.  Most Westerners are unaware of the effect relief work has had on the personal lives of local distributors. One Romanian family shared:

A very serious crisis occurred about four months after the revolution. We were ruining our family life, unwise in our involvement. Our children had no regular schedule; they didn't know when to eat or sleep. We either had to take them with us when we distributed or leave them with their grandparents. Our house was so filled with relief goods that the children couldn't even use their own room.  It was very stressful for the whole family. I couldn't cope with distribution and keep our lives normal. Part of the problem was that people were coming in such a hurry, knocking at our door, sometimes very late at night. They'd say, "We've got a two-ton truck that we have to unload, and we have to leave the city early tomorrow morning."  Well, you have to do something very quickly.
The Need for Donor Discernment
Nationals often asked Westerners for currency or to change money or for an invitation to the West. Desiring to help, the uninformed Westerner frequently gave whatever was requested. This was wrong. It caused many Christians to lose their spiritual focus because of a few glittering things.

The Need for the Right Coordinator
Western relief groups were not always careful in choosing a national to assist with distribution. Again, we encounter the historical traditions of hospitality leavened with the communist experience.  Not only do nationals desire to "please" the foreigner, but they have been taught to give the"correct" answers, whether or not those answers are true.

From the beginning, bringing aid to Albania was enormously difficult. Just when a group thought it had a local person whom it could trust, it discovered it was wrong.  Culturally, there was open acceptance of stealing. When the country opened in 1991 all churches had been destroyed or closed.  Relief groups had to establish a joint warehouse area which was heavily guarded at all times.  However, there are now foreign missionaries under the AEP (Albanian Encouragement Project) umbrella and Albanian Christians with the Albanian Evangelical Alliance (VUSH) teaming together to aid relief efforts to Kosovan refugees.  Having both indigenous, trustworthy workers and foreigners who live in the culture and speak the language has been a tremendous help. They not only can translate but also counsel.

The Need for Sensitivity
Nationals recognize that some of their own people should not be involved with relief work. But they also make the same judgment regarding many foreigners. Especially in the beginning, some Westerners were extremely insensitive. They laughed at living conditions, even discussing the good and bad points of the country in front of its inhabitants. People are usually aware of their own country's shortcomings and may even criticize it, but are highly sensitive to the criticism of others.

The Need for Dignity
Relief work should preserve the dignity of the people you are attempting to help. Public distribution in particular, such as stopping a truck filled with goods in a public place to distribute, is offensive. You, the giver, become like a little "god" high above on the truck tossing down "bones" while you watch the "beasts" below fighting for existence.

One practice pointed out as particularly dangerous, as well as degrading, was the habit of throwing candy out a vehicle window to children.  Children may fall down, hurt each other, or dare each other to step into the road to stop vehicles.  The precedent set by the first truck convoys entering Albania and throwing out candy led to particularly violent reactions. Children no longer asked for candy but rather demanded it! Groups of children spread across the road whenever a vehicle approached and didn't move until the last possible moment. Candy or not, they usually threw a barrage of rocks. By 1993, possibly 90+ percent of all vehicles operating in Albania had broken windows.

The Need for Appropriate Relief
One missionary in Romania observed a particular group sending baby food for a local orphanage, despite advice that it was not good for the children. Unused to such rich food, the children became ill. Then, when the baby food ran out, they returned to eating bread and water. Why did this group continue sending baby food for the orphanage?  Did they think they knew better than the contact?  Was it surplus, out-of-date, or used as a charitable contribution or tax write-off?  What was the motivation?  Many mistakes were made--thousands of cans of Coca-Cola dropped off at a Romanian orphanage for children under three years of age; tennis balls at a school for the blind.

Expired medicine also posed a problem. Many medicines are good beyond the expiration date if properly stored, but few nationals were informed of this fact. There was frequently no translator to read the directions when there were directions. Relief groups often gave antibiotics and other prescription medicines to people unqualified to handle them.  In Albania, the government dug huge pits and buried expired medicine to prevent its misuse. Some Western missions now send medicines through local networks supervised by Christian doctors.

Much-needed equipment, such as copy machines, overheads, slide projectors, even computers and fax machines, were donated. Unfortunately, neither the giver nor the receiver considered the supplies and service needed to maintain such machines.  Another problem with giving technical equipment was inexperience and overuse.  People came into church or relief offices and photocopied books all night. Others with little or no computer experience tried to use the computer in their local church office. Especially in the case of churches where members consider themselves co-owners, it was and is difficult for pastors to say no.

Unfulfilled Promises
A common problem was that promised relief goods were never sent. Sometimes this occurred because Westerners spoke too lightly or gave their word too easily. Sometimes specific requests were promised but never kept. "Christian list-makers" visited once, asked pertinent questions, wrote their lists, went home, and were never heard from again.

Photo-Op Fund Raising
Explaining the real reason for taking pictures to those whom you wish to photograph is important. Some relief groups lied, telling their subjects only that the pictures were memory photos of the people whom they had met, while in actuality they were later used for fund-raising purposes.  There were also instances of staged relief distribution in public areas, totally for the purpose of photographing the event. Such picture-taking is offensive and unethical.

Pulpits Commandeered
Accompanying the tons of relief were thousands of Western pastors and speakers. In the tradition of hospitality, churches offered their pulpits. For months following the political changes, especially in Romania, but also to a lesser degree in neighboring countries, you heard only Americans, British, or other Westerners in Sunday pulpits, often giving the same message. Spiritual growth was put on hold. At one Baptist church in Romania, some of the congregation approached the elders  after having their pulpit dominated by Western preachers for six months. They threatened to leave the church if the preaching by Westerners didn't stop. The steady influx of Westerners eager for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share a "message from God" frequently did not realize that they were part of a nameless, faceless parade of foreigners. At some churches, in the most frequently visited cities, the problem persists. However, most pastors now allow foreign visitors to bring only brief greetings, yet feel guilty for somehow violating their culture's tradition of hospitality.

Editor's note:  "A Guide to Giving and Receiving Aid in Post-Communist Europe" will conclude in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report with ten specific recommendations for "Improving Delivery."

Kathy Rogers, Raleigh, NC, is Communications Coordinator for International Teams.  She lived in Romania from 1990 until 1997.  Tina-Joy Kinard has been working in Central and Eastern Europe for over 20 years, and has lived in Hungary, Romania, and Greece.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Kathy Rogers and Tina-Joy Kinard, Relief in Post-Communist Europe (Bratislava, Slovakia:  SEN, 1999).  Available on-line for $10.00 at http://www.citygate.org/vshop.htm or from:  SEN, 3 Springfield Road, Hinckley, Leics LE10 1AN, England; e-mail: judi@citygate.org; Central European Papers, attn: Lesa Hudson, Box 202010, Florence, SC 29502-2010; tel:  888-819-3109; e-mail: carol@citygate.org; or:  SEN, Liptovská 10, 821 09 Bratislava, Slovakia; tel: 421-7-521 6293; fax:  421-7-521 6288; e-mail:  juraj@citygate.org.

Kathy Rogers and Tina-Joy Kinard , "A Guide to Giving and Receiving Aid in Post-Communist Europe," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Spring 1999), 1-4.
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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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