3rd World Development

Education, Advocacy & Empowerment
to Develop People in the 3rd World

Based on an Interview with Gregg Garner, Written by Brynn Buchanan
Published: January 7th, 2014

Q: What needs in the third world do you focus on, and how does that play out with the limitations of the organization?

A: Every organization has an element of gathering and distributing resources, but the kind of organization we’ve become is one that makes people the resource. We become resources within our skill sets, our competencies. That being the case, what we do is automatically limited. For example, if you don’t have somebody who’s competent in public health, you can’t meet a public health need. Training up people with public health competencies enables us to approach meeting that need. So our personnel limit us, which is freeing. If we had to address every single systemic issue that exists in these environments, we’d spend more time learning about them than actually developing solutions and alternatives.

I think that’s why Jesus found himself praying to the Lord of the harvest for laborers, not resources. He knew that those people could respond to the needs. I’m not against the accumulation of resources for distribution to those who need it, but the emphasis that Jesus brings in his teaching is that people are the resources. That’s our paradigm, and that in turn limits the needs we can meet, even for our regional teams.

If we focused on meeting every need, we might disengage ourselves from the very real vocational fulfillment a person could experience by doing the things they’re gifted to do. When you have an organization like ours, with a bunch of people wanting to participate, there’s room for a variety of giftedness, a variety of values with regard to how we meet needs, and that gives people a sense of freedom and responsibility. Freedom because they’re free to meet the need that seems most pressing to them, and then responsibility because once they acknowledge that pressing need, they have to do something about it. We by no means say that these are the five needs that everyone has to meet. Instead, as God sends people to the harvest, we recognize their giftedness and passions, and create a framework to enact those services.

For example, the India team is characterized by childbirth workers, so they address issues of infant and maternal mortality rates. They have literacy workers and education people, and then they have a public health group, and those are their main contributors. But there are other needs, and I think that as God sends laborers, he’ll raise up people who can address some of those needs. Some of our newer participants have concern for social welfare in the context of displaced children and appropriate social venues for youth. But, as of now, I wouldn’t say the India team is characterized by those personnel, so they meet other needs.

Now, the Southeast Asia team has sustainable and ethical building laborers, and childbirth workers, so they address the needs associated, and meeting those needs characterizes them. There’s also some ethical education trying to find its way. The point is, we’re limited by our personnel. You can’t meet needs you don’t have personnel to meet. You don’t have to meet every need. Spread yourselves too thin and you’re not going to be able to accomplish anything of substance.

Q: Why the focus on ‘development’ over ‘relief’ or ‘global awareness’?

A: Awareness is inherent to the activity. The moment you try to address an issue, you’re going to make people aware of it. But we don’t stop with awareness. For years we’ve been doing awareness campaigns. I would say that might be the premiere activity of our organization up until the last few years. So awareness has its place.

Relief work requires a high level of expertise, particularly in the emergency arena, and it also necessitates access to a lot of resources. When you have a disaster, whether it’s man-made or what we call ‘natural,’ you have to be able to respond with necessities: food, housing, clothes, clean water. And that seems to necessitate a rather complex organizational unit, such as World Relief, United Nations, UNICEF. But I think we can play a role in relief work. I see our organization entering a relief effort as cultural liaisons, and we could assist those larger organizations by offering our competencies. For example, our medical people can assist in the efforts of the Red Cross by working alongside them. Or, in Kenya in the aftermath of the political revolts in their previous presidential election, we could offer social workers, things like that.

Development work, however, is what we focus on. The distinction between development work and relief work is this: while relief work addresses the present emergencies to get things ‘back to zero’ as it were, development work starts asking questions and responding to needs that can progress a society or bring development. This development is sustainable, meaning it can be duplicated by the people themselves, not necessitating aid, and the activity can be owned by the people themselves, so they can not only duplicate the procedure, but also have an understanding of it to the degree that they bring about new innovations and teach their future generations.

For an organization like ours to participate in development work, we really act as facilitating catalysts, meeting the needs in an environment and empowering people as to how to meet those needs. We utilize the tool of education to empower them so that they critically examine their world and address those pressing needs that affect their society’s health.

Development work still prioritizes and focuses on what the region needs, those basic necessities of food, water, shelter, clothing, education, those kinds of things. Only, instead of relief work, getting ‘back to zero’ after a disaster, we start at ‘ground zero’, building what’s there into something sustainable. Development work really is thinking about the children. It asks the question, “What kind of world do we want to create for our children to grow up in?”

For us, theologically, that comes from the book of Genesis, where God spends the entire week of that narrative creating an environment that would be good enough for people to live in it. I think that God’s approach there, creating a good and healthy environment for his children, should be our approach as well. It also comes from Jesus, who communicates in his sermon about greatness that unless you see the world through the eyes of these children, you won’t be able to participate in his rule, his kingdom, the way he’d like to see things. In that case, we are always keeping in mind the children, what kind of world we are going to order for them to live in. To me, that’s development work, and that’s why we choose development work. It has practical, philosophical, and theological rationale.

Q: Do you partner with nationals, and if so, what is your method for involving them?

A: Our friends help us with our approach, how we do things, how we’re perceived by the community at large, so that we can make a lasting impact. So we have to cooperate with people who live there. In fact, it becomes our goal to acknowledge that societies will only experience liberation from their oppressive realities when the oppressed themselves get involved in their own liberation.

We don’t emphasize a formal cooperation as much as we emphasize the necessity for their participation in creating that environment. There’s a problem when development or mission organizations go into an environment, think they know what the people need, and begin to enact their own dreams. Such an approach doesn’t take into consideration the perspectives of the people on the ground.

Whether we like it or not, the perspective of nationals is very important. So we should like it, because they live there, we respect them, they’re human beings, and they’re living in it. There has to be a working relationship, one where you can really trust the perspectives of the people, in particular people who have taken on responsibility for the health of their society.

There are irresponsible nationals who don’t care about the health of their society, just their own personal health. I’ve see this with a lot of missionaries. They find an English speaker, someone they can communicate with, and in their excitement to advance their organization, they partner with them immediately. They start to enact a lot of social and public change, and that initial contact becomes the director of their development outpost or the pastor of their local church, and in the end, the majority of opportunity goes to that person, their family, their businesses, not reaching the community at large.

In our organization, there’s a lot of testing of that relationship, not scholastic testing, but relational. Jesus communicated things like a person shouldn’t be entrusted with much unless they’ve been faithful with little. The problem with that is most organizations want to grow so fast. But we’ve been going very slowly since the mid 90s. We’ve been in relationship with some of our international liaisons for over a decade. That’s really powerful, and they’re our friends. You have to learn a lot about their culture, the way they see things, how they perceive them, and what’s even appropriate, though not just based upon an ethical position. We’re a moral organization, we have ethical positions, but sometimes things are outside the grasp of a moral situation. There are certain cultural issues that have nothing to do with ethics. Whether a person wears a long skirt or not doesn’t necessarily denote whether they’re a good or bad person, but in a culture it could be perceived as good or bad. Such considerations are often the concern of people in these environments.

Q: Why is your concentration on the poor in the 3rd world rather than the poor in the US?

A: I think that’s a misconception, because we do work with the poor in the US. In fact, realistically, more of our time is spent working with the poor in the US than it is abroad, and that has to do with our proximity. I think that misconception needs to go. It doesn’t belong in our organization. The bible tells us that if you see your brother in need of material goods and you don’t respond to that need, then how could the love of God be in you? We would obviously be hypocrites if we didn’t address some of the local needs. And we do!

We are the premiere service organization for youth working with refugees and immigrants in the Nashville area. Each summer, we have close to 1,000 kids working with low-income families at their apartment complexes and projects. Unfortunately, the majority of low-income families are minorities, immigrants and refugees.

I think another misconception is that because “these people” are in our country now, they need to learn ‘our’ way. I think that assimilation is something they’re ready to do, but they still need time to bridge into appropriate assimilation. Immigrants and refugees want to learn the laws of the land and expectations of people in this culture, but there’s hardly anybody to interpret that for them in order to make that cultural leap into assimilation. Our organization assists with that. We help people assimilate appropriately without dehumanizing them, without overemphasizing a form of patriotism where they lose their ethnic grounding. A lot of them didn’t want to come here, but they came because of  war, violence, poverty, pain and misery. Having some compassion makes us consider that even a refugee or immigrant’s compliance with the expectations of our land is a difficult consideration, particularly the cultural ones that have no moral implications. Whether I speak English or not doesn’t make me a good or bad person. We do have certain laws and paperwork that necessitate English, so they desire to learn English. Most Americans haven’t even learned a second language. Having to learn a second language is a powerful effort to display their willingness to assimilate. They just need opportunity. We’ve done everything from teaching immigrants how to drive, to grocery shop, to work a job. Those are important transitional activities.

We meet needs in our own low-income neighborhood, forming relationships with and providing help for people in need. That’s service to the poor in our country. We do the best we can to help whoever finds themselves at our doorstep. If someone is going to show up at our gate, we have to take care of them, whether it’s in or out of this country.

Now, I’m sure that the misconception [that we are more concentrated abroad than locally] comes from the reality that we are concentrated on ensuring that our service reaches the most vulnerable in the world. This country really has an incredible infrastructure with regard to at least something being in place for the disabled, single mothers, and kids without parents. There’s something there, not that it’s good or the best, but there’s something there. We’re concentrating our efforts on those most vulnerable in the world, for whom there’s absolutely nothing, no consolation. The bible tells us that where there’s nothing, theirs is the kingdom of God. That’s where we have to show up if we’re going to be God’s people, where there’s no consolation. I’m not downplaying the experience of the poor in our country, but, for example, when Katrina hit, it was four days before the US government signed a bill that sent 10.5 billion dollars to help them out. There’s some consolation. In contrast, there are some tragedies that take place in the 3rd world, and there’s absolutely no relief. So, we’re on our way out in that way. But, in the meantime, while we’re here, whoever gets brought to our gate, God wants to help them. God can use us to help them.

Q: What resources do you offer people in the 3rd world?

A: The resources we offer people in the 3rd world are primarily educational. Of course, it’s difficult to offer education to people who are hungry, or thirsty, or in need of clothing, so we also offer those opportunities as well. But we are not a grocery store or food distribution center, so we can’t feed people everyday, but our education enhances their harvest. For example, we have had many contacts abroad that we’ve taught bio-intensive gardening techniques, and they’ve been able to quadruple and quintuple their produce. In that case, they’re able to eat better. Occasionally, we do food distributions.

The more vulnerable a person is, the more priority they have with the directing of our resources. The most vulnerable people are widows, orphans, and the disabled. After that, single mothers raising children, followed by single women, followed by youth. There’s a priority, and if we have material resources to distribute, that’s where they find themselves.

We provide all kinds of resources. We’ve built homes, roofs, water cisterns and toilets in all different regions of the world. We’ve installed irrigation systems, started people on animal projects, given them their first cows and goats, provided seeds, clothing, medical kits. We’ve done that kind of resource distribution, but I think a lot of organizations do those things. The majority of the time, we’re doing educational empowerment.

Q: Why do you work in the particular regions you do? How do you choose which particular regions to work in?

A: There wasn’t much analytical strategic planning for the choosing of the different regions we serve in. It’s more related to our narrative as an organization. For me, living in California, it was pretty easy to head down to Mexico, so that started us in Latin America. Central America was connected to Mexico by roads. From Mexico you drive into Guatemala, from Guatemala you drive into El Salvador. There’s a strong Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran presence in Nashville. One of the young ladies who’s part of our organization has Salvadoran roots and family there. We spent time in Mexico, trying our best there and serving in different areas, and moved down to Guatemala, learning from some other organizations and missionaries there. We felt led to serve in El Salvador, even as a redemptive act on behalf one of our people’s narratives, which is important to us.

I was in college when I was invited to go on a mission trip to Africa. When I was a kid, I was told that I should go to Africa. I never thought I could or would, but I found myself in Kenya, and that’s where we began in East Africa. While working with some Kenyan friends there, I felt led to go to Uganda, so we found ourselves in Uganda, in particular this area on the edge of the Kampala district.

While in Africa, there were people, impoverished men, who encouraged us, telling us about the needs in India. One older man charged me not to forget the people in India, that I needed to do something for them, even saying that God wanted me to do something. That year, we sought after that, doors were opened, and we found ourselves in northeast India.

The Philippines is a personal narrative. My mom’s a Filipina and my dad met her there. In 2006, my family returned with our organization, a homecoming after 20 years. I think you can see, it’s part of our narrative, not some kind of analytical strategy devised based upon our examinations.

Q: Do you have a hub in each region, and if so, how were those areas selected as a hub?

A: We do in some regions. We don’t in others. Our hubs or bases are fluid with regard to the fact that we’re not attached to geography, a value that comes from our theological understanding about land. The scriptures teach us that the land is the Lord’s and everything in it. In that case, everyone is a tenant on God’s property. The bible also teaches that to cling to land and the possession of it often leads to violence and war. We don’t cling to land, because we know that even if we were sent into the wilderness, God would take care of us. That’s part of the exodus narrative. Theologically, it’s important to understand our hubs as temporary places. Though they may be for a long time, it’s healthy for us to not make any geographical piece of land our investment.

Instead, it’s best to think about our hubs as the places we have relationships. Then, where we have relationships turns into where we purchase property to live on. As of now, only two of the regions have a hub location based upon the purchase of property: East Africa, on the edge of the Kampala and Luwero districts, and Latin America, on the edge of the San Salvador district. So that’s where we have not only property, but also, and most importantly, relationships.

Currently in India, we’re developing these relationships in the National Capital Region (NCR), which may culminate in us buying some property there. Though we haven’t purchased any property in India, we are highly involved in development and service activity in NCR. You don’t necessarily need property to get involved in those kinds of things.

In Southeast Asia, though we’re highly involved in service activity, we’ve yet to purchase a piece of land for our hub operations. The Philippines as a group of islands makes it a different scenario, but we’ll still purchase property for our base. We are preparing to hub in the Eastern Visayas, a group of islands in the middle of the country, likely on the island of Leyte, where Typhoon Haiyan made its strongest impact.   

I want to emphasize again that geographical location isn’t as important as relationships, including the internal relationships. By having only four regions, everybody who participates in our organization has to choose a region to participate in. This creates the teams that help fulfill the paradigm of transplanted community. The concept of transplanted community is fairly simple. What principles, ethics and innovations we want to introduce to other societies can’t just be spoken, they have to be embodied, and you can’t embody a social reality without other people. Transplanting community doesn’t only benefit those development workers living in another country, providing friendships and a team to work with, but also becomes a very visible tutor for a watching world in regards to a new social reality and an alternative that exists outside of the paradigms they know. In the future, we’ll surely open up to more regions, but again, we don’t want to spread ourselves out so thin that we’re not effective.

We do have a fifth location, our international headquarters in Antioch.

Q: Why do you transplant communities rather than individuals?

A: The statistics associated with development workers and missionaries as individuals and married couples on the field, especially in the last 15-20 years, are quite bleak in regard to their length of stay and effectiveness. But, more so along the lines of adopting a biblical paradigm, it’s our theology that informs this idea of transplanting communities. The wilderness community of Moses was the community transplanted into the land of Canaan. The charge from God to Moses was that the social reality they project and the law they have amongst themselves would illuminate their neighbors in the land they were going. It would enlighten them to new social possibilities, particularly with regard to justice and righteousness.

Though for most people it’s much more substantial to give a statistical, strategic, demographic-oriented response, we’re a theologically driven organization. You don’t name your organization G.O.D. Int’l to be secular. However, I never want us to be confused for a religious organization that has no understanding of the diversity of beliefs that exist in the world. I definitely don’t want us to be that organization of bigots proselytizing and converting by the masses. We should have called ourselves Crusaders Ministries if we were going to do something like that. We’re not.

Q: What is your 3rd world development approach?

A: One of our distinctions from other organizations is that we’re doing our best to be appropriate in all manners. We train our people to have enhanced cultural understanding, not the kind you’d get at a weekend seminar or a six-week trip, but the kind of cultural understanding that takes years to develop. This includes linguistic capabilities. All of our people have to pass a language proficiency test before we allow them to go on the field. The longer their stay and the more times they’ve gone, the higher proficiency they have to meet. Our full-time workers abroad will be fluent in the language.

We also make considerations with regard to technology. I’ll never forget this picture of an African man with a hoe in his hand, and a development organization with a big earth-mover behind him. How would that have felt for the African man trying to do his best? How would that create covetousness in him, even idleness as he associates his being without a tractor with the uselessness of his life? Appropriate technology has to do with coming up with ways of empowerment that can be readily adopted by people in poverty. We recognize that there are levels of poverty and every situation is different whatever land you’re in.

As an organization, in our approach and practice, we’re really serving people without discrimination. You don’t have to have a certain religious preference, ethnic group, cultural, status, or economic position. If you have the need, then we’re available to meet the need. That’s what’s going to happen. We go the extra mile, or the extra 20 miles, to ensure we’re not running over anybody, that our practice is being understood, that we’re making consideration for future generations in our practices. We’re not the kind of organization that gets to these places and ships our kids off to boarding school. Instead, we recognize that the greatest way to transform the local school is to put your development workers’ kids in it. Once that happens, they’re going to ensure that school changes its practices. It’s important that our neighbors see that we’re in it with them.

We live amongst the people, go to their schools, and participate in their programs. Enhancing local markets and businesses is important to us, not necessarily creating outposts for international commerce. Though that may happen, it’s definitely not going to have the greatest impact on the local people, because it necessitates a western connection and the health of a western economy. I’ve seen lots of people make these kind of connections, and then the western economy take a dip, which deadens the 3rd world families involved.

There’s much to consider in our 3rd world approach. Our approach isn’t conventional by any means, which is often why I don’t like being associated with the term ‘missionary’. I want distinctiveness. Sometimes missionaries are just 24-year-old bandanna-wearing dreadlock-braiding kids who graduated with an international business degree, raised $5000, and planned to take over the world. I don’t want our organization to be confused as those people. I know those people come to us initially, but hopefully we mature and grow them into people of responsibility who can perspective take, who don’t discriminate or carry chips on their shoulders, and who recognize that the world’s complicated, and not until we’re in the middle of a situation do we actually take ownership for it, and that requires presence. Being present with people necessitates time. And that’s why we’re training our people to be career development workers, or full time career missionaries, whatever you want to call them. I have a friend, Vicki Penwell, who calls them “lifers.” It’s definitely a dinosaur these days, this idea of being committed is going extinct. But that’s where our theology informs us, because we’re covenant people. God keeps covenant, we keep covenant, we make commitments. We’re lifers.