Weekly Edgework #50 - June 14, 2005

An Unanswered Letter

It is now nearly six months since I sent the following letter to “Samaritan’s Purse”, the organization that administers “Operation Christmas Child” every fall. Since that organization has chosen not to answer my letter, I now offer it as an open letter to express some of my concerns about that program. Maybe some of my readers can answer the questions “Samaritan’s Purse” refuses to answer.

Dear Administrators of “Operation Christmas Child”:

I have noted that Samaritan’s Purse has helped a lot of people in desperate situations around the world for many years. Having lived in a poor country for a number of years, I have a fairly good idea about how aid is received in such places and what effect it has on individuals and communities. I have seen how well-intentioned aid to poor people can lead to a variety of social ills, including dependency and damage to the local economy. I have also noticed that many donors in wealthier countries have a great need to give gifts to the poor to make themselves feel good - even when it is clear that their gifts may be doing long-term damage in the places to which they are sent.

That is why I have some unease about “Operation Christmas Child”. On the one hand, it has been highly successful in mobilizing thousands of people to pack shoeboxes full of Christmas gifts to be sent abroad. Indeed, I have noticed a tremendous sense of satisfaction in persons and groups who have done so, knowing that somewhere in the world a poor child will receive these gifts. In that sense your program meets a need of well-intentioned persons in the western world.

On the other hand, I am not so sure about the long-term effects these shoebox gifts have on persons and communities where they are sent. Therefore I would appreciate a straightforward answer to the following questions.

How do you select children to receive these shoebox gifts? When you go to a village, do all children get a box, only children of poor families, or only some children of some poor families?

Have you considered how introducing truckloads of shoeboxes filled with a whole variety of gifts impacts the local economy? Mission strategist have long ago established the principle that great care must be taken not to upset local economies by injecting aid inappropriately into struggling communities. It seems to me that in a village where all children are expecting shoebox gifts for Christmas, local shop owners would suffer a severe setback. First of all they would not be able to sell any toys – they are coming in the shoeboxes. School supplies would sit on their shelves while parents wait to see whether the shoeboxes will meet that need. Toothbrushes and toothpaste would not move either. It is quite conceivable that some local shops will go out of business because of the shoeboxes. So by the following year such local supplies will not even be available in community shops. So the need for Christmas shoebox gifts will be even greater, thus enhancing the apparent legitimacy of your program. There are many documented cases where this kind of aid has not only damaged, but ruined local economies. I have personally seen many shop owners trying to eke out a living by selling many of the products we are encouraged to send abroad in the shoeboxes.

If your answer to the question above is that the parents don’t have money to buy needed items for their children, have you asked why not? It seems from your literature that some of your other programs are geared toward helping families and communities become self-sufficient. Would a healthier approach to children in need not be to work with the entire community so that in the end the parents can have the dignity of buying needs and gifts for their own children? Can you imagine how a parent feels if year after year their inability to provide for their children is underscored by the shoeboxes arriving with gifts for their children which they will never be able to afford?

Related to the above is the question of raising false expectations. Some of the gifts in the shoeboxes will inevitably be of the kind and quality that is totally foreign to the local economy where they are received. Does this not raise the false hope in children that once they are older they might be able to buy such items themselves, when in fact that will likely be an impossibility? In many cases their only access to such items will continue to be via the shoeboxes arriving annually – perhaps in later years for their children.

In your promotional material, you make reference to the fact that getting the shoeboxes to 95 countries takes a tremendous amount of money and thousands of volunteer hours. When these additional resource are added to the cost of the items purchased for the shoeboxes the total amount spent on Operation Christmas Child is quite significant. My question is whether those kinds of resources could not be used to assist poor villagers in more culturally and economically sensitive ways so that in the end they would be in a position to buy needs and gifts for their own children? If it is more blessed to give than receive, why do we want to horde that blessing for ourselves? Even poor parents have pride, and when they keep seeing rich foreigners supplying the needs of their own children that pride is repeatedly hurt – no matter how much they smile and say “Muchas Gracias” on camera. I know. I have been there.

A summary question, then, is whether Operation Christmas Child is designed to meet the needs of Christians in wealthy countries who desire the blessing of giving, or to actually benefit poor children and their families in the long run.

I would appreciate frank and sincere dialogue on these questions, because as a journalist I am planning to write articles about the concerns mentioned above. Without your input, I might be misrepresenting what you are actually doing.

Anticipating your response, I remain

Sincerely yours,

Jack Heppner