South Sudan. Living with poor people

The country  has been in the throes of a civil war. Prices have been soaring and more people go hungry. Missionaries do not work miracles but they extend a helping hand to the poor people. A reflection of a missionary in the field.

In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, we live behind a small fence with steel gates. One morning somebody called us to the gate. I went to open it and I met a tall, slender, South Sudanese woman of gracious deportment carrying a child in her arms with another by her side. What struck me was the anguish on her face and the tears she could not hold back. With my very limited Arabic, I grasped that she wanted to speak to an Aboona (father).  So, I led her through to where some priests live.

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She stood there waiting but still obviously distressed. I wondered how the children felt to see their mother so upset. I went and fetched some food and I gave it to her. Behind her tears, her face relaxed and she smiled as she said, Shukran, (‘Thank you’). How can we imagine the sorrow of a mother who cannot feed her children? The next day, as I went out of the house, a very small, thin boy approached me asking for money. Normally, I resist such pleas as they are so numerous, but again I felt moved to give this boy some money. I thought that there was a sad longing in his eyes that said he was very hungry and felt unwanted, rejected – such sorrow in one so young. I gave him a small sum of money, enough for some food. These are just two cases, but which tell so much about people’s life in today’s South Sudan.

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The most serious effect of the current conflict has been soaring inflation. It used to be three oranges for five pounds (0,7 Euro). Now it is one orange for seven pounds (1 Euro). The price of all kinds of food has risen and many people are hungry. An orange is a luxury item to most people whose diet is more likely to be sorghum and beans, once or twice a day. I know the Social Work theory: ‘hand-outs’ are the least helpful form of social assistance. One theory postulates three models for the delivery of help to other people.
The first is  sometimes called, ‘The Pity Model’ or ‘Helping the Deserving Poor’. The pity model stated quite simply, is that we see someone in need and we are moved with pity or compassion to try to assist them. Critics of this model argue that it breeds a ‘hand-out’ mentality that does not result in lasting good. The basic problem with this ‘Pity Model’ is that it focuses on the distress or misfortune rather than on a persevering determination to improve the structures that cause the distress. It can be  paternalistic/materialistic and condescending.

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The second model is the ‘Market Model’ or ‘Empowering the Consumer’. This model aims to transfer power from the service provider to the service user and thus ‘empower’ that person. People can, in theory, shop around for the service that suits them best. In this model, tenders are usually set up and organisation competes against organisation for funds, agencies struggle for market share, norms of efficiency become prevalent, accountability and public scrutiny are demanded, but at the end of the day there is often little flexibility left for responding to the most in need. The number of clients catered for becomes more important than the quality of the outcome. Agencies are funded according to their ‘outputs’ or ‘through-puts’. Many NGOs operate on this basis.
The third model of welfare delivery is ‘The Citizenship Model’ or ‘Promoting Social Participation’. In this model, needy people are seen not as victims, nor as consumers, but as fellow citizens who have rights and responsibilities. The needy person before you is your brother or sister in the eyes of God, just as important as you are, equally precious. He or she may just happen to be younger, poorer, have been abused or marginalised in some other way – or be South Sudanese. Deep, mutual, human respect, not pity, should be the underlying motive and emotion for the help – the hand-up we provide.

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We have a group called ‘Solidarity with South Sudan’ which trains teachers, mid-wives, nurses, pastoral workers, farmers. We are focused on ‘The Citizenship model’, helping  South Sudanese people to help themselves. At times, we are forced by donor-accountability requirements to operate within a ‘Market Model’ where measurement and evaluation of service is paramount – not unreasonable expectations. But in real life, we are living with people, not conceptual models. If Jesus could be moved by compassion, I think it is fair enough that sometimes we are also. We can’t work miracles but, like the Good Samaritan, we can sometimes hold out a helping hand to a less fortunate fellow traveller on the journey to God.

Bill Firman


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