Letters from Brother Bill


153. Anguish and Compassion

In Juba we live behind a high fence with steel gates. It is simply the prudent things to do. But every now and again there is banging on the gate to alert us that someone, anyone, a person, is seeking entry. When I recently responded to such knocking, I was confronted by 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 in Arabic, English mafi (none) to ‘Aboona’ (Father).  So I led her through to where some priests live behind us where she stood waiting but still obviously distressed. I wondered how the children felt to see their mother (I presume) so upset. I thought of the words in St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 17, verse 13, where we read: ‘And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Weep not’. So I went to my wallet inside our house and took out some money and gave it to her. Behind her tears, her face relaxed and she smiled as she said, ‘Shukran’ (Thank you). How sorrowful it is for a mother who cannot feed her children!

The next day, as I pulled up at our front gate in our Toyota land cruiser, 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 smaller sum of money, enough for some food. The most serious effect of the current conflict in South Sudan has been soaring inflation. It used to be three oranges for five pounds and that was regarded as dear by most South Sudanese. Now it is one orange for seven pounds. The price of all 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: ‘handouts’ 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 it does no 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/ maternalistic and condescending.

The second model is the "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 individual clients 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 "throughputs". 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.

Solidarity with South Sudan trains teachers, midwives, nurses, pastoral workers, farmers. We are focussed on ‘the Citizenship model’, helping the South Sudan 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 Samaritan, we can sometimes hold out a helping hand to less fortunate fellow traveller on the journey into God.

 - Br Bill

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