How to Give Aid…Without Shaming

Last month, I heard this story from Bob Lupton, founder of Focus Community Strategies and author of Toxic Charity. Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 7.54.43 AM

Their ministry adopted a “Toys for Tots” drive during the holidays. Churches would gather presents, then bring them to people in the under-resourced part of town. As they entered homes to hand out the gifts, there was a common response. The kids would be excited to get new toys, but the fathers would slip out the back door and leave the scene. The indignity of not being able to provide for their own children was too much to bear. They felt replaced as the father. The mothers sensed some of the shame, but were willing to endure it for the sake of their children.

So instead, they turned “Toys for Tots” into “Pride for Parents.” The same toys were brought into a store front and priced at a discount. The parents could come and purchase Christmas gifts with their own money. If they did not have the cash, they could work at the store to earn store credit for a gift. They were the ones giving a gift to their children, and glad for the opportunity to do so. (This story is my summary. Click here to read his Christianity Today interview.)

Christians with financial means are often eager to help the materially poor. But however well-intended, some development projects and aid efforts can easily magnify the recipients’ shame.

Two Haitian Examples

I was recently in Haiti teaching at a Bible school for Christian leaders. Before talking about evangelism in honor-shame cultures, I shared how we Christians must proclaim God’s honor with our entire lives (not just our words). I retold Bob Lupton’s story above, then asked, “Can you give an example of a development or aid project in Haiti that inadvertently shamed people?” Haiti is a country known for its many development projects, so the conversation took off. Here are two stories I caught via the translator.

1. There was an aid worker who brought gifts to a Haitian orphanage. In an effort to make it fun and entertaining, they tossed the gifts to the children, and had them wrestle for the gifts. Then one of the adults said, “If you want to give the children a gift, then hand them a gift like a respectful person. Or perhaps you could ask some questions, and give a gift to the child who answers correctly. But, don’t have them fight like animals over the gift.

 2. An organization wanted to feed children in a particular village. They set a large area to feed to children, but the area was central and visible for everyone else to see. As a result, nobody wanted to go there because they would be seen by others as taking handouts. According to the Haitian pastor telling the story, they could have provided meals in a different location or put up some barrier so people were not eating openly in public.


A basic awareness of honor-shame dynamics can help Christian development and aid projects be more impactful, and put God’s honor into action. Do you have a story or example how honor (or shame!) impacted a community project?    

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2 Comments on “How to Give Aid…Without Shaming

  1. I’ve been blessed to do short term work in Haiti for a number of years and have seen this happen. However I have also been blessed to have worked with several missionaries who have guided our work in a culturally sensitive way.

    What I have learned is that the issue can largely be resolved by letting the indigenous church take the lead, not necessarily in the financing but in the decision making and implementation. Too often as Americans we want to be seen as the ones providing the toys/food etc. What would happen if the American church wasn’t the face of the project but instead the local pastor and church was? There would be a number of significant advantages.

  2. Good point, Steve. As a full-time missionary in Haiti, whose patronage is sought on a daily basis, I have taken guidance from when Jesus fed the 5,000. Jesus divided the bread and gave it to his disciples who in turn distributed the bread to the crowd. Jesus’ physical presence was temporary, but the disciples would remain. As missionaries who follow the apostolic role of Jesus, I agree that it is best to give aid as much as possible through the people and systems within the culture. Not only does it keep me sane, but it also respects the leaders and institutions in place, rather than circumventing them.

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