This is a hard subject that I’ve struggled with putting out there. I don’t want to hurt feelings or point fingers, but I really feel like I need to write this. Just to clarify, this isn’t about the oh-so-trendy subject of how giving things to poor people makes them dependent. That is a complicated matter that I don’t feel I have the wisdom or knowledge to discuss in depth. There are many other writers and bloggers who have addressed it. There’s even a book. This is a discussion of a different problem.
As we continue with this work in Tanzania, part of our journey is learning how to do things and, perhaps more importantly, how not to do things. It can sound very glamorous – running an NGO in Africa, changing the world one person at a time. Having worked at this for almost a year now, I can tell that it’s a lot of things – fulfilling, satisfying, heart-breaking, scary, frustrating, joyful, etc. What’s its not is glamorous. Often, it’s just hard work. Tanzanian culture is so different from ours. Resources that we take for granted are either unavailable or extremely difficult to access. But that’s not the really hard part. The hardest part of this is trying desperately to do things the right way. Not the easy way or the cheapest way. The right way. We want to help without hurting.
When I selected the board members for our sister organization, Peace Love Mercy Tanzania, I discussed the purpose and mission of our work with each person. One of my board members gave me a great piece of advice. He told me to remember that the employees of the NGO were as important as the people we were trying to help. I knew exactly what he meant. Over the past 2½ years, I’d seen some NGOs here who seem to have forgotten that their employees are at the heart of their ministry. Now that people know we are here, we’ve had quite a few of them approach us, asking for jobs. Many have worked or are working for other NGOs, and their stories are heart-breaking. Time and time again I hear of employers paying as little as they can, setting work conditions that they themselves would never accept, and either being unaware or unconcerned about the hardship on their employees. Let me explain.
In case you aren’t aware, Tanzania is a very poor country. Jobs are scarce, pay is extremely low, and unemployment is rising. People are desperate and most of them will take any job they can get. But we should not take advantage of this. When you pay the least amount possible, give the fewest benefits you can get away with, and are unconcerned with your employees home situations, you are taking advantage of them. There are no social safety nets here. Children do starve to death because the parents can’t buy food. Babies as young as a few months are left alone while parents work so that they can buy food. Is this bad? Of course it is. But it’s better than watching and hearing your child literally starve to death. Then there are those who are forced to take their children to relatives who live hours or even days away, because the alternative is leaving them alone while the parents work. Here’s a tidbit worth remembering: if our employee has to choose between paying rent and buying food, we’re not paying them enough. Even if they are willing to work for a poverty wage, we should not be paying a poverty wage. Even if everyone else is paying the same wage, we just can’t do it. There is no way to justify doing it, even for the sake of budget. We simply can’t use these people for our worthy purpose and ignore the life to which we then condemn them, knowing they can’t live on the wage they make, yet knowing they can’t afford to quit either. We can’t choose to help our target group, while hurting those who are actually doing the work.
So how can we know what a living wage is? We can ask them. These people aren’t buying new cars – most can’t drive. They have no credit card debt because they don’t really know what a credit card is, and couldn’t get one if they did. They don’t have mortgages. They don’t smoke and they don’t drink. They will never have a smart phone. Most of them have a one room house that’s made of mud or cement. They eat ugali and rice and beans, but usually only two meals a day. Meat is a rare luxury. They buy their few clothes on the second hand market. They’ve never had a shower or sat in a tub – they bathe with a bucket of water. They don’t have a single picture of their kids. Their kids have no toys – their “soccer ball” is a ball of trash with plastic grocery bags tied around it. If you ask them how much they need to simply survive, they will tell you. And it will be an honest answer. We need to give them enough to feed their children. We need to help them bring their children home to live with them. We need to help pay for their children to go to school if they can’t. If they have to use public transportation to get to their job, we need to pay for it.
For African Christian Ministries and Peace Love Mercy Tanzania, this is how we want to operate. It’s not a choice really. We will not sacrifice our employees for the sake of our budget. We don’t always get it right the first time. But we do try to evaluate how we are doing. We’ve had to raise salaries that were too low. We’ve had to look at the impact of the Tanzanian shilling falling against the dollar, and how it may be affecting our employees. Are we being truly responsible in caring for our employees? If you are involved with charitable work in any developing country, I challenge you to commit to serving and loving your employees as much as you do those you came to help. If you are helping to support one of these organizations, make sure to find out how if they are honoring the people who work for them. If they don’t, find another organization to support. There are so many out there.