Cover Story

From the work of their hands

"From the work of their hands" Continued...

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

IN MANY WAYS GO’s learning curve in Haiti has paralleled what Clay and other entrepreneurs have discovered. Initially working as C3 Missions, the organization set up its first orphanage a decade ago and now has church-based orphan care in 20 countries. But GO officers quickly learned that providing “24/7 residential care” wasn’t sustainable and shifted to what they call market-based funding for orphan care. Providing housing for orphans, GO CEO Joe Knittig told me, was “attractively simple and exciting to givers,” but “naïvely simplistic.”  

Perpetual financial charity led to dependency and what Knittig calls “the dignity drain.” Better to partner with churches, who make up a vast community-based network in Haiti, provide structural support, but require that orphan care find ways to sustain itself. Using this model GO supports churches and church projects while eschewing its own buildings, a fleet of Land Rovers, or even signs bearing its logo.

Beyond that, GO learned that by focusing on care facilities, “We unintentionally created an incentive for hurting parents and relatives—particularly poor, single mothers—to quit on parenting in the hope that their children could be placed in residential care with the church,” said Knittig. By instead focusing on “local church-based communities,” the  priority became keeping families and communities together to prosper.

“We started as an orphan care ministry. We have become an orphan care and orphan prevention ministry,” said Knittig.

Pastor Claude Mondesir is an example of a GO partner. Over the course of 30 years the Haitian, who became a Christian through an American missionary in Cap Haitien, has planted at least four churches and started a school at each. One month after the quake GO partnered with him to open Eben Ezer, a village in Leogane, the quake epicenter. It now houses and schools 95 children, and has one of the only churches in the area. 

Mondesir also has developed a knack for spawning business enterprises to support the church-based orphan care. A chicken farm supplies food for the orphanages, but also sells to local markets. It and vocational training with courses in animal husbandry, sewing, and business provide opportunities for orphans ready to “age out” and enter the job market. And when GO needed a place for missions teams to stay in Haiti, it bought property about 10 miles outside Port-au-Prince, but Mondesir built on it a modest hotel now staffed and run by Haitians. It’s housed more than 100 overseas missions teams (who pay to stay there).

“Whatever we do has to serve orphan care in some way. It has to feed kids or provide income for them or their caregivers,” said Jake Barreth, field director for GO. Another dividend of developing community and enterprise around the church—Mondesir’s churches are growing, along with those of other pastors who partner with GO.

Knittig, who left a law practice in Kansas City to become The Global Orphan Project CEO in 2008, said it’s important to embrace “organizational sanctification” to work in a place like Haiti. “We don’t stick our heads in the sand to avoid the pain of mistakes, or hide mistakes in order to raise more money. We actively look for bad facts in the process of what we do, as these are opportunities to learn, change, and serve children and families better.” 

The “aid versus economic development” issue to Knittig is “not about how to best guarantee the illusory outcome of ending physical poverty. It’s all about dignity in the process of how we serve the poor; about how to best champion family and community with all of the spiritual, intellectual, and financial capital that we can bring to the table.”

—For the complete interview with Global Orphan Project’s Joe Knittig, see below.

Stepping inside the world’s ‘orphan window’

An interview with The Global Orphan Project’s Joe Knittig

By Mindy Belz

Joe Knittig was a trial lawyer when he made his first trip to Haiti in 2005. But in 2008 he left the legal world to become chief executive officer for The Global Orphan Project (GO). It currently partners with 17 projects, including villages dedicated to orphan care, in Haiti as well as other projects around the world. Knittig travels extensively from GO’s home base in Kansas City, Mo., and when GO sponsors a run in Haiti or other adventures, he joins in that too. Knittig authored The Global Orphan Report (Booktango, 2012) to shed light not only on children who’ve lost parents but what Knittig calls “capital ‘O’ orphans” both overseas and in the United States—children “whose family care networks have catastrophically failed them.” In an email interview following a recent trip to Haiti, I asked him to describe some mistakes from helping in these catastrophe zones, and what his organization has learned from them.

Among non-governmental organizations, GO seems transparent about what works and what doesn’t in Haiti. Would you say that GO has learned from its own mistakes, or the mistakes of others, and could you give an example or two? Absolutely. We have a ministry culture within GO that embraces organizational sanctification. We don’t stick our heads in the sand to avoid the pain of mistakes, or hide mistakes in order to raise more money. We actively look for bad facts in the process of what we do, as these are opportunities to learn, change, and serve children and families better. And we actively look to share our mistakes with others, to help other ministries improve in shrewd ways. This is the very reason that I wrote The Orphan Report—to share with other ministry leaders learning points from our mistakes in the “orphan window.”

Can you amplify that? First example: When we first started in orphan care ministry, our single intervention for children was to help our local church partners provide 24/7 residential care to hurting children in their communities. While attractively simple and exciting to givers, our approach was naïvely simplistic.

Without question, children who suffer catastrophic family failure need the protection of 24/7 care in a safe environment. However, by just focusing on children’s homes, we unintentionally created an incentive for hurting parents and relatives—particularly poor single mothers—to quit on parenting in the hope that their children could be placed in residential care with the church. That was wrong. God is not for dividing families.

We learned from our indigenous partners and our mistakes, and broadened our platform to better reflect the realities of hurting children and families in the communities where we serve. We now work through the indigenous local church to:

  1. Help keep vulnerable families together (economic development and school access for children on the brink have become “big rocks” of our ministry).
  2. Provide 24/7 residential care in culturally relevant, family-based safe homes for children who truly need such care (there are many such children, unfortunately).
  3. Support reunification of such children with extended family members if/when possible (helping in the redemption of broken families is a major “win”).

We started as an orphan care ministry. We have become an orphan care and orphan prevention ministry. And we expect this process of broadening our services to better support family through the local church to continue, including in the area of domestic adoption.

Here’s the second example: When we first started, we overly emphasized a simple “rescue” message to the donor world. In other words, “give to save the life of a child.” This was a huge mistake. While this was really effective in terms of raising money, it significantly limited our true mission: to facilitate inside-out life transformation of all who step into the world’s orphan window.

Our simple “rescue” message didn’t fully align with what we see God doing, it was laced with pride, and it elevated clinical marketing over messy reality. We have changed our messaging. We still encourage and celebrate the hearts of givers to help, serve, and change the lives of children. But now we do better in sharing the full mess and beauty of what’s happening in the orphan window, trusting that deep transformation from the Lord comes from deep truth.

This change in how we communicate what we see the Lord doing has been a critically important—and positive—course correction in our ministry. This “depth over breadth” course correction is not necessarily the most effective in terms of fundraising. But we’ll take more transformation over more money any day of the week, and trust the Lord to grow us financially as He wills.

The aid debate rages in this country, but it seems clear that what works better than charity are income-producing and job-creating enterprises run by locals with outside help in some way. Can you elaborate, agree, or disagree with that? I don’t believe there is some magic “model” that will end poverty. To me, this “aid vs. economic development” issue is not about how to best guarantee the illusory outcome of ending physical poverty. It’s all about dignity in the process of how we serve the poor, about how to best champion family and community with all of the spiritual, intellectual, and financial capital that we can bring to the table.

On the one hand, the Big Aid purists insist that aid is best and more aid is the answer. On the other hand, the free market purists insist that economic development is best and aid kills. So who is right? From our experience serving in the orphan window, both are. Both sides need to bring some humility and objectivity to the table, and stop recklessly tearing down others to promote self.

Without pure, unadulterated charity, we couldn’t get out of the blocks in helping our local church partners provide the basics to children who’ve lost it all. And with too much dependence on pure aid, our efforts to “help” would get swallowed up by the dignity drain from all aid and no production within a community.

We’ve all heard the saying, ”Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” We believe that both givers and teachers are needed. And we believe that in our über-connected world, we’ve reached an exciting point where an addendum to this saying is appropriate: ”Invest in a man’s fish business and become his customer, and he will feed others.”

In sum, we need pure givers, teachers, and investors. All of the above. And we need a constant check to ensure that the process promotes not our pride, but the dignity of the people we’re privileged to serve.

If there is one thing you want Americans to understand about how best to approach helping Haitians and others in poor nations what is it? The process is the point. Open up to the possibility that Jesus intends way more in the rich-poor connection than one side “fixing” the other through money and intellect. He intends two-way life change in the process of connection.

The world’s orphan window—whether in Haiti, East Africa, or right here in the United States foster care system—is a particularly powerful life change zone right now. Step into the lives of these kids with even a part of your heart, and see what happens.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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