Missionaries In Africa Doing More Harm Than Good?

Christian missionaries devote time, energy and billions of dollars to helping African children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. But sometimes well-meaning efforts can do more harm than good. In this week's Faith Matters conversation, host Michel Martin speaks to writer and journalist John Donnelly about his new book, A Twist of Faith: An American Christian's Quest to Help Orphans in Africa.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, you tell us more about our coverage and we'll update some of the stories we covered in Back Talk. That's in just a few minutes. But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And in a few minutes, we'll hear some new information about the diversity of religious practices among Asian-Americans.

But now we want to talk about how faith motivates people to change the world, and how those efforts may sometimes miss the mark. As we've mentioned several times this week, international dignitaries head toWashington for the start of the 19th International AIDS Conference this weekend. But tens of thousands of American Christians have headed the other way, halfway across the world to Africa, trying to do their bit to help people affected by AIDS there, especially the orphans.

Those efforts are the focus of a new book, "A Twist of Faith: An American Christian's Quest to Help Orphans in Africa." The author is John Donnelly. He's a former foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe, and he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOHN DONNELLY: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, you came to have an opinion about these efforts, and I do want to get to your opinion, but I want to set the table just by focusing on what is actually happening on the ground. Your book focuses on an effort to build an orphanage in Malawi, and you wrote that when you arrived there, you saw, quote, "American do-gooders everywhere." How big is everywhere? What's the scope of the effort there?

DONNELLY: So, the scope is amazing. If you step back a little bit, there are thousands and thousands of Americans of all faiths who go to Africa because they have this big heart and big ideas, and they really know what they want to do before they go, most of them. I went on a plane after deciding to do this. And I looked around the plane and I saw these groups of people wearing the same color t-shirts.

And I went up to some of them and I said: What are you doing? And all these groups were going from different churches or synagogues to go help people in Africa. And I went back to my friend, and I said, you know, we're on the right plane. And it turned out, just about every plane is the right plane, because people are going all the time.

MARTIN: How big is the scope of the missionary presence in Africa, particularly from America? And can you compare it to the efforts of, say, the NGOs that people may know a little better, like Doctors Without Borders or something like that?

DONNELLY: Right. So it's far, far bigger. It's far, far bigger, actually, than the U.S. government in terms of money. The U.S. government, in its big global AIDS program, which is now - it's being focused on in Washington next week. It gave $1.6 billion to help orphans in Africa over the last eight, nine years. Churches alone in the U.S. give more - much, much more than that every year to programs in Africa.

The United Methodist Church, every year, trains 400,000 people to go on mission trainings. So it's this sort of grass roots movement of people trying to help.

MARTIN: The centerpiece of your book is a man named David Nixon. What drew you to his story? Why do you think he's so important for what you're trying to explain?

DONNELLY: That's a good question. I had been living in Africa for The Boston Globe for several years, covering it. And then I left and I came back, because I had just heard about some of this movement. And I decided to go and find out. I made no appointments, just went - landed in Malawi, and Madonna had been there just a little while before, and it was in the news.

I wasn't interested so much in Madonna, though. I was interested more in finding ordinary Americans going to try to do some good. And David Nixon was one of a dozen or 15 people that, over the next year, I tracked pretty closely. He went with the distinct idea to build an orphanage, was told by the government, no, stop, because that's not what we need in this country.

But we need people like you. So why don't you direct your efforts and build a school? And he thought about that, and he said, you know, that's a great idea. So he did that. He learned from his initial ideas. And that's why I liked him, because a lot of Americans go and they don't actually know what the community or what the government and the country needs. So David Nixon's story is a good one.

MARTIN: Okay. Let me just jump in here to say that we're talking with John Donnelly about his new book, "A Twist of Faith: An American Christian's Quest to Help Orphans in Africa." So getting to your opinion, you describe these American Christians as, quote, "people with big hearts and big ideas, but without much else, without knowledge and perhaps without enough humility." Why do you say that?

DONNELLY: Well, first of all, I don't want to be critical of this incredible movement. I think it's very important that Americans go and have this passion they do. It's amazing they do it. I just wish they would be amazingly effective, as well. So what happens is - and I saw this over and over and over again. Americans feel like they know better than people in different countries in Africa. And they feel like they've made money. They've put together programs. They've been successful in their communities, and so therefore it should work.

But when you go into a foreign country, you really have to learn from local people about what is best.

MARTIN: Is your main criticism of these efforts that people don't listen, that people who live in these areas have a pretty good sense of what they think will work? Or is it that they don't even listen to best practices, they don't even listen to the experiences of the people who've gone before to try to optimize their efforts?

DONNELLY: I think it's both. I think they don't ask. People should go with open minds, and they don't. And they often don't ask people on the ground, or they have one partner on the ground that does that. There are these short-term mission groups that go with one project. They build a house. They do something. That's great. But for the longer-term efforts, I think you really have to understand the culture first.

MARTIN: And just in getting back to David Nixon, one of the reasons that you, you know, followed him is that you felt that he exemplified both the negative side and the positive side. And the positive side was something in him helped him stick with it, even when it got really hard.

DONNELLY: Right. So there's a character in the book who says she loves people that go for reasons motivated by their faith because they have a little crazy in them. They don't get stopped by misfortune. They have misfortunes every day, but they still go because they're so passionate, and faith really motivates them. They have a greater picture. You know, God could be leading them to do this. And so for those people, they could be incredibly valuable and part of the solution in different communities.

MARTIN: At the end of the day, John Donnelly - because I know you are a journalist, but you did come to conclusions about this. Do you think that this large presence of missionaries is doing more harm than good, or more good than harm?

DONNELLY: I think the totality is they're more good than harm. However, they are nowhere near as effective as they could be. There needs to be - and the churches and synagogues and mosques will hate this word - but sort of coordination and partnership with groups. They need to understand what countries are doing, and they need to sort of fit into what best practices and what works.

MARTIN: John Donnelly is a writer who specializes in global health and development. His latest book is "A Twist of Faith: An American Christian's Quest to Help Orphans in Africa." And he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington D.C. John Donnelly, thank you for speaking with us.

DONNELLY: Yeah, thank you, Michel.

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