Wilfred Mlay: Africa is not for fixing

Let’s get off the frenetic activity of trying to save the world, and just be still and know that God is at work, says the former vice president for World Vision’s African programs.

Since retiring earlier this year from World Vision as vice president for African programs, Wilfred Mlay has spent at least one day each week in the bush in Tanzania, his home country.

He always brings two chairs with him, placing them face to face. He sits in one -- with a Bible, journal and pen in hand -- and says, “Lord, I invite you to sit here and talk to me. Whatever you tell me, I’ll scribble down.”

What has he learned since beginning this weekly routine? The difference between doing and being, he said.

“I had been trying to do things for God,” said Mlay, who served as a vice president at World Vision for 12 years. “Now, I want to be with God to allow him to speak to me and to help me be. As someone has said, we are called human beings -- we are supposed to be, but we are focused on doing, as if we were human doings. …

“I think God is waiting for us in the Christian community and in the business of building the church to be available to him. Jesus … called the disciples and he invited them, first of all to be with him, and then he sent them out. I think there are not enough Christian leaders who are willing to be.”

An ambassador with the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation’s African Great Lakes Initiative, Mlay spoke with Faith & Leadership about what he has learned about poverty and about the biblical and church response to it. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You have said your passion is a biblical response to poverty. What do you mean by that?

In the Old Testament, God says to the Israelites, “In the land that the Lord your God will give you, there should not be any poor people.” As you read, though, you see that there will be inequalities within society because of human sin, but God provides mechanisms for adjusting those inequalities over time.

The fact is that people are to share with those who are less fortunate and provide for them and that justice should be at the very core of how people relate with one another. It’s the recognition that the children of Israel have one common Father -- God, their provider.

Then you come into the New Testament, and in Christ we are brought to the same level in terms of who we are. It’s really a relational thing. And poverty is a relational problem.

Q: How does this affect the way poverty should be addressed?

If the relationships are right, poverty can be dealt with. It’s when the relationships are skewed --out of order as God intended it -- that you begin to see exploitation, injustice, oppression and discrimination.

The unfortunate [aspect that] Western thought has brought to the world is to look at poverty largely in the material -- talking about living on less than $2 a day.

But that’s not what poverty’s all about. I have seen a wealth of life, relationships, joy, peace and harmony in the midst of excruciating material poverty. And when I look at that picture against another picture, where there is material accumulation and abundance and where people are so individualistic and self-centered, I see there is greater poverty.

Obviously, there is room for the two to come together, but there needs to be a focus on who we are together and the gifts of love, peace and harmony -- and how those are more enriching than just having things.

That requires a heart change that only God can bring. That heart change then allows us to change our relational dynamics. When that happens, everything else begins to fall into place.

It is a lengthy process, because human selfishness does not end when people come in the first instance to the knowledge of the love of God. It’s something that they have to grow into. People have to be formed. They have to be discipled. They have to unlearn those selfish, materialistic attitudes.

Q: How does that process begin?

Relationships begin where we have things in common -- a common language, a common interest, a common understanding. This is something that God wants for all people. But for it to happen, he needs men and women who are willing to stand in that place of connecting and showing that we belong together.

In the many community initiatives that I have seen succeed, you don’t begin by saying, “Let’s come and do this so that each one of us can benefit.” It begins with, “Let’s come together and discover who we are to each other.”

Q: Describe community initiatives that you’ve seen work.

You find things like women in the villages who pull together their labor and help one another work their fields. During those times, they begin to tell stories. That bond grows as they start telling those stories. That helps them to organize, to have leadership, and then to begin to dream for their children, their welfare, their future and what they can do together.

Gradually, over time, they address issues that oppress them. If they’re farmers, they produce more and look for markets. They find better ways of caring for their kids and find better schools. They develop a common voice to address issues and advocate for things they think are their right to receive from governments and institutions that work in their area.

They’ll say, “Each one of us will give a certain amount of money to one lady so she can buy some chickens and have a place where these chickens can grow, so that she can begin to have an income. The following month, we’ll give to another woman. Maybe she wants to start a small business selling vegetables.”

All that starts with people coming together and recognizing their common interests and needs.

Q: What doesn’t work?

I used to tell my colleagues when I was at World Vision that if we are trying to be as good as or better than the World Bank, we will fail, because the World Bank has failed, despite the billions of dollars that have been invested in Africa.

There have been grandiose programs and a lot of funding invested in building infrastructure, but most of it today is broken litter. Some of it is not functioning, and some of it was never complete. Billions and billions of dollars have gone down the drain.

There’s an attitude that says, “You know what it is with these people? They’ve got a problem. We can fix it. We just need to have enough dollars and technical people and bring in stuff, and we will fix it.”

And I say, “No, Africa is not for fixing. Africa first needs to be understood and to be engaged as part of the global community, as people with dignity and with dreams and hopes and aspirations -- that needs to be understood long before you can even start to deal with what you perceive to be their main challenges.”

What Africa has lacked is the kind of leadership that has the courage to say, “What has been done so far has not worked. We need to do things differently.” And then for the other to say, “We are willing to work at your pace, to walk alongside you and listen to your stories and your dreams and to understand what it is that is your priority.”

Q: What do you think should be the role of Western organizations in addressing poverty in Africa?

That’s the question for me. Even in my organizations where I worked, we used to have heated arguments. There is this fetish about producing tangible results that are measurable -- that you can demonstrate to donors that the money has been put to good use. Accountability is critically important and needed, but at the end of the day, there must be an accountability that is first and foremost to those that one is seeking to help.

In fact, I asked my own organization, “Why don’t we prepare our reports in such a way that we can give a copy to the community and another copy to the donor?” We seemed to be so concerned about satisfying the donor.

We even used to say that success is the second gift. That is, if a donor has given one gift, and if he gives you a second gift, then you know you’ve been successful.

I said, “OK, that’s good, but what if the person that we’re seeking to walk alongside with, what if they’re the people who then say, ‘Wonderful, this is actually what we needed. We are now ready to move on ourselves. The help you’ve given us has supported us for the long journey that we are willing to continue on our own’?”

We are so concerned about raising money and making sure it’s spent well that sometimes the accounting part is more important than what we produce on the ground. When I say “produce,” I’m not talking in terms of structures and physical but in terms of changes that take place in the lives of people -- in terms of values, in terms of attitudes, in terms of hope.

Q: What are those values that build sustainability?

We did some studies in World Vision in Southern Africa that looked at past projects. We found that most of the programs that continued after World Vision had left were those that had invested strongly in increasing information, working with local church communities and building values. Those values were honesty, faithfulness, integrity, working together, creating environments of harmony and accountable leadership.

Those projects that did that are the ones that were sustained and that, today, are thriving without World Vision. It’s not the ones that we spent huge numbers of dollars on and built wells and schools. It’s the ones where we invested more in building the people through faith and through working with faith-based institutions like the church.

Q: What should be the role of a U.S.-based church in the Great Lakes region?

I think that a church in the United States that has a genuine desire to see change for the better in Africa -- the first task is to learn, to understand by listening and recognizing that it’s a different world there.

There’s a saying in Africa, “The Westerners have watches; we have the tide” -- meaning that people in Africa are very patient. They are willing to spend a lot of time to understand things before they move, and it can be frustrating with a Western mindset, where you have timelines, plans, objectives, goals and outcomes.

Then you get six months down the road and nothing has happened, and you want to pack up and go. The thing is to stay to give people the opportunity to be heard and to know that you’re not there for your own agenda, but you are there to genuinely help.

The story of incarnation teaches us that. God could’ve sat up in heaven and said, “Guys, come up here and I’ll teach you.” He came down and lived our life, and only then could we begin to understand what God has to offer -- his love through his Son.

So in a sense, the Western church needs to take the incarnation model in working with the church in Africa and the local communities.

As I have reflected upon the examples of others and their lives, I see this is the heart of what God wants to do in this generation. Let’s get off the frenetic activity of trying to save the world, and let’s just be still and know that God is at work.