Learning to sail

A mother-leader teaches other mothers how to keep their children healthy by washing their hands.

At Food for the Hungry (FH), one of our core skills is cross-cultural communication. After all, we work in more than 25 countries. And it’s hard.

The late Philosopher of Communication Marshall McLuhan said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” In other words, fish are so immersed in their context that they cannot imagine a world without it.

Our cultural context permeates who we are. Most often, we can’t detect our cultural presuppositions. What we say. How we say it. And therein lies the potential—no, certainty—for misunderstanding.

One of the most helpful experiences I’ve had has come though the Coalition on the Support of Indigenous Ministries (COSIM). In a different take on the usual way that Western organizations work in the developing world, they focus on empowering others to proclaim and act out the Gospel.

Their conference, “LISTEN: Deepening the Conversation in Cross-Cultural Partnership,” starts tonight, and I’m excited to be going. The kickoff speaker will be Brazilian Alex Araujo of United World Mission.

Two years ago, Araujo challenged COSIM attenders by questioning Westerners’ paradigm for helping others. His metaphor contrasted motor boating with sailing.  Westerners are prone to motor boating—setting out on a voyage using expensive technology, fueled by money, driven on by persistence. It works but gobbles resources in the process.

But as we listen to successful leaders in the developing world, we find that they are skilled at sailing. They know their environments better. They don’t let setbacks of weather dissuade them from their goals, though their courses might meander. They often have to demonstrate patience, waiting for the right conditions. But they know how to accomplish their goals using far fewer resources. Because they can undertake more projects by working in harmony with their environments, they often accomplish much more than Westerners using Western methods.

FH lives in both worlds. Our contract work on behalf of the U.S. or other government agencies often proceeds on the motorboat model. We set goals, buy resources and use them according to the plan approved by many reviewers and supported by reams of documentation. And we’re good at it.

But we also employ the developing world’s sailing model. One such innovation that works for us is care groups: Groups of local people, often women, who are training others about health or agricultural practices. To the Western mind, it might be tempting to arrive with a bullhorn and a movie projector, which we could report reached a large audience at the same time. But it wouldn’t work as well. It might not even work at all. Empowering local people to train their peers is far better. Go here for more information about transformation.

I’m going to COSIM tonight expectantly. I’ll be listening. And that’s what FH does with our indigenous partners around the world.

About Barry Gardner

Barry Gardner is the Chief Financial Officer at FH. He joined FH in 2010 after a 20 year career as a financial consultant to non-profit organizations. He and his wife Susan live in Phoenix, where Barry enjoys year-round cycling weather.