The biggest problem I’ve seen in my work to aid refugees is a lack of resources—financial, material, manpower, and willpower. The second biggest problem I’ve seen is the pervasive perversion of bureaucracy.
This is one area where the Church has an enormous advantage over governments and NGOs. Those institutions almost inevitably become more and more bureaucratic because they have primary concerns that are not primary for the Church. Their concerns are bottom lines, reporting methods, and “success rates”. The Church may share these concerns, but not to the same degree, for the primary matter for the Church is to do the will of God. When we truly recognize that we are purposed for this mission—to reach and raise up refugees—budgets and data collection become secondary to service and love.
I do not mean to say fiscal responsibility and accurate evaluation methods are inappropriate for the Church—they are good and right. I just mean to say we are not beholden to them above the commands of the King and the needs of other people.
In humanitarian aid work, I see three chief bureaucratic temptations that often hinder organizations from responding as powerfully as they might to the problem of refugeeism. Here they are, and here’s how the Church can move beyond them.
Temptation 1: Seeing Refugees as Data
When I worked in Lebanon, I worked primarily in what is called project monitoring and evaluation (PME). That means I wrote reports, conducted research, examined budgets, and analyzed data to determine how effectively our projects were performing and how to do them better.
The position is a necessary one for credible humanitarian aid work, but it has its pitfalls. Chief among them is the numbering of human beings.
The basic framework for selecting refugees for aid and resettlement is to base the decision on vulnerability. Vulnerability, however, is difficult to gauge. How does one meaningfully compare physical health and mental health, the importance of shelter versus a nutritious diet, warmth versus water, lack of education versus lack of employment, and countless other confounding variables? It’s an impossible task. Yet this is the way we often determine which refugees receive aid or resettlement, and which won’t.
For some NGOs, there are literally computer programs in which data points are entered based on a wide range of variables (e.g. number of children, disability, level of trauma, access to food, elevation of home, etc), and then out pop recommendations for who to help and how.
To my eyes, there is a problem with the system when software is deciding who to serve. I recognize the need for efficiency when dealing with millions of refugees and billions of needs, but we must also recognize that a computer cannot recognize who is truly neediest in the same way a human can. Vulnerability cannot be determined by an algorithm. Not truly. And even if it could be, the human connection is an essential part of serving in love, which is why we don’t send robots to do home visits.
Empires and institutions are interested in counting. They want to know how much, how many, and the extent of influence. The Church cannot be like that.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be.
In far too many organizations doing aid work, displaced people become data points and bargaining chips rather than human beings created in the image of God. Aid organizations fall into the traps of bureaucracy because they become political and because they become businesses. Of course, humanitarian aid work is political and does deal in business, but the Church is bigger than all that. The Church does not require a CEO apart from God. Its aid does not demand a hierarchical structure or algorithmic selection processes that ultimately cause some recipients to suffer.
Under the flourishing might of the Spirit, the Church is not bound to the efficiency of spreadsheets more than the efficiency of intimacy. It affords personal interaction because it is the right thing to do. Church efficiency acts with the shrewdness of serpents, but not without the innocence of doves.
It is not for computers, nor even for individuals, to say who deserves to receive aid and who doesn’t. The Church must rise above that temptation to know that the goodness of God and the generosity of Christ’s body are for all those who are weak and heavy-laden. We must joyfully do our part to give families hope for the future wherever possible. It is not idealistic to suggest that the Church can be better than the bureaucratic numerating of refugees, as though they were lab rats or points to be graphed. The gospel truth is that if the Church pours itself into addressing refugeeism as it is more than able, it will have the resources, the power, and the will to humanize refugees and ourselves, and in such a work to glorify God.
 Wilbert Van Saane. “Christian Mission: Paternalism to Partnership”. Lecture at the Near East School of Theology. Dec. 17, 2015.