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Impoverished village

The Needy in America vs the Needy in the Third World: Who Is More Worthy of American Aid?

Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die. ~U2

One of the reactions I’ve heard about my trip to Sri Lanka and about supporting World Vision is that we [Americans] should help our own people first. I don’t know if that same sentiment turns up in other first world counries like Canada and the UK – perhaps readers from those countries could speak to that in the comments. But it’s fairly common here in the States.

family in truck in Sri Lanka

Copyright World Vision. Photo by Matthew Paul Turner.

When I first went to Bolivia, I didn’t really know how to respond to that idea. Now that I have seen what third-world poverty looks like and had several months to think about it, my response is to ask a few questions.

1.) Do you think that the needy in the USA have more value than the needy anywhere else? Do you think Americans deserve more or deserve to be first? Why? What gives someone who lucked into a US birth certificate is more valuable or important that someone with a Sri Lankan birth certificate? When you say that we should help “our own” it sounds like you are setting Americans above everyone else, and that feels very icky to me. I believe in the inherent value of human life, no matter where that life is lived. We can be patriotic without demeaning or devaluing others.

2.) If you do think that somehow Americans are better or more valuable or more important, have you ever considered how that attitude leads to things like anti-Semitism, white supremacy, male chauvinism, and ethnic cleansing? Do these comparisons disgust you? Do they offend you? Good. They should. The root of those ideologies is the hyper-valuing of one’s own people (race, ethnicity, gender) and the devaluing of others. These horrible attitudes are the logical conclusion of such ideas. Let me be clear. I am not saying that if you have pride in your country of origin, that makes you a bigot. But if your national pride leads to seeing others as somehow less, you should stop and think it through a little further.

3.) If you agree with me that no one person has more value than another, then what exactly is your objection to helping someone in another country? If you agree that their life is as valuable and important as yours, and if they are starving or dying of preventable illness or being sold into slavery, shouldn’t we help? Do we not have an obligation to do what we can, no matter where they live? Wouldn’t we want someone to help us if we were unlucky enough to find ourselves in such circumstances? What does it say about us if we refuse? What does it say about you?

It is true that some in America are suffering. They are without work and without health insurance. People lose their homes to fires, storms, and bankruptcy. Our systems, like child and family services, Medicaid, public schools, and food stamps need to be better funded, and better thought out.


We have programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and child services. Our babies get immunized against killer diseases like hepatitis, measles, whooping cough, and tetanus. The mosquitoes in the US might carry West Nile virus, but they don’t carry malaria, dengue fever, or Japanese encephalitis. We can drink water from the tap and from the water hose without fearing that we will pick up a parasite that could kill us or infect us for life. We have sewer systems and trash pick-up instead of trenches of waste running along the street that we have to step across when we enter and leave any building in town. We have closets full of shoes. We have antibiotics.

The people in Sri Lanka don’t have what we have. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

And leads me to the idea that we should help our own first because countries like Sri Lanka aren’t helping us. This was a new one for me, but here it is.

Sri Lanka should help us before we help them.


Okay. Let’s break this down.

Sri Lanka lost 38,000 people in the 2004 tsunami. They’ve lost 70,000 people to a 17-year civil war that just ended in 2009, with another 500,000 people without homes because of the conflict. I did the math, and this is fully one-third of the entire population either dead or homeless because of war or natural disaster in the last 20 years. Bring it home — what if one out of every three people in the US was dead or homeless? On top of all this human loss, their economy is in shambles. The average annual income in Sri Lanka is $2,290. And you want them to help the richest nation in the world?

I think an analogy may help.

Denying aid to Sri Lanka because they aren’t helping us first is like telling the victims of the Joplin tornado to manicure the White House lawn before we will help them rebuild. Requiring a third world country to help a first world country is like telling a child sex slave that we won’t rescue them until they send Donald Trump $100.

bare feet in Sri Lanka

Copyright World Vision. Photo by Matthew Paul Turner.

I don’t know how to say this tactfully, so I won’t. This idea is ludicrous. We are one of the richest nations in the world. We don’t need help. We need to be more responsible with our resources. We need to share.

We need to help people like the ones I’m visiting in Sri Lanka. They aren’t lazy, and they aren’t stupid. They are some of the most ingenious creative people I’ve ever met. They are like MacGyver, making something out of practically nothing, like the guys who climb palm trees for coconut nectar. But this isn’t a television show. This is for real.

And the thing is that they need the basics that we take for granted: things like safe drinking water, shoes, mosquito repellant, soap, toothpaste, trash pick-up, sewers, vaccines. They need hope that the way things are isn’t the way things have to stay. The kind of poverty experienced in the third world is a hopeless fatalistic poverty. They have no safety nets. Without someone extending a hand to help them up, they have no way of bettering themselves. None. This poverty is in a completely different category than the poverty in the US, where with a lot of hard work (and some help), you can get yourself out.

Now I’m not saying that we in America have it all. We have our own special kind of poverty: a poverty of generosity, of compassion, of connection and community. These are things Sri Lankans are rich with. So in that sense, supporting World Vision’s work is a give and take. We give our financial resources, and they teach us how to be good global neighbors.

Where you live should not determine if you live.  Where you live should determine what you give.

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Don’t miss any post from the team. Make sure you visit these blogs today, too:

Shawn Smucker

Roxy at Roxy Composed

Tony Jones of Theoblogy

Laura at Hollywood Housewife

Joy of Joy in This Journey

Allison of O My Family

Matthew Paul Turner

Darrel of Stuff Fundies Like

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