Vinoth Ramachandra

Authentic Partnerships

Posted on: October 1, 2010

Several people have asked me to expand on my comments about partnership. I indicated in my last post, as well as in many earlier ones, that those of us who live in centres of political and financial power can, through simple neighbourly actions- writing a letter to a national newspaper, buying shares in a corporation so that one can attend the annual general meeting and raise questions about that corporation’s global practices, organizing a peaceful public protest, and so on- have a real influence on what is happening elsewhere in the world. The actions would express our solidarity with those we call our ‘family’ in the world Church. In our interconnected world, what we do- or fail to do- in our backyard can have ramifications, for good or ill, in remote places.

This is so glaringly obvious and I am surprised at the resistance this suggestion often evokes.  Cries of “We are powerless” greet my suggestion at international conferences. I can understand if these cries emanate from those living in, say, Pakistan or Burma. But, no, they are from people who have access to an open media, free internet services, and who can personally visit the politicians whom they voted into power!

It is troubling that mission has been reduced to what we (the relatively well-off) do in other cultures and places, and does not seem to apply to what the poor can do for us and what we can do for them where we are. Those who live in the poorer South are constantly at the receiving end of “packaged” gospels, discipleship courses, leadership seminars, church-growth “gurus”, even sermons and “worship” DVDs from rich churches abroad. The latter have no desire to learn from others and, ironically, have little impact in their own societies. There is no shortage of local people who volunteer to be appointed as the “national representatives” of these churches and organizations from the North and to promote their subsidized wares.

I have no objection at all to sending people or money to support Christian ministry in other places. (Indeed, the notion of “self-supporting” churches is not a biblical notion at all.) But the important questions to address are: who makes the decisions?  And do those who come from abroad work alongside and even under the leadership of local people? This morning I listened to somebody working in rural India, supported by a wealthy Singaporean church. He poured out his frustration with the mission board of the church who can only see the medical work that he and his wife are doing as a prelude to “church-planting”.  They have no understanding of the religious and political sensibilities of the situation, nor are they willing to unlearn the theology of mission they have uncritically absorbed from popular Northern authors.

As an author myself, I am particularly disturbed by the fact that it is “fundamentalist” literature that floods into our churches from abroad. At the risk of sounding vain, my own books are all published in the US and UK, receive excellent reviews and are freely available in the English-speaking world; and yet I don’t know anybody, even in the organization with which I work, who actively promotes these books – and others written by African, Asian or Latin American authors- among churches in their countries. In this regard, the American Catholic publishing house Orbis has been exemplary in promoting Southern authors and their writings to Christian churches and seminaries in the North.

Money has a way of skewing relationships, setting agendas, and defining priorities- whether in Christian conferences, theological colleges or “mission programs”. When my wife and I spoke on the theme of Justice and Reconciliation at a gathering of Asian-American staff of InterVarsity (USA) a few years ago, a Chinese-American told us: “We are convinced by everything you say, but if we start doing and saying these things, our churches will stop supporting us.” He was being admirably honest. But that kind of honesty is rare, sadly.

“Partnership” has been a buzz-word in contemporary evangelical circles; but cynics will say that it is simply a disguise for neo-colonial mission. Like “development” and “empowerment”, the gulf between the rhetoric and actual practice is enormous. Foreign organizations divert people as well as funds away from locally-initiated projects and ministries which have much lower overheads. But, more importantly, there is no ownership of these foreign programs by local believers let alone by the poor themselves. Local staff are disempowered; they are merely the people who implement the programs started and funded by foreigners.

We have spoken with many Christian leaders in the South whose attitude is “We can’t change them, so let’s join them”. They have become adept at giving rich donors what they want- writing attractive project proposals has become an art form that many local people are now expert in. The problem is that what is “sexy” to donors in the U.S is often far removed from the real needs in the countries concerned. That some American donors may want to be educated does not seem to register on the thinking of local leaders.

So, what would I like to see as authentic expressions of global partnership (in addition to what I said in the opening paragraph)? (a) I am biased about books, so I want to see Christians in the North doing much more towards reading and then promoting authors from the South; and (b) Christians taking the effort to find out which local organization or individual is already working (with their own limited resources) on something that they feel especially burdened about. Ask them what they need to do their work even better; and what, if anything, you can do to help. But please don’t turn up in the South with a pot of money and invite people to use it for your projects. You will find plenty of takers. But it will scuttle the integrity and witness of the Church.

5 Responses to "Authentic Partnerships"

[…] and implement our ideas and projects? We need to honestly ask.If that catches your attention, see what Vinoth Ramachandra wrote this week.  Here’s something to wet your taste.It is troubling that mission has been reduced […]

Thanks for your kind words and book recommendation!

I have recently discovered you, Dr, and wish it had been sooner!

As I work my way through your blogs, I resonate with this post…and just wanted to let you know that I am convicted to promote your books in the U.S. I would have said it would not do much, but was convicted by your remarks re my vast wealth of connections.

I am currently working in Guatemala, and peripherally involved with a group of U.S. Missionaries who are trying to understand “what the heck they are doing” given a growing sense of the truths you write here. It is a messy business, and I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words regarding the blind leading the blind, as we stumble along.

God Bless!

I wonder about promoting authors from the South. It sounds great but …

1. Northerners will promote those people from the South who agree with them. They will not promote people who say contrary things. So, what will we gain?

2. One problem I would certainly meet, it seems to me here in Africa, if I seriously promoted one African author, is problems with the other authors! Maybe this is because many authors in the West write for interest and out of conviction. In Africa, being a known author is more likely to be seen as, or (mis?)understood as a link to a gold mine. Hence I CANNOT start promoting a particular say Kenyan author without in many ways even ‘making enemies’ of people who I do not promote.

3. There are non-Western authors who are renowned, and have clear footholds in the Western market. I value many of them, e.g. Sanneh comes to mind, and Bediako. In order to do what they do, many of such authors have lived for years in the West, married Westerners … etc. etc. Promoting them seems to be telling non-Western people that ‘the way to become worthy of respect by Westerners is by marrying one and/or living in the West’. Most people already know this – and all too strongly. I would rather encourage them to thrive in their own communities.

4. Rather, I would suggest, that non-western authors should concentrate on becoming known amongst their own instead of writing for Westerners. This of course has problems – including that Westerners are trying to flood non-western markets. I recently sold some of my books to a Christian bookshop in Nairobi. They wanted me to sell them cheap. I refused. My thought here (that goes along with Ramachandran I think) is that Westerners should stop subsidising their books outside of the West. This would be a MAJOR SHIFT in our day when Western education is becoming globalised.

5. Writing to be acceptable by another people is no small task. It will take major efforts. Do we want to encourage non-Westerners to so orient their lives? Such is likely to make them much less insightful re. their own communities. Even if they are Indian, African, etc., they could be treated as honorary Westerners.

6. Instead of encouraging non-Westerners to write for the West, perhaps we need (also need!) to encourage Westerners to get to a position to write to their own people. This is of course the essence of vulnerable mission ( . This implies to Indians / Africans: please encourage Westerners to get to the ‘inside’ of your communities! This implies that the said Westerners are not there teaching English, raising funds, speeling superior western wisdom etc. … I find in practice that many African people are more inclined to keep their ‘traditions’ out of the way, and like to see Westerners as ‘experts’ using English and bringing in much-needed money. Unfortunately, many Westerners take that on board, and see their roles outside of the West as ‘experts’ building on what they know from the West. Is not this the problem?


Isn’t there a whiff of paternalism in your remarks? Another westerner telling Africans what they should and should not be doing.

If an American scholar,say, can be an expert on some aspect of African politics/culture, etc, why can’t an African scholar do the same vis a vis the U.S? Why should they be confined to writing on “African issues” (besides, the latter are usually defined by westerners)?

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October 2010
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