Global Development and Social Justice

It is no secret that there is great need in the world. Rwanda is still recovering from the genocide of 1994, the International Labor Organization (2019) estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, children in Nicaragua wander the streets begging for change by day and go to sleep hungry by night, and the Camp Fire burned across Paradise, California last November, devastating 153,000 acres, killing 86 people, and destroying approximately 14,000 structures (Tchekmedyian, 2018). The list goes on and on; from natural disasters to material poverty to the aftermath of war.

In response to the hardships of life, many humanitarian organizations have arisen, and their global development and social justice work generally falls into three categories:

  • Relief meets immediate needs. In the event that people have been displaced or are in danger, relief work meets the basic needs of food, shelter, and safety.

  • Rehabilitation is the action of restoring something that has been damaged to its former condition. For example, rebuilding homes after the fire in Paradise, CA would be considered rehabilitation.

  • Development aims for long-term, sustainable change.

These three forms of work are not mutually exclusive; depending on the circumstances, the three can overlap in various combinations. When Dr. Karen Fancher, a professor of Global Studies and Global Justice and Development at Multnomah University, was asked to share her philosophy on relief and development specifically, she said, “I think we have to be honest and admit that there is a place for both. In an immediate, crisis situation where people are starving and displaced, you can’t do development. You are saving lives. And there is a time and place to do that, but it is important to do it in a way that strengthens the community.”

Sounds straight forward enough, right? Maybe not.


Humanitarian work can be a complex issue, particularly when it comes to Western nations extending aid to foreign countries. Angus Deaton, a Princeton University economist and Nobel Prize winner who has made his career studying poverty in India and South Africa and working for World Bank, argued that foreign financial aid actually leads to the corruption of governments and a decline in development for the recipient country (Swanson, 2015). When relief in the form of food and resources are brought in from the West, it often means that local farmers no longer have a market because the relief is free. Western interference can also override local support networks by bringing in big NGOs and, as a result, the local communities aren’t strengthened. Foreign aid can also create an undesirable cycle of dependency.

“Often times we can come from a place of power— and even a ‘white savior complex’— where we want to come in and take care of the problem, but after much research it is found that we often displace local economies.”
— Karen Fancher, D.INT.ST.

In an interview with Dr. Greg Burch, Multnomah University’s Chair of Global Studies and Director of Global Development and Justice, he said, “I think there is a role for an outside agent. We see this in Scripture over and over again: God uses someone from the outside to be a catalyst of change, but if it is going to be sustainable, it has to come from the inside. It has to come from local communities.”

In Dr. Burch’s opinion, there are processes and participatory tools that Westerners can employ to encourage “capacity building” within local communities, which focuses on using the resources that are already available on the ground rather than bringing in outside resources. In his experience, needs assessment is necessary, but identifying resources that are available and contributing to what the community is already doing right is the key to being effective.


There is a tension between not having all the right answers and not being able to walk away from people who objectively need help. Dr. Burch and Dr. Fancher agree that the balance lies in establishing effective partnerships that empower local communities and economies and in listening to the voices on the ground as quickly as possible. Dr. Burch said, “I have seen numerous times where organizations have brought in stuff that simply became junk. A simple example is of a short-term team who came to work with us in Venezuela and brought us a bunch of crock pots. Those crock pots soon became flowerpots. There was no use for them based on the needs of the people and the way that they cooked.” This kind of example only emphasizes the importance of humble communication with the communities who need support.

“It is important to not assume that, because we have resources, we understand dynamics on the ground and we should be in control. Our aim should be to respond to, serve, and honor communities and their community leaders. It sometimes grieves me when I look at pictures of the Westerners going into disasters and bringing food and relief, but I don’t see pictures of the local heroes that are serving their own people who have been there since day one and will be there while the community is rebuilding.”
— Karen Fancher, D.INT.ST.

Often, an outside agent is necessary to fund or to be a catalyst for social justice change, but in order for that change to be sustainable, it needs to highlight the efforts of the community, listen to their self-assessed needs, and partner with the members of the community to achieve those ends.


Finding the right balance between relief, rehabilitation, and development takes time, research, and energy. Engaging with a world that experiences a wide scope of suffering is challenging, and understanding how to help and not harm can be even more so. However, there are many global development resources available and people who are passionate about this cause who are working to make a positive impact on the world.

“We have to be aware of what God is doing, because what God does is sustainable.”
— Greg Burch, Ph.D.

If you would like to continue in this conversation and are interested in learning more about these topics, getting your Master of Arts degree in Global Development and Justice might be the right next step for you. If you would like to study with Dr. Burch and Dr. Fancher, check out the MAGDJ program at Multnomah University, both online and on campus in Portland, OR. For more details on the program or to receive an application by mail, contact Admissions at (800) 275-4672 or


International Labour Organization (2019). Forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking. Retrieved from–en/index.htm

Swanson, A. (2015, October 13). Why trying to help poor countries might actually hurt them. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Tchekmedyian, A. (2018, December 11). Camp fire death toll rises to 86 after burn victim dies in hospital. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

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December 3, 2019 | Articles