The premise that ‘every child needs a gift at Christmas’ is flawed and needs to be challenged. I have been concerned with this for many years but only recently I was encouraged by some Australian visitors to Cambodia to share my thoughts with a wider audience.
The desire for Aussie families to help the poor of the world, especially at Christmas, is a wonderful sentiment that should not be wasted by putting ‘stuff’ into shoe boxes and transporting it internationally.
The economic and environmental implications of this approach just don’t stack up – ie buying cheap stuff from China in Australia, then paying to send it back to SE Asia using a range of transport methods that all have an environmental impact. I know some of the items sent are lovingly handmade by dedicated volunteers across Australia, but the negative environmental impact remains.
The cultural inappropriateness of gift giving to individual kids in a collectivist social context is problematic. The message to thousands of kids that their parents are so ‘poor and useless’ that an unknown foreigner is giving them a gift perpetuates the oppressive ‘power and wealth’ assumptions the rich of the world make about the poor, and that the poor understand about themselves.
Picture for a moment a poor family in Cambodia with 8 kids - 15 years old down to 9 months – successfully creating a safe environment for their kids to grow up and trying to have enough food for them to eat each day. The kids have no toys and only one set of clothes, but they have each other and their wider family and community. One day the kids come home from school with a shoebox given by some foreigners. Full of amazing stuff like they saw in the market the one time they went to the local town a few years ago. Why haven’t their parents ever given them stuff like this before? What is wrong with their parents, because people they don’t even know are giving them gifts? Within a few weeks most of the stuff in the box is broken, spread out around the village and basically forgotten about. But their questions about their parents remain, tucked away in the back of their minds.
Picture for a moment a poor family in Cambodia with 8 kids - 15 years old down to 9 months – successfully creating a safe environment for their kids to grow up and trying to have enough food for them to eat each day. The kids have no toys, only one set of clothes, but they have each other and their wider family and community. One day the father/husband comes home with 50 ducklings for the family to raise so they have a small daily income to help pay for the kids schooling. The children look after the ducks and sell the eggs each day from the front of the house or door-to-door around the village. The parents got this small grant to buy the ducks from a local organisation that comes by sometimes to see how the family is going. The kids don’t know where the money came from but it has made a real difference to their lives. They think their Father is amazing and he really cares for them and their Mother.
Over the years I have become aware of the pressure church pastors in Asia feel to ‘get rid’ of the boxes that are accumulating in their houses before the next installment comes later in the year. Recently (in late May) a pastor desperate to move shoe boxes cluttering his house offered them to whoever would take them, and even thought my sons (17 and 15 years old) might like some. No ‘good news’ message accompanied the hand out, no ‘blessing at Christmas time’, just a confused moment when random kids were given boxes.
There are the smiling faces on the video reports and all kids love to get gifts, for a few minutes at least, even though they don’t really understand what it is all about.
But talk to the pastor we met about what he really needs to ‘bless’ his ministry and he won’t mention shoes boxes. He’d love some budget to help him buy toiletries (soap, toothpaste and brushes) and some basic medicines from the local market for the prisoners he visits in the appalling conditions of the local provincial prison. He would have a significant impact for the kingdom through these interactions and the ‘good news’ he shares would have a long-term impact on some of the most vulnerable people in Cambodia.
This is the fundamental problem with the shoes boxes – someone in the Christian West came up with the idea that all kids need a Christmas gift. They should have asked the church in the countries they want to support (across Asia and Pacific in the case of Australia) “How can we bless you (our sisters and brother in faith) this Christmas”. I guarantee the answer would not have been “put some stuff in a shoe box and send it over”…
Almost a 100 million shoe boxes have been sent over the last 20 years.
It’s time to stop.
But what about this great sentiment to give to the poor at Christmas time? Here’s a few ideas:
· Support poor families in Australia to provide gifts to their kids who are expecting something at Christmas time because that is the ‘culture’ in our country.
· The ‘shoe box’ organisation does some great development work across the globe. Find out about their programmes and support them.
· Use one of the many Christmas catalogues available from aid and development organisations to purchase gifts (like some ducks) with real impact for poor families outside Australia.
I know some will find reading this hard and I would welcome a dialogue about how we can do all this better.