Tracy PicAn Interview with Tracy Kuperus
Co-author of When Helping Heals

Interviewed by Katherine Ulrich

Why did you choose to go into the field of international development?

It was issues of injustice that drew me to the field of international development. When I was a junior at Calvin College, I enrolled in the American Studies Program, a CCCU work-study program based in Washington, DC. I interned that semester with World Vision’s lobbying office. The director, a man named Tom Getman, had a passion for South Africa. He had just left the position of legislative assistant to Mark Hatfield, a senator from Oregon. One of Tom’s jobs as the legislative assistant to Mark Hatfield was to help push through the US sanctions bill against South Africa in Congress. Tom was on fire for South Africa and asked me to complete a variety of South African projects for World Vision.

What I realized in doing that work is that so much of the suffering in our world is caused by injustice. Many black South Africans were poor, but they were poor mainly because an oppressive government took away their human rights and battered their dignity. The ability to lead a fulfilling life in South Africa was easy for whites; it was almost impossible for black South Africans. And it wasn’t going to take standard development projects to turn things around. What  people needed to do in South Africa was resist the white minority regime first and foremost. Christians have an easier time supporting charity-based development, but sustainable development is a long-term commitment that calls for Christian engagement as well, especially if involves confronting injustice.

So I’ve been interested in political development for my whole career, mainly as it impacts African countries, but I also love to see engaged citizens confronting injustice anywhere in the world, whether it’s the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras or Americans promoting good governance efforts here in the US.

What was your inspiration for When Helping Heals?

My main reason for writing the book was to address where students were in 2015-16. It seemed like there was a lot of cynicism about international development. This was in marked contrast to where students were when I started teaching in the program in 2003!

The early 2000s marked one of the high points in international development. Jeffrey Sachs, a renowned economist had just written the book The End of Poverty launching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs was a poverty alleviation program promoted by the United Nations that addressed eight measurable targets for addressing suffering. Our students were very much aware of this book. In fact, approximately 3/4s of the students coming into our upper level classes had read this (required) book before the class began! Couple that with the fact that many of our students had also participated in a short term mission trip through their churches. These experiences, we observed, led to an unbridled optimism among our students for serving the world’s poor, which we actually tried to temper in our classes.       

Some years passed and other books were published like Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, as well as Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s wildly successful book, When Helping Hurts. This book points to the flaws in many Christian programs serving the poor. The pendulum then swung to the other side. Students came into our classes with a jaded response. With the Corbett and Fikkert book as the backdrop to international development, students asked questions like, ‘Could global service ever be helpful’. ‘Wasn’t it all paternalistic and self-serving, feeding our god-complexes?’

Roland and I felt that we could write a Calvin Shorts that offered some balance or a more nuanced picture of international development. We knew that global service was not an either/or phenomenon. It was a mix, like any field. So we tried to address that reality.

What has been the most challenging thing about writing this book?

Definitely figuring out what to include and what not to include! International development is a complex field. We envisioned a general audience for the book – incoming college students and people in adult Sunday school classes. So we had to ask ourselves constantly, “What should we cover that acknowledges the complexity of the field without losing people’s interest?” We tried to introduce the field the field of international development in a way that captures the interest of readers, but doesn’t overwhelm them too much.

What is your hope for this book?

That it’s inspirational. I hope people who read the book have a fairer picture of what international development is and what short term mission trips can accomplish. I also hope readers realize that God calls people to this field, that there is a lot of good that can be done, and that it is possible to do excellent development work. If readers can find their niche or role in international development, I’d be very encouraged.

Do you have favorite development books?

Serving God Globally by Roland Hoksbergen

Theories of Development by Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick

Development to a Different Drummer by Richard A. Yoder, Calvin W. Redekop, and Vernon E. Jantzi

Aiding Violence by Peter Uvin

Having People, Having Heart by China Scherz

The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell

No Future without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu