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October 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 4 · pp. 12–19 

Development from an Anabaptist Perspective or Which Is the Other Side of the Boat?

Arthur DeFehr

A nineteen year old girl, persecuted for her beliefs and cultural background, decided to leave her family and country. She crossed the forbidding wastes of Siberia, swam the Amur River, and after a harrowing walk across northern China reached Harbin. Six months later she arrived in America and, after a short welcome at Alcatraz, became a student in an American College, going on to three degrees, marriage, and family.

Another girl, aged sixteen, also suffered persecution because of her cultural background and decided to leave her country. Unlike the earlier story, she was betrayed at the river crossing, was robbed of her possessions and arrested. Six months later through the intervention of friends she left her country to study in Canada.

The first incident occurred in 1929, the College was Bethel, and the girl was my mother. The second occurred in 1973 in Bangladesh and this teenager now attends a Mennonite High School in Winnipeg and lives with us as part of our family. The two stories are not unrelated. When we were faced with the opportunity to help the second teenager, it just seemed to be the kind of thing one does.

But what about that major part of the human race which is sinking into poverty and famine by the sheer weight of its own numbers? What theological and cultural roots do we inheritors of the Anabaptist tradition have which can determine “The kind of thing one does” for these? Do we Mennonites have a unique contribution to make in solving the dilemma of the under-developed masses?


To identify the unique contribution that Mennonites can make in development requires a basic understanding of the nature of development. To simplify it, the whole range of development efforts will be divided into three categories: 1) Investment Approach 2) Institution-Building Approach 3) The People Approach. {13}

The Investment Approach

This usually consists of large capital-intensive projects, financed by an outside donor or lender, with clearly-defined boundaries to meet the administrative requirements of that donor or lender. The technology is usually light-years beyond the capacity of the receiving country (like the satellite communications ground station in Bangladesh financed by Canada) and is therefore built and sometimes staffed by outsiders. Typically, the project is turned over to the local authorities after a two year gestation period, a deadline which usually arrives before the project is completed because of delays, and then becomes an island of superior technology virtually out of touch with its environment. Or else it becomes a gigantic white elephant. The theory is that the impact of these infrastructure investments will trickle down to the masses, but so many hands are inserted at higher levels to catch the drips that the bowls and bellies at the bottom remain empty.

The Institution-Building Approach

This refers to the Sugar Cane Institute, Potato Research Institute, Institute of Social Development, Institute of Nuclear Agriculture, and the thousands more which litter the capitals of the Third World.

Most institutes are created in the closing days of a consulting assignment which has failed to produce any credible results. Since the credential-conscious donor and recipient turn to Ph.D.’s for wisdom, these advisors in turn respond with answers which reflect the university and research frames they are comfortable with. Who can ever argue that more research isn’t useful?

But the result is that the buildings, staff, vehicles, and endless reports begin to justify their own existence by the sheer weight of inertia. These institutions provide safe havens for the over-educated locals, a pleasant destination for the Western academic on his sabbatical, and are a source of impressive technical papers in Western journals. Their impact on the local scene is often negligible or even counter-productive since they act as a standing committee to which all problems can be referred to and reported on until the issue has faded from public interest.

There are numerous examples of excellent work emanating from some institutes. However, the successful ones tend to be international, highly focused, and with a critical donor. Too many institutes are set up as a political expedient to avoid effective action. As a development device, each should be judged on its own merits, and judged harshly.

The People Approach

The main ingredient is a person operating at a level close to the people who are to be assisted. The problems which are to be tackled are identified from within the perceived needs of the target population. These programs are of necessity much less structured, smaller in scale, and tend to be very diverse. The rhetoric is loaded with terms like self-help, local initiative, cultural sensitivity, listening, training. Peace Corps and much of the work of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) fall into this category.

Advocates of this approach make several very major assumptions:

  1. That people can identify and communicate their needs in terms that lead to development. {14}
  2. That a foreigner who is new to the culture and on a short-term assignment can properly interpret the signals from another culture.
  3. That our Western experience plus a few handbooks can make a significant and permanent impact.

Having spent time in part of the world which is chiefly distinguished by the enormity of its problems, I can testify that these assumptions are usually false.

One of the major difficulties with people programs is that evaluation of the development impact of any program is very difficult. Good social relationships or other visible evidence of cultural or economic impact are often interpreted as genuine development. But the quality and success of people programs is very uneven, with some very genuine achievements. Whereas advocates of this approach tend to criticize poor results of the investment projects which waste money, they seldom appreciate that they may be equally wasteful of their assets—people.

Many individuals are justifiably overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, their own inadequacy, and the cultural and bureaucratic barriers; and they either quit or live out their terms in frustration. Another large group is equally overwhelmed but lacks the insight to recognize this. These people live blissfully in their Asian and African huts and return to tell us that they learned more than they taught others. Undoubtedly they did, but to the peasant trying to keep his family in the two-meals-a-day column this is hardly comforting.

It may seem presumptuous virtually to write-off twenty-five years of assistance and development effort, but careful study suggests that this is the correct conclusion. The third world is crowded with skyscrapers, factories, universities, Mercedes, and other symbols of progress. But the truth is that there are more hungry people, more unemployed, more living in abysmal housing than there were in 1950. We have successfully transplanted parts of our society into the third world—to the detriment of the majority who were not included.


Where are the roots of the problem? Is over-population the culprit? Who introduced the vaccines and antibiotics without providing the economic and social security which are the foundation of population control? Is it lack of funds? Then what about the wasted billions—plus the fact that dollars are always chasing good projects? Is it lack of technology? But our technology is already so advanced that it becomes inappropriate. There is no simple answer. But if I had to focus on one, it is that the Western or industrialized world deals only in terms of solutions rather than problems.

Let me illustrate with a story. Last summer my wife and I sat on a rocky hillside watching a bulldozer scraping away a layer of boulders from a barren, eroded hill, exposing rich brown soil beneath the rocks. This simple example is at the root of the Israeli miracle. Academics and professionals returned to the land and, avoiding all shortcuts, dealt with fundamentals like the overburden of rocks.

The hillside from which we watched the bulldozer is the same hill where Jesus gave the world some of its greatest moral teaching, and I was reminded of the story of the sower and the seed. In our interpretation of that story, the {15} birds, the rocks, and the thorns take the blame for the poor performance of that seed. Have you ever questioned that conclusion? Let’s pretend Jesus was using this parable today.

Listen! A farmer decided to sow some grain. He loaded his seed drill, hitched it to his tractor, and pulled out of his yard. Upon reaching the highway he opened his drill and the seed poured onto the pavement, whereupon the birds ate it and the traffic crushed it. Then he drove into the ditch among the thorns and crabgrass and seeded that. Next he headed onto a field of rocks and seeded it; and finally he came upon a field of good soil which he planted, and it produced thirty times as much as he had planted—some of it even sixty or a hundred times as much.

The path, the thorns, and the rocky soil were never intended for grain. At least they were not prepared for it. In the same sense most of the Third World is not prepared for our technology and expertise, our “solutions.” The well-intended projects flounder on the rocks of illiteracy and over-population, strangle among the thorns of social strife and political incompetence. We start with our solutions rather than their problem! Who has failed?

Like the sower, we wander aimlessly through the hills and hollows of the Third World spreading our money, our technology, our wisdom, and even our sympathy with reckless abandon. Failures are written off to lack of co-operation, bribery, the population explosion, natural disasters, war, or whatever. Successes, of course, are attributed to our wisdom and are well-publicized. We start with the seed (our solution) rather than taking the difficult, slower, but more effective approach of eliminating the problems.

What are the problems? These are the illiteracy, the fragmentation of land holdings, lack of grain storage, shortage of extension workers, availability of seed, unstable market prices, greedy middlemen, lack of agricultural credit, unstable weather patterns, weak draft animals, disease, and many, many more. If the problem which is the most immediate barrier to progress can be identified and resolved, then that family, village, or area will be free to progress until they hit the next barrier. Then that barrier must be tackled in turn. If the problem is thorns, deal with thorns. If the problem is rocks, then pick rocks.


Does the response of the Mennonite people fit into any or all of the stereotypes of development, or is there a uniqueness in our approach? At a conscious level we feel comfortable with most aspects of the “People Approach,” although not with the criticism. My experience with MCC in Bangladesh plus observation of other programs indicates that at a subconscious level there are some significant differences. MCC is widely acknowledged to be one of the most effective organizations at the grass roots level, and some of the reasons can be found by looking into our beliefs, our culture, and our history.

In “The Anabaptist Vision,” H. S. Bender isolated three essential characteristics, all grounded in biblical teaching, which in combination give Anabaptists a unique character. These are: 1) the essence of Christianity as discipleship 2) The Church as a brotherhood 3) The ethic of love and non-resistance. {16}

After looking at the implications of these, we will consider a non-theological fourth factor—a shared history which helps us to share with others.


Persecution forced the early Anabaptists toward a strong emphasis on “faithfulness” rather than “only faith.” Discipleship emphasizes the path as well as the destination. Discipleship is the way of the cross with all its implications of commitment and hardship. Good works or actions were never considered to be of saving value, but they were an integral part of faith.

MCC and other church institutions reflect this vast reservoir of goodwill and willingness to give and participate. Our people tend to come with a sense of commitment which permits them to work in remote and difficult situations where others sometimes refuse to work. In fact, several individuals in our Bangladesh group voluntarily accepted hardships that were hardly essential to their assignment. Presumably they felt more faithful as a result.

The problem with the way of the cross is that its results were not visibly effective by any contemporary measurements. Sometimes we also become concerned with the process rather than the goal, as if the hardships alone justify our involvement. On balance, however, this permits a development-worker to operate with a totally different value and goal structure. If the process is as important as the product, he will be quite content to pick rocks. As a result, he may begin at the right place, whether he knows it or not. The challenge is to identify the right rocks to pick!


The Church as a Brotherhood speaks of equality, of mutual concern and assistance, of minimizing distinctions, of group involvement in many areas beyond church functions. Whether this is founded in theology or is an accident of history, virtually all Mennonite groups share a heritage of living in a society where the church encompassed most of what was relevant to living. As a result we have learned to live in society with few secrets and where many attitudes are simply taken for granted.

This kind of brotherhood, or community, allows Mennonites to understand the power of tradition and the strength and utility of nonformal lines of authority in a tight, traditional community. Rural Asia and Africa are more similar to this kind of community than to our fast-paced urban and suburban centres where we may not know our neighbour’s name, never mind his thoughts.

Development efforts have tended to favor industrial projects and urban centres, elements that are foreign to most Asians. In Dacca every Bengali would answer the question, “Where is your home?” with the name of a village. His family may have lived in Dacca for generations, but his definition of self still involves a rural setting. Within the past several years the World Bank and other major institutions have realized that to make an impact in Asia one must begin where the people are physically and spiritually, in agricultural villages. The officials and advisors tend to be American and European academics and technicians whose perspective may be the Ruhr Valley or The English Midlands—hardly a helpful background. {17}

The relative ease with which our MCC volunteers penetrated the maze of village politics and social customs was amazing to me and did not go unnoticed by others in government and foreign agencies. It was not superior training or intelligence. The required attitudes and responses were not all that different from many farm communities in Kansas or Saskatchewan.


In this essay we are not concerned with the theological merits or demerits of non-resistance or with whether or not we are genuinely non-resistant. What is important here is that we have grown up surrounded by this concept. This has influenced us in many ways, some of which may make a difference in how we act in places like Bangladesh. Two attitudes which are shaped at least in part by the teaching of non-resistance are the following:

1. Neutrality toward political institutions. We repeatedly observed foreigners “lose their cool” when confronted with some stock third world rhetoric about exploitation or political ideology. Our group was by no means immune, but many of the criticisms of Western values and methods are the same ones we tend to make. As a result we were able to deal with the issue rather than the emotion—at least sometimes. If this happens, one can establish better rapport with third world people.

2. Rejection of solutions which require coercion. In most societies the more powerful impose their will on others. The rejection of coercion as a means of solving problems forces us to search for alternatives. This has the effect of seeking a way around the conflict or barrier rather than overcoming it by force. The tendency in development has been to overcome shortcomings by overwhelming them with money and technology. One huge irrigation project along the lower Ganges has a big dam, concrete irrigation channels, pumps, everything. However, the acreage irrigated is 5% of target because nobody thought about the fragmented land-holding pattern and its impact on water distribution at the local level.

Mennonite supported programs tend to reject large solutions and to focus on the villages or area which they can comprehend. As a result they tend to share the scepticism of the villager and to seek a solution which is within the realm of possibility and where reliance on the outside is minimized. It is now widely recognized that solutions must be designed within the limitations of the social and physical foundations of a people rather than imported from elsewhere. Because of our history of migrating to another country rather than stand up to government, of accepting barriers and seeking a path around them, we have inherited an attitude which is very useful in dealing with development problems.

Shared Experience

Our shared history has played a very significant part in shaping our character and identity. The elements which are important for forming helpful development attitudes are the following:

1. Rural background. Virtually all Mennonite groups have retained an unusually strong rural background and mentality. Since most of the third world is rural we have a greater possibility of identifying. {18}

2. Migration history. Mennonites identify themselves with a philosophy and a group, rather than geography. This makes it easier to move around the world without a loss of roots.

3. The experience of being in the minority. A minority attitude is as much psychological as real and may be based on lack of numbers or lack of power. We often think of Bengalis or Pakistanis or Zairois as a national group and forget that these are myriad tribal groups welded into political entities by European colonizers. In many countries everyone considers himself in the minority! As in the case of non-resistance, this requires the search for avenues of progress which do not threaten the perceived balance or bring down the wrath of the majority. Again, our community has sought for these solutions for centuries and acts this way without necessarily being conscious of it.

4. Work ethic. Status in a subsistence society means that one no longer has to do physical work. The elite and educated retire to their desks and white collars (as did the colonizers) and leave the work for the unskilled. This has the disastrous result of passing all real work to the least qualified. Our willingness to work inserts another value system regarding the role of work. Our example often has a very beneficial effect.


The original question was whether Mennonites had a unique contribution to make toward the development problems of our day. The factors that have been analyzed do not apply universally to all Mennonites nor are they necessarily beneficial in every development situation. However, these attitudes will tend to appear more in our people than in the American or Canadian population at large:

  • Commitment which rationalizes hardships
  • Emphasis on process as well as result
  • Familiarity with the importance and role of tradition
  • Greater political neutrality
  • Search for solutions which bypass obstacles
  • Rural attitudes and work ethic
  • Appreciation of minority attitudes

Given that we bring some unique attitudes to development, how can this be harnessed to be of greatest benefit to those whom we are presumably trying to assist?

Development is a very misused word and misunderstood subject. Development is not any improvement in Gross National Product which may result from the international price increase of a commodity or a good monsoon. Development is not new buildings or more universities, more cars or new bridges.

Development occurs when any event or experience or new physical asset can be absorbed into the total experience or activity of a group in such a manner that its benefit can be permanently retained without further reinforcement. Development is like the building of a pyramid. When you have six layers of stone, the only useful stone is one for the seventh layer. A stone for the eighth layer cannot be put in place, and an extra one for the sixth is irrelevant. The real problem in development is to determine which layer can {19} be absorbed next and to define the solution in precisely these terms. This is what I meant earlier by picking rocks if that is the problem rather than spreading seed first.

For development to occur three things must happen:

1. The receiving system must be analyzed to determine its absorptive capacity. Sometimes improvements such as a strengthened local organization can be made to increase the receiving capacity. The target may be a person, village, or group.

2. The range of solutions or technology must be scanned to determine which is appropriate given the need and receiving capacity of the target population. Thus, if a given solution is too complicated, simpler ones must be found.

3. The range of problems and solutions must be studied together to match them up. Sometimes two or three problems have to be tackled simultaneously since each may be a prerequisite to progress in another area. For example, health care and family planning can seldom be separated. High-yielding rice varieties cannot be grown without irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides. Then a package of problems and solutions must be worked on simultaneously.

You may have noticed that these three parts of development are almost identical to the three stereotypes we looked at earlier.

1. Understanding the receiving system sounds like the people approach.

2. The technology is not dissimilar from the investment approach.

3. Matching of problems and solutions sounds like the objectives of the research-oriented institutions.

This is perfectly correct except for one essential difference. The three stereotypes do in fact exist because the donor or agency begins with a predisposition toward the nature of the solution rather than with a problem around which a solution must be defined. It is the integration of these three approaches to development which can create exciting results.

This is where the unique characteristics of Mennonites fit in. We are fully part of the scientific and industrial West and comprehend its technology and organizational approaches. On the other hand, our unique background helps us to an understanding of the receiving system in rural areas of the third world. If we can introduce the third element, objective analysis of where the interface between the receiving system and technology occurs, then we provide the critical link between what is available and what is required.

Understanding the problem does not guarantee results, but development cannot occur until the problem is defined. The Mennonite-Anabaptist heritage gives us some unique and creative handles on development issues. Our responsibility as disciples is not only to fish, but to use our God-given abilities to determine which is the right side of the boat.

Arthur DeFehr is general manager of A. A. DeFehr Furniture Manufacturing Ltd., Winnipeg, Manitoba. He received his M.B.A. from Harvard in 1967 and was MCC Director in Bangladesh from 1972-74.

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