We were told a ‘joke’ today by Iraqi man who said that it was a famous yarn spun around the country. Although it originally referred to a certain region of Iraq in a derogatory way, it has a far-reaching association and conviction for us today.

The joke goes as follows (with a little artistic license and Iraq photography thrown in by me for good measure):

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There was an inept governor overseeing an important province in Iraq. One day he was approached by citizens who were complaining about a giant pothole in the provincial capital’s main street. The gaping blemish caused tires to blow out, hurtling cars into each other. There were many injury accidents. Furthermore, people crossing the street would fall into the hole. They experienced numerous broken bones, gashes and bruises as a result.

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The citizens challenged the governor to immediately take care of the hazard.

"No problem," said the governor. "We will put an ambulance by the pothole to be ready for the injured."

A few days later the citizens approached the governor again. They explained to him that the ambulance wasn’t enough; that it was constantly being filled up and put into service while many pothole-accident victims suffered without attention.

"No problem," said the governor. "We will assign more ambulances there for the task."

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A week passed and the citizens again visited the governor. This time they complained that, even with the additional ambulances, there were more accidents than the emergency vehicles could handle.

"No problem," said the governor. "We will build a hospital next to the pothole."

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Many months later, a new state-of-the-art hospital was completed at great cost next to the pothole.

Shortly after its opening, the citizens once more turned up at the governor’s office. Angrier than ever, they explained to him that the hospital was completely full and that more accidents were occurring than the new facility could cope with.

"No problem," said the governor. "We will lower the whole city to the level of the bottom of the pothole."

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As absurd as this tale sounds, it is the approach that many nations, organizations and individuals take regarding a whole host of problems that plague the developing world. We are good at mobilizing against symptoms, but often ignore the root causes. Consequently, we frequently make the problem and related symptoms even worst.

We have poured billions of dollars into Africa over the past five decades, but the continent suffers from a lower standard of living than when we first started. We should have invested right off the bat into training and self-sustainability initiatives rather than straight financial aid and temporary humanitarian-relief projects.

We have expended countless dollars for mosquito nets, prophylaxis medications, infection care, and after-care programs in response to the scourge of malaria. We should have instead worked harder to convince governments of the necessity of, and provided the resources for, the eradication of the airborne pests through widespread extermination strategies.

We continue to spend even more billions on the treatment of deadly diseases associated with unclean water, instead of providing the lump sums and technology required to drill wells that supply safe water for communities.

In the orphan and street children context, we donate money for feeding centers that actually help and enable kids to stay on the streets; that actually cause more kids to run away from home. We build huge, isolated orphanages that raise kids who don’t know the value of a family and how one works. These children end up becoming the parents of the next generation of children that are abandoned or orphaned.

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Rather, we should be working through the community care providers – the churches – that already know what families in their vicinities are suffering and are at risk of orphaning or abandoning their children. The churches can identify and tackle the underlying problems and, if necessary, stand in the gap (the pothole) to take these children into family-style homes before they hit the streets, dumps or brothels.

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From another angle, it is all too clear that the developing world is mercilessly bombarded by HIV/AIDS, prostitution, human trafficking, drugs and all manner of other societal ills. All these blights can be diminished through the rescue of children; children that are taken out of the statistics themselves; children who can in turn be raised up and educated to challenge and fight these evils. This is analogous to reaching in, breaking the cause-effect chains, and attacking the root causes in a very tangible way.

Instead of dancing around the issues and throwing money at the symptoms, it’s time to pick up a shovel and start filling in the potholes.

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(Images: Iraq street scenes)