What Is Dependency?

Robert Reese defines dependency as the unhealthy reliance on foreign resources, personnel, and ideas, which stifles local initiative. It is expecting someone else to do for you what you could do for yourself.
Dependency Syndrome
In global missions history, the dependency syndrome resulted from Western missionaries importing forms of worship, church organization, institutions, and theology during the colonial period, eventually creating dependency on outside funding (Reese, 2010, pp. 1-2). Due to their methods of church planting and missionary leadership training, Western missionary and church leaders have created dependency on cultural approaches not indigenous to the local culture. Consequently, generations of mission scholars and researchers have argued that foreign money creates dependency and establishes paternalistic patterns within global mission movements. Therefore, the problem of dependency is a much explored and debated issue in global missions.
Dependency has been discussed in a variety of missiological literature. Western missionaries, missiologists, practitioners have produced a significant amount of research in which they have argued that long-term dependency on foreign money is detrimental to efforts made by indigenous leaders, churches, and organizations to make disciples and spread the Gospel globally. Despite arguments proclaimed by many missionary practitioners for self-supporting churches and institutions, the dependency syndrome remains prevalent in global church-planting and missions movements. The root of this syndrome is an unhealthy dependence on foreign funding, resources, and decision-making; in some cases, mission-established church leaders received a form of Christanity that simply could not be reproduced.
In a similar manner, Glenn Schwartz describes the reactions from African church leaders about the dependency syndrome:
They referred to it as an addiction—the more you get, the more you want—and they admitted making compromises in order to get more funding when it is needed” (1999).
Five Stones Global’s associates and others who are like-minded voice their solution on how to overcome or eliminate dependency in global church-planting and missions movements. Jean Johnson, Glenn Schwartz, Dan Carl and others suggest that the dependency syndrome is a crucial issue as it relates to mission theory and practice.
Dependency's Psychological Effects
Missiologist scholars and practitioners have been similarly concerned about the destructive behavioral patterns related to dependency, especially the psychological effects due to the impact of money and power-based Western mission strategies.
One of the most serious consequences of dependency is found at the psychological level. Financial giving may create favorable structures, statistics, buildings, schools, and orphanages, but the attitude of those receiving may result in destructive psychological patterns of dependency behavior, such as diminishing self-initiative and dignity. These psychological aspects are not easy to measure, however, it is imperative to consider these mindsets when looking at the detrimental results of the dependency syndrome.
One of the most influential missionary thinkers, Roland Allan, a former Anglican missionary/priest, called for an evaluation of mission giving and argued that finance, in itself, is of little importance, but its negative effect on minds and attitudes are of utmost importance (1962).
Dr. Chris Little captures the essence of destructive psychological patterns of dependency:
“The plain truth is that no one should underestimate the disastrous effects of dependency because it creates addicts who ‘feel increasingly powerless’; it underestimates the recipient’s ‘personal sense of worth’ it thwarts ‘local initiative’; it results in ‘the ease of others’ (2 Cor. 8:13); it robs national churches of the Lord’s ‘good measure’ (Lk. 6:38); and it furthers paternalism since ‘control inheres in aid’ (McGavran, 1959, p. 113)” (2010, pp. 64-65).
Western missionaries have often neglected to think through the long-term effects of their giving, the relational aspect of giving, or the potential effects it has on mentality (2012).
Dr. Valerie Arguello
Additionally, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, specialists in aid development, claim,
“that when North American Christians do attempt to alleviate poverty, the methods used often do considerable harm to both the materially poor and the materially non-poor. Our concern is not just that these methods are wasting human, spiritual, financial and organizational resources but that these methods are actually exacerbating the very problems they are trying to solve” (2009, p. 28).
Corbett and Fikkert’s
statement would indicate that, although done with good intentions, giving things or money to help alleviate poverty often results in the development of dependency. This may be done through donations of money or material, organizational, and human resources. Without a proper understanding of how to help, North Americans end up doing things that nationals could do for themselves or which we think would be necessary should we live in their society. The phenomena and concerns related to dependency on foreign money and resources is a critical problem confronting Western churches and organizations that provide financial and material aid throughout the world. Allen, R. (1962). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Arguello, V. (2012). Exploring The Relationship Between Learner Autonomy and Sustainability in Global Missions: A Case Study of Kenyan Leaders. ProQuest, UMI: 3532751.
Corbett, S., & Fikkert, B. (2009). When helping hurts. Chicago, IL: Moody.
Little, C. (2010). The economics of partnership. Partnerships in Pauline perspective. International Journal of Frontier Missiology, 27(2), 61-68.
Reese, R. (2010). Roots & remedies of the dependency syndrome in world missions. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Schwartz, G. (1998, September). Horizon four: Avoiding dependency and mobilizing local resources. Mission Frontiers.
Schwartz. G. (1999, November). How the current emphasis on dependency and self-reliance is being perceived and received. Paper presented at the Philadelphia Consultation on Dependency and Self-Reliance, Philadelphia, PA.