Dropping the "BIG" from Big Brother


Guest blog by Rick De Graaf

Whether our relationships are cross-cultural or within our own culture it is human to have a tendency to compare ourselves with others. 

Having raised chickens with my wife for many years, we are very familiar with the ‘pecking order’ among chickens. It is easy to see a hierarchy among a group of chickens and quickly one can select out the higher ranking chickens from those of lower status. The dominant ones have the nicest feathers and strut with their heads up high. 

Whether we realize it or not, we often follow a similar pattern of classifying others in relationship to ourselves. Not only do we do so individually, but also in groups, as societies, as churches, as nationalities and cultures as well. This tendency in its most ugly form has been used to justify classes, apartheid, many incidences of racial imperialism and ethnic cleansing.

Though not as extreme, it is also a paradigm we need to be cognizant of when we work in missions — in diakonia. There is often an aura of superiority that we imply or carry with us as baggage that distinguishes the “haves” and the “have-nots” — whether in physical or spiritual terms. It poses us as the Big brother or Big sister who are the “haves” and them as the little brother or sister who are the “have-nots!”

Certainly, we don’t like to see each other that way. We want to be equal partners — we want mutual respect, yet the reality is that on first encounter we are seen as the Big brother or sister. And there is an expectation that Big brother and Big sister will be there to provide!

In Cambodia we work in partnership with local churches and non-profits. We work with and through these partners to implement integrated community development programs in many selected poor rural villages. But even after a few years of working together in partnership we are still seen as the BIG brother and sister. The challenge for us is to get rid of the “BIG” and move to a more equal and mutual level of relationship. As we build trust in each other and respect we strive to grow in a relationship that sees each as brothers and sisters — with mutual respect as equals, even when we and they bring different assets to the table.

In dropping the BIG — we are committed to developing local capacity and ownership of both problem and solution with a decreasing need for outside support — so that truly we see each other in an ongoing, mutual and sustainable relationship of brother/sister. This work is at two levels: our local partner’s capacity and in the target community. For our work to have long-term sustainability we need to drop the role of BIG brother or sister — in favor of an ongoing relationship of mutual respect and exchange — both ways.

In Cambodia, we are committed to the development of capacity using a long-term integrated community development focus — even in the face of many who would rather have us take a ‘project’ focus. Certainly, the latter is important and can contribute to community development, however, it does little to erase the ‘Big’ in the relationship context — instead it perpetuates it. 

In Cambodia, we are in for the long-term — to walk with our brothers and sisters to work together to solve community problems. In such a relationship, we are able to bring the ‘Kingdom near!’ May God continue to bless our efforts! 

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Thanks, Rick, for a good piece about the problem of perceived "superiority" in cross-cultural partnerships.  It takes intentionality on the part of both partners to erase this perception, or better yet, to avoid it in the first place.