Cover image courtesy of LDS Wheelchair Initiative.
–by Emily Sharp–
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints via LDS Charities runs a wheelchair initiative that not only distributes wheelchairs to those in need but teaches locals how to build and repair their own wheelchairs. Over 15 countries in Africa currently benefit from this program. In these countries, wheelchair demand is high due to illnesses such as polio, accidents, or wartime injuries. Though the program has many positive aspects–for example, the Church trains locals in hopes they will have a self-reliant future–the program has negatives as well. Namely, the program does not address the root causes of wheelchair use in Africa, and it is not transparent with its work.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as “The Mormon Church”) sponsors global humanitarian efforts through LDS Charities. LDS Charities is essentially a branch of the Church–Church members run LDS Charities and the organization acts in accordance with Church policies. One of the many programs LDS Charities implements is their wheelchair initiative. The wheelchair initiatives not only distributes wheelchairs to those in need but teaches locals how to build and repair their own wheelchairs. Africans who have illnesses such as polio, are in accidents, or have wartime injuries need wheelchairs. Over 15 countries in Africa benefit from this program where over 40,000 chairs were donated to African countries between 2003-2011 (“Mormons in Africa”). This investigation looks at the sustainable method of teaching locals how to build wheelchairs while not coming across as ‘white saviors,’ at the initiative’s failure to address the root causes for the need of wheelchairs, and the charity’s lack of information and transparency on the wheelchair initiative and spending of humanitarian funds. Teaching Locals for a Self-Reliant Future, LDS Charities seeks to “inspire self-reliance” and thus do not merely donate wheelchairs to Africans (“2017 LDS Charities”). In a Church-made video, a local man explains how the wheelchair initiative works in Sierra Leone. Along with an initial donation of wheelchairs that are suited for the local terrain, the Church provides training to locals on how to provide clinical assessments for wheelchair users as well as build and repair wheelchairs using locally readily available resources such as bicycle parts (“Sierra Leone”). This contrasts to a more typical idea of only donating items or having voluntourists come in and make wheelchairs which would take away local job opportunities (Freidus). Instead it helps the local economy because it creates jobs as the local people get free job training while also instilling pride in locally made wheelchairs. As a Sierra Leone man states, “I feel good that I have made this wheelchair in this country. That’s a big thing. I’m proud of it” (“Mormons in Africa”). Without a need for continuous donations, this initiative implies the intention of being temporary so that locals can be sustainable on their own.
A Modest Message
As a church composed of and run by mostly white members, LDS Charities carries out their wheelchair initiative in African countries without advertising their good works. In all the content on the LDS Charities website as well as all articles and reports about their wheelchair services, the Church’s work in Sierra Leone is repeatedly mentioned but without the message of “white people helping these poor Africans.” The message is that locals can work to sustain themselves after training. In the videos and pictures about the Church’s work in Sierra Leone, there are no white or American-looking people shown. The videos explaining the program are starring and narrated by locals (“Sierra Leone”, “Sierra Leone Wheelchairs”). In addition, the Church always uses words like “partnership,” “guidance,” and “training” when talking about the Church’s relationship to the Sierra Leone people and the local wheelchair shops (“Sierra Leone”). The Church controls the images and messages sent about their humanitarian efforts in African countries so that it does not glamorize or make it seem like the white people or the Church is superior over Africans. The Church’s approach stands in contrast to individual “slacktivists” that shape their own image by using “social media as a visualization of one’s ethics” to self-brag about their own good deeds (Daily 233). This is unlike other organizations that “sponsor,” “teach,” or “help” Africans. Furthermore, there is never any mention of religious strings attached to the services of LDS Charities. The Church states that it aims to serve people in need regardless of their religion (“2017 LDS Charities”). Thus it seems that locals do not have to be a member of the Church nor do they have to be preached to in order to benefit from the Church’s humanitarian services.
The Root Cause for Needing Wheelchairs
Many people in African countries have disabilities that cause them to be in need of wheelchairs; however, most of the Church’s content about their wheelchair program does not address why people may need wheelchairs in the first place. In Church produced videos about wheelchairs in Sierra Leone, it mentions that many people became disabled from the civil war that ended in 2002 (“Sierra Leone”, “Sierra Leone Wheelchairs”). This narrative over-emphasizes wartime injuries, and conflates the image of Sierra Leone with images of war. The Church is using Sierra Leone’s recent civil war to appeal to the pathos of members of the Church who may donate to the humanitarian fund. To some, war may be a more emotionally appealing reason to need wheelchairs than, say, automobile accidents or lack of nutrition. Furthermore, while the implication is that most people need wheelchairs in Sierra Leone due to wartime injuries , the Sierra Leone 2015 Thematic Report on Disability reports that the most common type of disability is a physical disability from polio (Sierra Leone 2015). According to the report, 21.8% of disabilities are a physical disability from polio while the second highest type of disability is a physical disability from an amputee at 8.9%. Furthermore as the report states, in terms of causes of disabilities, most are caused by disease or illness, causing 40.5% of disabilities. The second highest cause is congenital (inherited from birth) at 16.2%, and war causes only 4.1% of disabilities (Sierra Leone 2015). Thus, the people of Sierra Leone mostly need wheelchairs due to inadequate access to healthcare and vaccines (particularly polio vaccines). Although wheelchairs will always be needed for unavoidable causes such as accidents or unpreventable diseases, the Church could address the root causes for the need of wheelchairs by curbing the demand of wheelchairs by focusing humanitarian efforts on healthcare.
Lack of Transparency
All the information about the Church’s wheelchair initiative comes from a Church source which results in a controlled story with an extensive lack of program details. It is important to note that all the information about this project comes from media owned and operated by the Church. The Church’s site, its newsroom, its charity branch (LDS Charities), and its magazine (Ensign) contains content made by (and intended mostly for) LDS members. This allows the Church to control and regulate all information about the wheelchair program and to create its own stories that flaunt its good works in African countries in order to make the Church look good for its members. For an unknown reason, the Church seems to keep information about most of the details of its humanitarian work invisible. All the content researched, including the 2017 LDS Charities Annual Report, only uses anecdotes about individuals benefiting from wheelchairs and general statistics, rather than detailed data. There is not a breakdown of statistics about the number of countries, the number of wheelchairs, the number of training sessions, or anything of the like reported, even in the LDS Charities Annual Report. It merely states a singular statistic about its contributions in 2017, “49,000 people in 41 countries during 2017” (“2017 LDS Charities”). No other statistics are mentioned about the wheelchair program in 2017. In addition, nowhere is there a breakdown as to why and how countries in Africa are selected to be a part of this program, who exactly comes (from where) to train local people, or any other specific information on their methodology. Sources always refer to the Church as a whole for being responsible for these initiatives, which although can protect the identities of beneficiaries and not glamorize the volunteers that make this work happen, leaves too many unknowns about how and if these programs are truly being run, merely funded, or have little involvement at all by the Church and its members. Overall, the Church and the media that it owns fails to report specific methodology and results on the wheelchair program in African countries. It thus has control over its narrative to show in a positive light how the Church as a whole is instilling sustainable wheelchair programs in parts of Africa.
The need for transparency goes beyond detailing the methodology and results of the wheelchair program. There is a lack in transparency in how and how much the Church spends on the wheelchair initiative and more generally its humanitarian efforts. How LDS Charities receives its funding is publicly stated: it mostly relies on church members’ donations to its “humanitarian aid” fund (where supposedly “one hundred percent of donations are used for humanitarian efforts”), and it relies on “The Church” for additional funding which is made by tithing and fast donations by members (“LDS Charities”). All donations to the humanitarian aid fund are not earmarked for specific programs (such as wheelchair donations) but instead go to one general humanitarian fund because otherwise (according to the Church) “the money then sits unused for long periods of time, when in fact, it could be immediately used to help in another area” (“Humanitarian Services”). Although the reasoning behind one general fund can be seen as positive, what LDS Charities and the Church lacks is any public statistical data on the amount of donations received, the cost of each project (like the wheelchair program), or even any percentages as to how the money is divided up per project. The 2017 LDS Charities Annual Report has no mention on how much in donations they received or how much any of the initiative that it reports about cost and instead has only a singular monetary statistic: “since 1985, LDS Charities has provided $2.07 billion in assistance” (“2017 LDS Charities”). The lack of public fiscal data may be due to the fact that any reports or articles about its charity work is intended to be viewed by church members who trust in how the Church is spending money on humanitarian aid. As a Church that is often criticized by non-members and even some members of making and hoarding its wealth, fiscal transparency is important so that the money is actually getting to those it intends to help and so that members (donors) know where and how the money is being spent.
What is generally known about LDS Charities’ wheelchair program is positive: it donates wheelchairs to countries in Africa but trains local people regardless of religion on how to sustain wheelchair repair and building using local resources. If the Church truly wanted a sustainable future run by locals, the Church would have an exit plan so that when enough training has been given, its humanitarian efforts can move on. Since the Church claims to want a long term solution, the Church could research why people are needing wheelchairs in the first place and address the root causes for wheelchair demand. Finally, the part of the Church’s wheelchair project that deserves the most criticism is not in the information available about the project — it is in what the Church lacks in reporting about the wheelchair program: its methodology, results, and spending. No researched non-Church sources were found that report on the initiative while the Church severely lacks any public information and data on the wheelchair program. Only a telescopic view of the LDS Charities’ wheelchair initiative can be investigated. This raises suspicion. Are the people they say they are helping in over 15 African countries actually getting the aid the Church claims and to what extent is the Church actually “follow[ing] the example of Jesus Christ in relieving suffering, lifting burdens, and providing hope” (“2017 LDS Charities”).
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
“2017 LDS Charities Annual Report”. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Feb. 2018, www.ldscharities.org/bc/content/ldscharities/annualreport/2017/LDS_Charities_2017_Full_English.pdf?lang=eng.
“Humanitarian Services FAQ.” LDS Philanthropies, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1 Nov. 2017, www.ldsphilanthropies.org/humanitarianservices/humanitarian-services-faq.
Sierra Leone 2015 Population and Housing Census Thematic Report on DISABILITY. Sierra Leone 2015 Population and Housing Census Thematic Report on DISABILITY, STATISTICS SIERRA LEONE (SSL), 2017.
“Sierra Leone—Building Wheelchairs.” LDS.org, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nov. 2014, www.lds.org/media-library/video/2014-11-1160-sierra-leone-building-wheelchairs ?lang=eng.
“Sierra Leone Wheelchairs.” LDS Charities, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, www.ldscharities.org/videos/sierra-leone-wheelchairs.
Daily, Lisa. “Change Your Underwear, Change the World.”
Davidson, Basil, director. The Bible and the Gun. 1984.
Freidus, Andrea Lee. “Unanticipated Outcomes of Voluntourism Among Malawi’s Orphans.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2016.
“LDS Charities: How Church Donations Are Used.” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 24 Aug. 2012, www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/humanitarian-aid-welfare-services-breakdown -donations-costs-resources.
“Mormons in Africa: Church Humanitarian Initiatives Give Life.” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 21 Feb. 2011, www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/mormons-africa-humanitarian-initiatives.
“Wheelchair Distribution.” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2015, www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/wheelchair-distribution.
Photo credit mormonnewsroom.org (“Wheelchair Distribution”)