When Helping Hurts

Of the few books I’ve read recently, one of the most important ones is “When Helping Hurts, How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor . . . and yourself” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

Corbett and Fikkert are scholars based at the Chalmers Insitute at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA. These guys know their stuff about international economic development and have been at it a while. I was interested to see that the book was published by Moody Press.

The premise of the book is that much of what Christians do in the way of ministry among the poor (they call it poverty alleviation) is actually harmful to both parties (those “reached”, those “reaching”). I agree.

As a practitioner myself, and a teacher, this book resonated strongly with me. The challenges that we have in our desire to “serve” others, purportedly under the desire to be like Jesus (who came to serve) is too often done out of an unrecognized desire to keep ourselves in the superior place. The sensibility that develops is a truth that ultimately wounds us: It is better to give than to receive, so we (only) want to give. But we are not Jesus. . . we need to receive too.

Out of this sensibility (appropriately called paternalism by Corbett and Fikkert) we think it’s not only best for us always to give/serve, but we think we are the only ones who have something to offer. Acting on this (even when well intended) injures both us by adding to our pride, and others, by affirming them as fundamentally “lacking”.

Here are some other highlights for the book:

As westerners we generally understand poverty in material terms. Logically, we then assume that work among the poor is primarily about leveraging resources or skills. Yet they demonstrate that poverty as defined by those in poverty is often primarily understood in fundamentally psychological terms. Terms like “powerless”, “shameful”, worthless” and others are self-applied.

Poverty must be understood in Creation-Fall-Redemption terms. Poverty is fundamentally the absence of Shalom. Shalom is all about relationships, therefore poverty is fundamentally about the broken relationships (with God, self, others, the creation) and NOT fundamentally about lack of something. Addressing poverty then MUST be part of our understanding of the work of Christ, the gospel, the calling of the church and the Kingdom of God.

All poverty is NOT created equal. Differing levels of distress and poverty require differing levels of response. The 3 levels of response are: relief, rehabilitation, development. Most of the work of the church is in the area of relief, whereas most of the need is for development. As Abraham Kuyper said 100+ years ago, Christians just don’t understand economics and so our work and $ is put in the wrong place.

The section detailing a definition of multiple kinds of paternalism was great! It was bold to publish this on Moody Press since MBI is one of the leading senders of missionaries around the world. Yet it is clearly a topic that is important and generally unspoken about (same thing with the STM discussion below).

1/3 of all missionary giving is towards Short Term Missions (STM). Most STMs do more harm than good. I was both challenged and affirmed in reading this (we run a STM program). We have thought very carefully about this and have sought to do things very differently than most STM programs. I was about 90% affirmed in reading this chapter but was still challenged to think about sharpening some aspects of what we do.

My critique of the book is that it is too short and too wide to be a helpful tool practically. The reality is that this is an entry level book that is critical to get people started. I just wish it had more follow up tools.

The section on relief-rehabilitation-development was also so introductory that it lacked any real meat about what each of these three things are. Relief is only appropriate where there is such a crisis that “the bleeding needs to be stopped”. I don’t know what “bleeding” is in contexts of entrenched poverty. I also came away with NO idea what rehabilitation is in thier model. People around my church aren’t getting quality food, are dealing with high rates of violence, are in schools that are a catastrophe. I assume that since it is generational poverty and crime that is at issue that the most appropriate connection is development, yet using this book I didn’t know how to actually draw those lines or really define the 3 categories well (especially the first 2).

The connection between Shalom and Poverty was the richest contribution for me personally. I teach on these topics in depth every time we have an STM team here and so think about them alot. Clearly the book is a great help on the whole!