Social Justice

When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts Masthead

I just completed the book “When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor … and yourself” by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert.  I found I very much identified with their setup of the problem as laid out in the first half of the book, the heart of which begins with a re-definition (at least for many of us in the Minority World) of poverty.  Based on research by the World Bank, published in Voices of the Poor, a critical distinction is made between Majority World definitions of poor and the definition made by many people in North American churches.  From page 53:

Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.  North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.

They go on to suggest a biblical definition of poverty, one that is based on a person’s broken relationship with God (poverty of spiritual intimacy), self (poverty of being), others (poverty of community), and creation (poverty of stewardship).  What especially struck me was their argument that within this definition is seated the root of why we so often hurt others when we try to help.  Because ALL of us suffer from some form of poverty, we are all prone to compensate in negative ways.  For instance, in our poverty of self, we take on “god-complexes” that lead us towards paternalistic solutions.  In our poverty of community, we exhibit “self-centeredness” and “exploitation and abuse of others”.  This leads to a definition of poverty that states (page 62):

Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.  Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.

Ultimately, until we embrace our mutual brokenness, we are prone to do more harm than good when working with low-income people.  Poverty alleviation programs often exacerbate the poverty of being suffered by the economically rich — their god-complexes — while at the same time exacerbating the poverty of being suffered by the economically poor — their feelings of inferiority and shame.  The book is careful to indicate that material poverty receives special attention in the Bible.  We are called to especially reach out to the material poor; our ministries to the economically wealthy who suffer from a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship is not adequate.  Indeed, in working hand-in-hand with the economically poor can those of us who suffer from other poverty be truly helped.

The book also makes an important distinction between relief, rehabilitation, and development.  “Relief can be defined as the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis.”  It is the critical first step to halt the freefall.  “Rehabilitation begins as soon as the bleeding stops; it seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions.”  I am especially intrigued by their definition of development: “Development is a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved — both the ‘helpers’ and the ‘helped’ — closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.”  Where North American churches so often blunder is in the application of relief when what is needed is rehabilitation or development.  Poverty alleviation is admittedly complex.  In order to help cut through the complexity, the authors suggest memorizing the phrase “Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.”  Paternalism comes in many forms, including resource, spiritual, knowledge, labor, and managerial paternalism.

Another wonderful aspect of the book is the review of several common methods for asset-based community development: asset mapping, participatory learning and action, and appreciative inquiry.  These approaches recognize that EVERY community has important assets and also critical deficits.  By beginning with a focus on assets instead of needs, though, an approach that is empowering and uplifting to members of the community is taken, and ultimately, results that are sustainable are achieved.  At the heart of these approaches is meaningful participation.  Indeed, the authors distinguish types of participation and emphasize that outsiders should be careful to foster cooperation, or better yet, co-learning, as opposed to consultation, compliance, and certainly not coercion (including unintentional).  That is, the emphasis should be “doing with” as opposed to “doing for” or “doing to”.

My biggest struggle with the book is in their definition of material poverty alleviation:

Working to reconcile the four foundational relationships [poverty of spiritual intimacy, being, community, and stewardship] so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work

They detail a number of interesting programs that have sometimes helped, sometimes hurt communities, such as microfinancing, savings and credit associations, and business ministries.  But this portion of the book sometimes felt to me as if it were ultimately an agenda to make the Majority World like us — people who find our worth through our work.  Other parts of the book are careful to point towards steps that keep this from happening.

In writing this summary I am finding that perhaps I am making too much of this objection, for there are many very positive lessons being brought to new audiences through this book.  But still, I must admit that as I read the book I had a growing uneasiness with the direction the book went in the end.  To me, the book laid out an appropriately complex look at the problems of poverty; one that can only be addressed by not just working with the economically poor, but also by addressing the systems put in place by the economically rich.  But as it went on, the primary focus became that of putting the economically poor back to work by empowering them so as to set systems aright.  The authors admit the problem is complex, but I wonder if they ultimately argued for a simplified solution.  With but one more chapter arguing for addressing the systems we put in place, it seems this book could have been so much more.

0 thoughts on “When Helping Hurts

  1. Well worded summary and reflection. This book has been very significant in giving me what I believe is the most insightful and best articulation of the gospel by understanding more fully what poverty truly is and what Christ’s crucification and resurrection accomplished. I do agree with you on your objection, as well. I disagreed with them regarding the relationship of our work to our purpose. Our value is in who we are and not what we do. Our work is a way of living out the relationships we were designed to live in and is necessary in most cases, but we need to be careful to separate it from our identity and worth.

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