Sometimes Helping ends up Hurting

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I recently listened to the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. Going in I knew the basic premise of the book: sometimes when we try to fix a situation, especially when dealing with poverty, we end up hurting people more than helping them. As I listened to the book, however, I realized how much good has been attempted that really ended up being harmful to people. Many well-meaning Christians and organizations have, with the best of intentions, tried to alleviate poverty around the world and ended up either not helping or even leaving people worse off than when they started. Some of this book went over my head, which I’ll discuss in a minute, but I’d like to share with you four things that I learned from this book that might help you in the future if you want to get involved with poverty alleviation.

1. Poverty is not just material.

Most often we think of poverty in terms of money and possessions, but poverty is not only about material wealth. In an effort to bring someone out of poverty, we need to focus the whole person. Fikkert and Corbett define poverty by four factors:

  • Poverty of Spiritual Intimacy – denying God’s existence and authority; materialism; worshipping false gods and spirits
  • Poverty of Being – god complexes; low self-esteem
  • Poverty of Community – self centeredness; exploitation and abuse of others
  • Poverty of Stewardship – loss of sense of purpose; laziness/workaholics; materialism; ground is cursed

Sometimes people just need money, but many times they need God, community, or the training to take care of what they have. Don’t think that just by giving someone some money, you can fix their situation. This also brings more than just the material poor into the picture. All of us are impoverished based on this definition. We all need God, self-worth, community, and help to steward our things.

2. I am not God.

Sometimes we have a Messiah complex, we think we can save the world. Many, especially middle class Americans, view themselves as being better than the poor, primarily because of material wealth, and that they have the power to fix anyone’s problem. What really ends up happening, according to Corbett and Fikkert, is that we come in and do everything for those in need and then leave without fixing anything. Instead, there needs to be equipping and empowering. This also reminds us that money doesn’t solve all the problems.

3. I know very little of global economics.

You may more about economics than I do, but what the authors point out is that sometimes factors outside of one specific situation cause people to slip into poverty. When oil prices rise and the value of the dollar changes, it can cause already materially poor people to become even poorer. We have to remember that not everyone is responsible for their poverty. Some people are poor because they did something bad, mishandled money, or won’t get a job. Other people are poor because of global situations outside of their control. Sometimes helping people in these situations means calling for political reform. Whatever the case is, look at the bigger picture.

4. Be present with people, don’t treat them like a project.

The best help is long term and local. American Christians like to come in for a week or two and try to fix every problem and then go home. The issue is we can’t fix every problem in two weeks or less. Outside temporary help can’t completely solve problems. It can be helpful and bring necessary temporary relief, but people who are impoverished need long term help from people who will walk with them. The authors emphasize that, whenever possible, help should come from people who are local. What this means is that when doing short term missions we should partner with someone who has the ability to help in the long term and we shouldn’t assume that we can fix every problem in a short time. It’s a long process that requires someone who be present in the lives of the impoverished.

This hardly scratches the surface of the book. It includes strategies and plans to accomplish poverty alleviation that is actually helpful. If you desire to work in this field or if God is calling you to this line of work, then you need to read this book. Church leaders should read this book as well. This is a great place to start when trying to make an impact in helping the poor. The most important thing to remember about this book is that poverty doesn’t just mean material wealth. When we look at this through the lens of scripture, we realize that we are all poor in some way and in need of a savior who can provide for our physical, emotional, social, material, and spiritual needs.

“It all goes back to the definition of poverty alleviation. Remember, the goal is to restore people to experiencing humanness in the way that God intended. The crucial thing is to help people to understand their identity as image bearers, to love their neighbors as themselves, to be stewards over God’s creation, and to bring glory to all things.” (pg.136)

2 thoughts on “Sometimes Helping ends up Hurting

  1. Matthew Crossman 03/14/2014 / 6:56 am

    Hey Peter,

    Good review. I’m going to check this one out. Do you have any recommendations for books like this that are more specifically focused on the results of short term missions? Being a youth minister that’s kind of a big part of my job 🙂

    • Peter S. 03/14/2014 / 8:56 am

      I don’t, but When Helping Hurts has a whole section about short term mission trips. So definitely check this book out.

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