When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (A book review)

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What if most people get poverty all wrong? What if the way we try to alleviate poverty makes things worse for everyone?

Several years ago, when my sister came to visit on a college break, she talked about community development and poverty in a way that mesmerised me. She described poverty as being about broken relationships and poverty alleviation as being about restoring those relationships. She talked about the need to differentiate between relief, rehabilitation, and development and the disastrous results when we don’t.

All these thoughts came from her studies in Community Development at Covenant College. Her (now former) professors are some of the world’s leading experts on poverty alleviation. So I decided to read the book her professors wrote: When Helping Hurts by Mr. Steve Corbett and Dr. Brian Fikkert. I was blown away by their insights, and it revolutionized the way I viewed poverty. To this day, I regularly think about principles in their book, which have effected the way I approach people, theology, social ills, and politics. Recently, I decided it was time to re-read it, except this time I took notes. (Which makes it much easier for me to write this book review. 😉)

Before we begin, I will note that this book is written primarily to North American Christians, though certainly anyone could benefit. It also acknowledges the fact that most North American Christians are some of the wealthiest people in the world, even if not all are wealthy by American standards. However, I’m aware that some of my readers may themselves have experienced or be experiencing poverty. For those in that category, I hope this book review can be an encouragement.

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The Book’s Purpose

Authors Corbett and Fikkert begin with the assertion that the North American Church is composed of some of the wealthiest people ever to live. Conversely, 40% of the world population struggles even to eat everyday. This book was written because North American Christians, as a whole, are failing to adequately care about an address poverty in North America and in the rest of the world. It was also written because when North American Christians DO attempt poverty alleviation, it often makes worse the very problems they are trying to solve by applying simplistic solutions TO the poor instead of working WITH the poor, thereby perpetuating shame amongst the poor and god-complexes amongst those trying to help the poor.

The call, then, is to care about and do more for poverty alleviation AND to do it in a way that gets to the root of issues, while neither hurting the poor nor ourselves in the process. As the Apostle John writes in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” It is imperative for Christians to care about poverty.

Why Should Christians Care About Poverty?

Christians are called to care for God’s creation and to participate in spreading God’s kingdom IN A HOLISTIC MANNER. In other words, though personal piety and the preaching of the gospel are VITAL, they are not the sum total of what Christians are Christians are to be about. In the words of Tim Keller, “The kingdom [of Jesus] is the renewal of the whole world through the entrance of supernatural forces. As things are brought back under Christ’s rule and authority, they are restored to health, beauty, and freedom.” Jesus died to reconcile us to God, BUT ALSO to reconcile us to one another and to creation.

Before the 20th century, Christian’s led the way in ministering to the poor in both physical and spiritual ways. This changed in the 1930s when evangelicals battled theological liberals over core doctrinal beliefs. At this time, because of its supposed connection to theological liberalism, evangelicals largely abandoned the poor. The shift was so dramatic, it has been called “The Great Reversal.” (It should be noted that this happened decades before Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” which evangelicals sometimes blame for the church’s retreat from poverty alleviation efforts.) In other words, throughout much of the history of the North American Church, theologically-conservative Christians were deeply and practically concerned about the poor.

What is Poverty?

How you answer this question will have profound effects on how you IDENTIFY poor people, what you BELIEVE about them, and HOW YOU SEEK ADDRESS THEIR SITUATION. If you believe poverty comes from lack of knowledge, you will want to EDUCATE the poor. If you believe poverty is a result of oppression, you will seek JUSTICE through social and legal means. If poverty comes from sinful and unwise choices, you will share the GOSPEL and truths about Christian living. If you believe poverty is due to lack of financial resources, you will donate MONEY. (Does this remind anyone else of the divergent ways Republicans and Democrats speak about and seek to address poverty?)

Brian Myers, a Christian development leader defines poverty in the following way: “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.” Corbett and Fikkert echo the sentiment by describing poverty as being about broken relationships with God, with self, with others, and/or with creation. When these relationships are intact and functioning in a healthy way, people are able to fulfill their purpose AND provide for themselves.

An important aspect of these definitions is the realization that ALL of us are poor in some way. All of us need to have relationships restored to healthy functioning. “One of the major premises of this book is that until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.” (Page 61) This cuts to the heart of the god-complexes that many American Christians possess. ALL of us are broken, and ALL of us need restoration and healing, not just the obviously poor.

It is important, however, to specifically differentiate between the broad concept of poverty and material poverty in particular, which is a lack of material resources. Usually when people talk about poverty, this is the kind of poverty to which they are referring. Though the Bible uses “poor” in multiple senses (e.g. “poor in spirit”), the Bible’s called to help the poor is talking specifically about the materially poor.

Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development

One of the most important components of poverty alleviation is rightly differentiating between relief, rehabilitation, and development. The authors assert that one of the biggest problems when North American Christian try to alleviate poverty is the application of relief principles to rehabilitation or development situations. This might look like building a person a house while they sit, able-bodied, watching. So what’s the difference?

RELIEF addresses immediate needs when a person or group of people are incapable of meeting their own needs. This might occur immediately after a natural disaster or in the cases of mentally disabled homeless people, the very old, the very sick, and the very young. In cases such as these, relief is given to the poor with little participation from the poor themselves. Situations requiring relief are not the norm, but they do exist and should be dealt with quickly. Relief should be immediate, practical, rare, and temporary.

REHABILITATION begins “after the bleeding has stopped” and its goal is to restore the person or community to their pre-crisis level of functioning. In this stage, poverty alleviation happens in conjunction WITH the poor.

DEVELOPMENT then seeks to restore both the helpers and the helped to full levels of flourishing in their relationships with God, self, others, and creation. This also happens in partnership WITH poor.

One of the most important components of rehabilitation and development is “asset assessment.” This means that instead of starting with what the poor lack, the goal is to participate in analyzing the resources the poor ALREADY HAVE. This is called “asset-based community development” which is in opposition to “needs-based community development.” The goal is to evaluate the resources, skills, abilities, ideas, and solutions of the affected population, using these as the basis for facilitating poverty alleviation. How are their communities already organized? What programs or organizations are already in place to address these needs? What skills and resources do the poor already have? This process should be done in concert WITH those needing help, which in itself starts to restore a proper relationship with self as it encourages a sense of competence, self-esteem, and empowerment.

Other principles of good relief, rehabilitation, and development include the following. When possible, allow LOCAL organizations to help the affected community, perhaps partnering with them to assist their efforts. Start by taking care of the MOST VULNERABLE PEOPLE and the MOST IMMEDIATE NEEDS, and do it in a fair and just way. Those assisting in poverty alleviation should be adequately trained both in their worldview (no paternalism; believing in the dignity of the poor; believing that God is already at work amongst the poor) and in the skills needed to do the work required. And finally, generally speaking, what people CAN do for themselves, they SHOULD do for themselves; feeling this sense of power and responsibility is actually PART OF THE PROCESS of restoring the broken relationships cause poverty.

Applications

After examining basic principles, Corbett and Fikkert turn to specific applications of these principles: short-term missions, U.S. material poverty, and global material poverty. I find it fascinating to see their philosophy applied in practical ways.

Short-term Missions

Having grown up in Southeast Asia, I myself have seen some bizarre things associated with short-term missions. From the arrogance of missionaries to the irresponsible use of funds. From culturally-insensitive behavior to paternalistic views of the local people.

But how can short-term missions be done well? Corbett and Fikkert suggest several practical ideas. First, make sure the host organization and local community are the ones initiating the request for help and are doing so in a way that is in line with good development principles. Along with this, those who will be going on the trip should have a clear understanding of what they will do and not do. Second, when recruiting team members, choose people who understand the purpose is less about saving the world and more about partnership and learning. It’s good if those interested in participating have already shown a heart for outreach and ministry in their local settings. Third, have adequate pre-field training that teaches some of the basic principles in this book including emphasizing that we are all poor. These conversations should continue WHILE ON THE MISSION TRIP and for A YEAR following the trip. Fourth, each member of the team should be required to pay part of their own expenses, perhaps raising an equal amount of money to donate to long-term missions or local development organizations. (Local organizations and long-term missionaries are generally much better equipped to make a lasting impact.)

US Material Poverty

What about in the United States? In the political arena, people often reference poverty, perhaps critiquing the way “the other side” deals with it. So what do Corbett and Fikkert have to say? In their view, the goal of material poverty alleviation is: “working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.” Obstacles to this include BROKEN SYSTEMS and BROKEN INDIVIDUALS. Broken systems may include racism, classism, and difficulty accessing safe and affordable housing, adequate education, and basic health care. Broken individuals may lack a healthy view of themselves or knowledge of how to better their situation. The exact contributing factors will vary by situation.

To address material poverty in the United States, it’s important to implement a relational, participatory, and developmental approach. In other words, relief is not (usually) what is needed; rehabilitation or development is. This means that the materially poor should participate in their journey towards restored relationships and providing for themselves.

There will generally be several components to poverty alleviation. Often, the materially poor can benefit from the development of soft skills (such as a good work ethic, social skills, dependability, communication), hard skills (related to a specific vocation), financial education, and worldview training. It may also be appropriate to connect them with government programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which enables low-income workers to get tax credits for every hour they work; this, combined with a minimum wage salary may enable a family to live above the poverty line. Non-government organizations may be helpful in making available Individual Development Account Programs, which reward monthly savings via matching. One such program does a two-to-one match for every dollar saved.

Global Material Poverty

Global poverty is a huge issue. 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day. Economists believe that the long-term solution is to increase the number of large manufacturing firms. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough being started, which means there are not enough jobs. As a result, many people turn to farming or small businesses to support themselves. This is challenging for those in poverty because they lack capital and/or access to loans. The exception may be loan sharks, who routinely take advantage of poor people.

Enter the micro-financing revolution! Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate and economics professor, started a bank in Bangladesh to facilitate loans for poor people. Since it began in 1976, 7.58 million poor people have taken out loans from it for a total of $7.4 billion.

Through micro-financing, poor people are voluntarily put into borrowing groups and provide capital for other group members to take out small loans with a regimented repayment plan. In this system, poor people are coming together to help themselves and each other, and there is high accountability and motivation for loan repayment. While the number of large-scale manufacturing jobs are insufficient at present, micro-financing can be key to helping alleviate global poverty. However, the main disadvantage is that it focuses primarily on the material aspects of poverty.

Corbett and Fikkert work for a Christian development organization called the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. They have developed curricula to be used in conjunction WITH micro-financing that enables a more comprehensive approach to poverty alleviation. It includes business training, information on health, financial teaching, and worldview education (focusing on the four key relationships as well as the principles of dignity, stewardship, and discipline). This way, poor people are provided material resources to start small businesses WHILE gaining skills and support in other areas as well.

There are many ways that the North American Church can support micro-financing ventures globally. They can encourage and observe existing micro-financing efforts. They can subsidize training costs. They can facilitate training of those starting micro-financing ventures. They can donate to the evangelistic components of micro-financing institutions. They can financially invest in “business as missions” ventures. They can advocate for and promote organizations that use micro-financing. And they can pray for all the above.

Response

With so much information in this book, the authors then turn to what the proper response is, both for individuals and for communities.

Individual

Individuals, first of all, are called to repentance, if such repentance is necessary. Repentance for failure to care for the poor. Repentance for paternalistic attitudes and behaviors. Repentance for being disconnected from the full implications of Christ’s renewal of creation. “Without such repentance, our efforts to help the poor will continue to be characterized by providing material resources to the poor, rather than walking with them in humble and relational ways as we call on King Jesus to fix the root causes of both of our poverties.” (page 248)

Community

Corbett and Fikkert suggest a process whereby communities can mobilize together to address material property. “The goal of the process is to create a ‘community partnership,’ a group of individuals, associations (including churches), and institutions that cooperate to use the assets of the community to solve problems and to bring positive change to the community, i.e., to pursue ‘development.'”

The book recommends the following general process. First, interview all parties in the community. Second, identify community leaders, including those within the materially poor community. Third, form a team of identified leaders and conduct more interviews amongst the materially poor community. Fourth, choose a specific issue to begin addressing, one that is likely to be an easy success. Fifth, research and assess community assets, and begin the project. Sixth, evaluate the progress and celebrate successes. Finally, decide what is next; should the community partnership pick a different issue to work on or dig deeper into the current issue? Should the community partnership expand to include others or should it stay the same? In these ways, communities can pool their resources and expertise to address real problems in a way that honors the dignity, capabilities, and responsibilities of all involved.

My Reflections

When I first read this book about 4 years ago, I was fascinated! I was also grieved to realize my own wrong beliefs and attitudes about poverty. Honestly, this was one of those books that shifted my worldview–a game changer. It opened my eyes to the idea that problems in society can be because of broken individuals AND broken systems. This was a paradigm shift for me, which ended up preparing me to learn about American racism, which I wrote about here.

Growing up as a missionary kid in Southeast Asia, I could definitely relate to some of the critiques of short-term missions. I’ve seen short-term teams be culturally insensitive and prideful. I’ve been angered and grieved over all the money that goes towards short-term missions when indigenous organizations and long-term missionaries often suffer from lack of funds. Reading this book helped to explain my unease as well as help me see a positive way short-term missions can be done.

I’ve also seen tastes of global poverty, and I sometimes wonder at the immense wealth in the US (and the way it is often taken for granted). I remember when I was in graduate school studying elementary education, I visited a local public school with my classmates. We sat in a reading resource room to debrief our experience after classroom observations. Every single wall in the classroom was filled with reading material, and at one point, I started sobbing because of the immense resources that surrounded us. I wondered if the people at that school had any idea how blessed they were. Along with this, I myself have been challenged towards more thankfulness and less entitlement.

And finally, I was challenged to donate not just to missions but to community development and poverty alleviation efforts as I realized the integral role they play in the holistic spread of Christ’s kingdom.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book–particularly to North American Christians, but to others as well. It changed my worldview in good ways and has empowered me with knowledge to see people more accurately and to express practical care for others in productive, loving ways.

Resources

The authors of the book head up an organization called Chalmers Center for Economic Development. That would be a good resource for learning more about community development for my best practices in biblical perspective. (website) (Facebook).

I’m still learning about good community development organizations, but if you’re looking to check out specific organizations or donate to their work, here are a few I recommend. Food For the Hungry (website) and Care of Creation Kenya (website) are both good. Mission organizations I am particularly fond of are Wycliffe Bible Translators (website) and Mission to the World (website). (I grew up as a WBT/MTW missionary kid, and I think both of these organizations are excellent! 😉)

What have been your experiences with poverty or poverty alleviation? What organizations do you know off that are doing good work?

~Hannah 🌸

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