Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book Review: When Helping Hurts

by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

For those that don't want to read this long post, the short version is: Highly recommended.

This book has been recommended a number of times by a man I know and admire greatly for his integrity, his great love for the Lord, and for his unfailing ability to recognize the good (Christ) in anyone. He is on the board for the Lwala Community Alliance.

This book is written directly to evangelical Christians within a church who are seeking a way to fulfill God's call to feed the poor. Because of the specific audience, there were many times when I wondered if a Catholic perspective might be a little different. Within the history of the Catholic Church, there are a great many saints who have served the poor in personal ways, including those like St. Francis (and the Franciscans as an order) who willingly and lovingly embrace material poverty partially at least to address their existing spiritual poverty. Not that I think Catholic North Americans don't make the same mistakes and erroneous assumptions that are outlined in the book, just that the history and culture of the Catholic Church might be used as additional sources of strength in understanding them. (Kansas Dad assures me there are lots of books and thoughts within Catholic social teaching that would address these issues, but I haven't had a chance to read any of them yet.)

We must also understand that the goal is not merely to redistribute resources (food, clothing, money) to those that are materially poor.
The goal is not to make the materially poor all over the world into middle-to-upper-class North Americans, a group characterized  by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness. Nor is the goal to make sure that the materially poor have enough money...Rather, the goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be, people who glorify God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.
Early in the book, the authors say we must begin with an understanding that we are often as poor spiritually as the material poor are poor materially.
Because every one of us is suffering from brokenness in our foundational relationships, all of us need "poverty alleviation," just in different ways. Our relationship to the materially poor should be one in which we recognize that both of us are broken and that both of us need the blessing of reconciliation. Our perspective should be less about how we are going to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us.
The authors continue:
The goal is to see people restored to being what God created them to be: people who understand that they are created in the image of God with the gifts, abilities, and capacity to make decisions and to effect change in the world around them; and people who steward their lives, communities, resources, and relationships in order to bring glory to God. These things tend to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused ministries.
The book returns to this goal over and over again. It seems a valuable idea to review this goal before we provide any service or money. The authors remind us that North Americans are product-oriented. We want to see results; we want to see a project started and crossed off the list. Our rush to an end often blinds us to the true end: restoring people to what God created them to be.

The authors discuss systems, mainly in the context of enduring poverty in America's inner cities.
Worldviews affect the systems, and the systems affect the worldviews. (author's italics)
I don't want to start a big debate, but I think it's right to consider that political support for policies that will really help the poor and disenfranchised are important. I struggle with this thought myself and how far I should take it. Sometimes I wonder if insisting on the lowest price possible for an item is just as damaging to the materially poor of this country and around the world as any political policy or law. (Thinking along these lines quickly becomes overwhelming, ranging from the treatment of part-time employees to child labor in the chocolate industry to unsafe conditions for garment workers. I usually end up thinking we shouldn't buy anything at all, but that seems too extreme to really be the right answer.)

A big part of the book discusses the range of work we can do with the materially poor.
A helpful first step in thinking about working with the poor in any context is to discern whether the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development.
Relief is the help we provide in a short term situation or immediate crisis (after an earthquake or when coming upon an injured person); it's things like money, clothing, shelter, and food. Rehabilitation "seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions.
"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.
There is a need for relief, even for those who will need it long-term ("the severely disabled; some of the elderly; very young, orphaned children; the mentally ill homeless population"), but right away it's interesting to note that relief is very rarely necessary. Personally and as a church, then, the majority of our resources (time, talent, and treasure) should be devoted to long-term endeavors and working to develop relationships, policies, and institutions that address rehabilitation and development rather than relief.

Then, there are some wonderful chapters that talk about the kind of resources we should devote to rehabilitation and development and the methods by which we should do so. Their arguments are thought-provoking and, I thought, convincing. Among other things, they believe we should not do anything the materially poor can do for themselves; we should require (and encourage) the community to participate in the entire process from design through implementation; and we should carefully consider the culture and traditions of the community. There's much more and I encourage you to read the book.
Remember, the goal is not to produce houses or other material goods but to pursue a process of walking with the materially poor so that they are better stewards of their lives and communities, including their own material needs.
 It's easier to provide relief (food, clothing, money) than development. Many believe handouts are the answer, because they're only looking at the material needs. Also, it's much easier to just give money or things than to build relationships. Finally, (p. 120)
it is easier to get donor money for relief than for development. "We fed a thousand people today" sounds better to donors than "We hung out and developed relationships with a dozen people today."
I spent a lot of time thinking about how our family allocates our charitable donations in response to this book. This particular quote struck me because, we are donors. This book is a challenge, then, for us to be the kind of donors that support the kind of work and organizations that build communities and really give people a path out of poverty.

From what I can tell, CFCA is doing exactly the kind of long-term development work outlined in this book. They strive to build a relationship between sponsors and sponsored families. Families work together to improve their communities, not just with funds from CFCA, but with assets within their own villages. The more I read this book, the more convinced I became that we should be giving more support to CFCA, that the work they are doing around the world is truly good stewardship of time, talent, and treasure that is participating in the work we all should be doing to bring God's kingdom to fruition on earth. Learn more about the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging.

There is also a fascinating chapter on short term missions and how valuable (or not) they are to the missionaries, how harmful they may be to the community, and how to make them as valuable as possible on both sides.

For those that do not have access to the book, you can learn more online at the book's online website, Helping without Hurting, and at The Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College.


  1. Thank you for your thought provoking review! I completely understand what you mean by not wanting to buy anything when I start to think about production practices. Really, I don't know what to do, other than buy less and think very carefully about if we really need to buy whatever it is. I wish it was easier to find good quality goods, so I wouldn't have to buy some things as often... But it seems like that is almost nonexistent these days. It all feels very frustrating and daunting.

    One charity we like is Charity: Water - I like how they are focused on a particular fundamental issue and that they work with local people to install systems. also teach local people how to maintain them.

  2. Oops, submitted too early! Anyway, not sure how they would measure up, but it seems like a good model.

  3. Amber, we have very good friends who have made Charity: Water their preferred charity and do at least one fundraiser for them each year. I also thought of them as I read the book and think they would probably fare well against the standards of this book.

  4. Well thanks to Blizzard Nemo which left me stuck in Arizona unable to get home for three days at the end of a work trip, I'm a bit late to the game here...but I did just want to chime in to say great charity (Charity: Water) and great book (When Helping Hurts). Hilary and I think highly of them both!! :-)


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