When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself
By Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
Americans are in denial. We are the richest people to walk the earth and we simply are not doing enough to help those 40 percent of the earth’s inhabitants that struggle to eat every day, not to mention the homeless in our own back yard. Then when we do try to help we pour our resources into broken systems that actually exacerbate the poverty line and enable the poor to continue their lifestyles without making any serious changes. The cycle goes on and on.
This appropriately named book explores how many well-intentioned Americans are trying to help the poor and do the right thing, actually causing more harm than good in the long run. A major point of this book is that helping without the appropriate relationships in place will hurt everyone involved. What about the church? Jesus obviously loved helping the poor and spreading the good news to the hurting. We have been commanded to follow in His footsteps. God wants us to do more than just go to Church on Sunday, he wants us to go out and love others, especially the poor. Unfortunately most churches face the same problems as individuals. They have resources but lack the relationship building tools to make any serious changes.
If you ask an American to define poverty they would explain a lack of material things like money, clothing, and housing. But ask a poor person to describe poverty and you will get a completely different answer based on psychological phrases like shame, fear, hopelessness, and inferiority. This shows that if we misdiagnose the problem and treat the symptom (lack of material possessions) instead of the underlying condition (the need to empower and change the poor’s mindset) then we will not improve their situation. Here is the major problem: The material definition of poverty, mixed with the superiority complex of the non-poor, and the inferior feelings of the poor, are what leads to harm of both the materially poor AND non-poor. The best way to change this equation is to revise the understanding of the nature of poverty.
Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work so we need to show low-income people through our words, actions, and ears, that they are people with unique gifts and abilities. We can help them restore their dignity as we get over our sense of pride. The goal is reconciliation of relationships. It is not to make the poor more like us, but rather to restore people to their full expression of humanness. Poverty alleviation is the ministry of moving people closer together by relationships with God, self, and others. It is not about making sure they have material things, it is about making sure they are empowered to EARN sufficient material things. We must recognize we are both broken in these relationships, and our perspective should be how we can walk together asking God to fix us both.
There are three major stages of poverty alleviation. In order to make sure you are helping not hurting you must make sure you are addressing the correct stage at the correct time. Stage one, relief, is temporary and urgent emergency aid in situations of crisis (for example, the Indonesian tsunami). In relief situations there is a major immediate need and it would be appropriate to give material items in order to “stop the bleeding” for these people who have no means of helping themselves. These are extreme circumstances and most situations will not fall into this category, although help is usually incorrectly administered in this way. The next category, stage two, is rehabilitation. This is the act of working with the victims as they participate in their own recovery. Stage three, development, is the process of ongoing change to a relationship closer to God and the rest of creation. Development is not done to or for, but with people.
One of the biggest mistakes North American churches make is to apply relief in a situation when development is actually needed. Relief is immediate, temporary, and seldom needed. Many fall into this trap because it is fast, easy to implement, and can reach so many people at once. Development is a slow process but it creates lasting results. It avoids paternalism, doing things for people that they can do themselves. Development uses an asset based approach that focuses on others strengths and goals and builds relationships that last. The materially poor must participate in their own success in order to create a sense of ownership so that they do not quit. They also have an insight into what will and will not work in their own communities.
The book encourages church-based mentoring teams, like ACT’s Metro, “that can offer love, support, and encouragement, thereby providing a relational approach that seeks to restore people’s dignity, community, stewardship, and spiritual intimacy”. This book is a real eye-opener to what well-meaning churches and individuals can improve on, to help alleviate the poverty crises, at home and abroad, before it is too late.
Acts Metro Volunteer
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