Review: When Helping Hurts (Part 3)

When Helping Hurts: how to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor … and yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert (Chicago: Moody, 2009)

(Part 3 of my review)

The juice (for me) was near the end of the book. The authors talk about three development programs that are within reach for local churches in the United States. None of these explicitly involve the participation described earlier, but I suspect they are viewing these as things churches can do once they have identified a need. None of them are terribly intrusive, and none of them mistake a development need for a relief need. And all are long-term and require real commitment (remember “people and processes” over “projects and products”?).

First, job preparedness training. This sounds beyond the scope of most churches until you realize that what employers want urgently is not usually the “hard skills” – technical training for a given job – but “soft skills” – traits such as reliability, a strong work ethic, friendliness, punctuality, and respect for authority. These “skills” can be taught directly from Scripture. The authors suggest (1) classes for these soft skills in conjunction with (2) a long-term mentoring program (either one to one or team mentoring) for trainees and, if possible, (3) covenants or agreements with local employers – Christian if possible – to hire or prefer “graduates” in the hiring process.

Second, financial education. The poor often do not understand how to make good use of their income – the concepts of “Christian stewardship, budgeting, goal setting, saving, debt reduction, record keeping, tithing, taxes, banking, managing credit,” (195) etc. This leads directly to bad decision-making and also makes them prey to predatory lenders of all descriptions (from the ubiquitous “check-cashing” establishments in inner city neighborhoods to sub-prime mortgage companies). Again, this kind of training must involve long-term mentoring or it will probably not help much. As with any skill, handling money well is something learned by doing and coaching, not just taking a class.

Third, wealth-building through individual development accounts (IDAs). The fatalism of poverty means that even when income increases, wealth seldom does: impoverished people seldom gain and maintain assets or invest in businesses or education. IDAs are a way of helping with that. In conjunction with financial education and mentoring, an IDA program matches savings at a fixed rate (from dollar-per-dollar up to three dollars-per-dollar), giving participants a huge incentive to save. There are restrictions on what the matching money may be used for: a down payment on a house, education, a business investment, or perhaps a car. Usually funds are transferred directly from the IDA program to (for example) the mortgage holder for the participant’s new house, to help ensure that it is used for the right things. Again, this requires commitment, but it also requires little overhead. I mentally ran some numbers. My congregation, for instance, could budget $10,000 a year and be able to fund four participants up to $2,000 each, with plenty left over for administrative costs.

The final chapter examines the costs and risks of microfinance – the practice of making very small loans (usually under $500) to third world entrepreneurs. (Many of us know this through the work of Grameen Bank or Kiva.) The authors make the case that this is not usually something churches should directly involve themselves in: not because it’s a bad idea but because for these programs to work they need long-term stability and tough-mindedness: more common traits in banks than in missions.

When Helping Hurts did not answer my every question, but it did point me in several helpful directions. The difference between relief and development. Examples of long-term, small-scale, genuinely helpful development. The theological foundation not only for Christians to care for the poor (a case made best by Tim Keller and Tim Chester, separately) but to do so with humility, respect, and genuine Christian friendship. Loving critique of the misguided ways churches attempt this domesically and abroad. As I mentioned before, I want to do more research on methods of participatory development, but for now I feel that my framework is stronger and my toolchest more useful. The book was intended for use as an individual or group self-study course on poverty alleviation. It would be useful for that. A great deal more information – including resources for implementing an IDA program, – are available from the Chalmers Center’s website.


Review: When Helping Hurts (Part 2)

When Helping Hurts: how to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor … and yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert (Chicago: Moody, 2009)

(Part 2 of my review)

So … what does this look like? While the first half of When Helping Hurts was theoretical or theological in nature, the second is a mixture of critique of common Christian practices intended to alleviate poverty and positive advice on how to actually help.

First, the authors point out that there are basically three stages of poverty alleviation: relief, rehabilitation, and development. Relief is the proper response to a crisis: it is directly handing people urgently needed food, clothing, shelter, medicine, etc. It is what needs to happen immediately after a natural disaster or similar trauma (large scale or small). The right recipients of relief are those who need outside help to survive. It is essentially done for or even to those we are trying to help. Rehabilitation takes place when “the bleeding stops” (104): it is working with crisis victims to restore life to something like a pre-crisis condition. Development is the third stage: a process that moves all concerned – the materially poor and non-poor – to restored relationships, so that they are able “to fulfill their calling of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruits of that work” (105).

According to the authors, the biggest mistake North American churches make when trying to address poverty is providing relief when development is needed. In any context, they say, relief should be given seldom, immediately, and temporarily. To me this gives a helpful (and not terribly flattering) perspective on the poverty outreach efforts of many, many churches in this country, including my own. It is necessary, even in a rich country, for relief to be available. It is wrong to make relief the overwhelming response of Christian churches to poverty in our cities and towns.

Second, the authors insist that any rehabilitation or development program should take place with the involvement and assistance of the poor. We cannot charge ahead listening to a god-complex that tells us that whatever we plan or devise is going to be wiser than the analysis or solutions of those we are trying to help. After all, they got themselves into this mess! But the Gospel destroys our claims to deserve better things than others do. Life itself and every blessing are unmerited gifts. Furthermore, we simply cannot see many of the things that the poor can see about their situation. These facts indicate that at all costs we must “Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves” (115). We have to resist the temptation to provide everything: resources, spiritual leadership, management, knowledge, labor.

The authors are advocates of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). This means that development best starts with the question, “What’s good?” instead of “How can we help?” or, “What’s wrong?” Every community is full of assets – human beings with talents and skills; material resources; traditions and knowledge – many of which can be utilized by that community to deal with its own issues. We should seek to “build and rebuild the relationships among local individuals [and institutions]” (128). Three tools are identified, all of which I intend to investigate more: Asset Mapping; Participatory Learning and Action (PLA); and Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Each of these are ways of asking the community what their gifts and assets are, and inviting them to pursue greater use of them. In To Live in Peace, Mark Gornik describes neighborhood development plans for Sandtown, Baltimore literally being drawn with crayon on a sheet of newsprint in his dining room, by adults and children from the community. That’s the idea. What is good about us and where we live? How could it become even better? (Later) how are our efforts working out?

There’s a lot to like here. It is humble on the part of the people trying to spark development; it recognizes God’s common grace (and in many cases his saving grace) already at work; and best of all it is a legitimate end in itself: impoverished people appreciating God’s gifts and taking steps to change for the better is itself poverty alleviation. Anyone who works with the poor can tell you that a hallmark of poverty is a fatalistic worldview. (This book helped me understand that more clearly as a young teacher.) It is here that I would have liked the authors to slow down and help me see how Gospel mission fits with this process. Tim Chester LINK somewhere mentions that development is an inside-out, community-led process, while knowledge of the Gospel is inherently the introduction or reintroduction of knowledge from the outside. Oh well.

Corbett & Fikkert go after Short-Term Missions, hard. They point out that many STMs bring together a perfect storm of deep cultural misunderstanding, paternalism, and insouciance as to what might actually aid local churches and missions carry out the Great Commission. I’m not prepared to comment on this, except to say that their criticism echoes what I have long heard from missionary friends, that it seems urgent (especially when, as they claim, Americans spent $1.6 billion on STMs in 2006 alone), and that it does not seem to strongly apply to our own denomination’s STM program.

Tomorrow: the juice.

Review: When Helping Hurts (Part 1)

When Helping Hurts: how to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor … and yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert (Chicago: Moody, 2009)

I began reading this book after having a conversation with my wife during which we both wondered whether it was possible to serve the poor without becoming a caseworker. In other words, is friendship possible between people of very different incomes and class backgrounds? We had both seen deeply caring, mature, middle-class Christians “befriend” high-need, poorer people – and seen those relationships degrade over time. Good intentions, but in the end there is no friendship: just charity on one side and perpetual, somewhat shamefaced acceptance of it on the other.

Two other Christian books on community development, To Live in Peace and Restoring At-Risk Communities, discuss this risk – one essay in Restoring At-Risk Communities explicitly warned against a “caseworker mindset.” But what, then, would a genuine friendship between helper and helped look like? When Helping Hurts had been on my shelf for a few months without an attempt at reading it. I thought it was time.

The authors both work for the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College in Georgia. Their approach is humble even though throughout the book they basically call American Christians on the carpet for a literally worldwide pattern of prideful and unhelpful “help.” Fikkert (who is the “first person” through most of the book) recounts his own missteps coming to the aid of an ex-witch doctor in Nairobi’s Kibera Slum, together with his subsequent swollen pride and finally his realization that he had probably hindered longer term blessing for both the individual he helped and the church she belonged to.

Fikkert and Corbett’s important main point is that the task-, project-, and problem-oriented approach of many Christians to poverty ignores the true nature of poverty and tends to reinforce rather than alleviate it – both at home and abroad. Very few people have a full-orbed understanding of poverty, which they take to be a concatenation of broken relationships: with God; with self; with other people; and with the physical world. Poverty is rooted in both individuals (with bad habits, faulty worldviews, and material neediness) and systems (which can oppress, maintain inequality, or simply fail to function correctly).

One important point that Fikkert and Corbett make is that most impoverished people stagger under feelings of shame, helplessness, and fatalism – and an awful lot of well-intentioned “help” only serves to exacerbate this. This totally makes sense to me. The great example of the last half century is the growth of the welfare state in the USA. A single mother could stay on welfare support perpetually; she was effectively penalized for trying to get work; everything around her shouted that nothing in her life would ever change. Every check reinforced that. On a smaller scale, my concessions to someone who visits the church looking for a handout potentially do the same thing. The relationship between me (and our church) and the person receiving the handout is defined: we aren’t friends; we are patron and client. That person knows that this is more or less a trade (not a gift). He gets a tangible good (food, clothing, money, whatever) and I get a “good feeling.” But neither of us actually thinks we have initiated a real friendship or taken any steps toward resolving his problems. Blech. Such an exchange, at the smallest or largest scale, will not tend to help alleviate poverty. Further, it will exacerbate the pride of the materially non-poor and pave the way for more waste of resources, more futility.

(For the theology geeks out there, this makes me think of the differences between John Milbank‘s gift-exchange theory and Oliver O’Donovan‘s communion/communication theology, and favor the latter. That said, Milbank offers is very critical of post-enlightenment altruistic morality. I think I would dig Milbank on this point but I frankly can’t follow the essay.)

Fikkert and Corbett conclude that the proper stance is to come humbly and joyfully stand alongside the poor. “[A]ll 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 t to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us.” (79)

With this perspective we will think less about “projects and products,” and more about “people and processes.” We are all seeking to have our distorted understandings of God, self, others, and the external world corrected. When this happens – at personal and systemic levels – poverty is alleviated. To put it another way, God’s shalom-kingdom breaks in.

Tomorrow: So … what does this look like?