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?

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