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.


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