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.

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One thought on “Review: When Helping Hurts (Part 3)

  1. Great material! I thoroughly enjoyed your review. It’s ramblings and side notes were rich as well. It struck me recently, when listening to a sermon on John 12:1-10, that Christ’s scathing response to Mary’s critics links her ministry to his body with their (neglected) ministry to the poor. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (7-8) By exposing the hypocrisy of their desire (no doubt genuinely felt) that the money should have gone to the poor, Christ is saying, in effect, “As she now cares for my body with genuine love, may you one day begin to care for the poor (my body, Matthew 25:35-40) with genuine love.”

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