Book Review: When Helping Hurts

“When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

There is so much brokenness in this world. Even here in America, we can see that things are not as they should be. Marriages end. Children are abused. Crimes go unpunished and the innocent often suffer. Babies are aborted by the millions.

When we leave our borders, this brokenness becomes even more magnified as we encounter billions of people living in abject poverty, without access to the basic needs for human survival. Every day, people die by the thousands due to starvation and preventable disease. While many look away, choosing to remain ignorant of these problems, most people — Christian and non-Christians alike — are stirred to compassion when confronted with human suffering. We want to help in any way we can.

But is it possible that our helping might really be hurting?

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert say that it often does. Due to “poverty-alleviation strategies that are grounded in unbiblical assumptions about the nature of poverty,” many churches and relief organizations actually contribute to the poverty problem through their well-meaning attempts to minister to the poor. This book aims to point out and correct these assumptions, and to offer a more effective model for poverty alleviation.

To minister effectively to those afflicted with poverty, we must have a firmly biblical worldview, and be able to communicate it to the poor. This means having a right understanding of who Jesus is, why He came, why He cares so much for the poor, and why Christians, as part of Christ’s body, are to love and care for the poor as well.

We must also have a better definition of “poverty”. Too often, we narrowly define it as a lack of material possessions, but the authors define poverty in light of the Fall. God created the world and declared it “good”, but when Adam sinned, everything changed. Pain, shame, and death entered the world. The ground was cursed. Worst of all, the perfect fellowship that Adam and Eve had shared with God was broken.

The book focuses on the Fall’s manifestations in four types of broken relationships, which result in four types of poverty. The first is Man’s relationship to himself, which leads to a “poverty of being.” Rather than having a right view of himself, Man thinks either too much of himself (a “god-complex”) or too little (low self-esteem). The second is Man’s relationship with others, which leads to a “poverty of community.” People become self-centered, exploiting and abusing others. The third is Man’s relationship with Creation, which leads to a “poverty of stewardship.” Without a proper understanding of work (which existed before the Fall and is therefore “good”) and of Man’s God-given responsibility to exercise dominion over all the earth (Genesis 1:26-28), this sort of poverty manifests itself in laziness (and in “workaholics”), materialism, misuse of resources, and a lost sense of purpose. Finally, Man’s relationship with God is broken, which leads to a “poverty of spiritual intimacy.” The “default mode” for humanity is separation from God, so many worship false gods and idols, while others deny God’s existence and authority.

Furthermore, all of these broken relationships together lead to four broken world systems, which affect everyone in the world, and lie largely out of the control of the individual. These are the economic system, the political system, the religious system, and the social system. All of these broken relationships and broken systems contribute to the vast problem of material poverty; it is a much more complex problem that at first it appears. At its root, though, is sin, which is why Christians are the only ones truly able to alleviate poverty. Jesus Christ is the great Reconciler of these broken relationships, and He has given to us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

This view of poverty begs the need for a holistic method of poverty-alleviation. We must find a way to help meet the needs of the materially poor without contributing to their poverties of being, community, stewardship, and spiritual intimacy. When we merely provide material things for the poor, we are actually making things worse for them and for ourselves if we do not address the root causes of their — and our— poverty.

The greatest mistake that most Christians and relief organizations make is a failure to identify the best way to help. The authors describe three types of aid: Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development. Relief is “the urgent and temporary provision of aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis.” Rehabilitation “seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions.” Development is “a process of ongoing change that moves all people involved — both the ‘helpers’ and the ‘helped’ — closer to being in a right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of Creation.”

Most poverty-alleviation efforts concentrate on providing Relief, which is actually the least-commonly needed type of aid. What is most needed, and most effective for producing long-term improvement in the conditions of the materially poor, is Development. This is also the most difficult and costly, requiring years of dedication and relationship-building.

The focus is on a participatory approach, in which those providing aid work with the poor, rather than doing things to them or for them. In addition to helping to equip the poor with the skills and resources to care for themselves, this approach – by including the poor in the decision-making process and in every step of the work to be done – grants them a sense of dignity, as opposed to when the materially non-poor fly in to “save the day”, implicitly engendering a sense of superiority/inferiority in both the poor and the helper.

The authors identify several problems inherent in “Short-Term Mission Trips”, which have become exceedingly popular in the last 20 years (for instance, in 2006 alone, over 2.2 million Americans went on STM’s, spending in excess of $1.6 billion on these trips). Too often, these trips become a “right of passage” for young Christians; something we check off our list of things good Christians do. Sometimes, STM’s are marketed for their opportunities for sightseeing, or as a way to give students a taste of what poverty looks like. In other words, the focus is more often on the missionary than on the people supposedly being served.

A better approach to STM’s (which are not all harmful) is when Christians travel to work as part of a team with those who are working in long-term or vocational missions with the people. Furthermore, mission-minded Christians should look first of all to meeting needs in their own vicinity, rather than looking first at foreign missions. Yes, foreign missions are valuable and necessary, but we must not ignore the need in our own neighborhoods. As the authors state, “while all Christians have a responsibility to help the poor, there is enormous diversity in the ways that each Christian is to fulfill this biblical mandate.” STM’s are rarely the best way to do so.

A great example of the type of STM work that the authors exemplify as being effective is the work done by Partners in Missions International, a local group headed by SSBC member Bob Ward, which frequently takes small groups of Christians on STM trips to work as part of a long-term effort to support local churches in rural Romania. The focus is always on relationship-building and evangelism, as American Christians work right alongside their Romanian brothers and sisters.

This is a book that will challenge every reader, and will make many uncomfortable. It cuts right to the heart of many things we have believed in our churches for a long time that may not actually be true. It is a must-read for anyone who has ever participated in short-term missions, or has a desire to do so in the future. My own personal assumptions were put to the test, and I have learned that I have much to re-think in terms of what real Christian “missions” look like. Buy it here.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; Behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors of Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. ~ 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

3 comments on “Book Review: When Helping Hurts

  1. Emily Williams says:

    Good post John. Sounds like a good (and much needed book). I have heard similar things on this subject and agree that many of our current systems for helping the poor do more harm than good. Thanks for bringing this to mind again. 🙂

  2. […] Christians know that motivation matters. God cares about why we do things, not just what we do. Yet Richards writes, “Spiritually you’re better off a little mixed up about economics than indifferent to human suffering. Economically, though, only what you do is important, whatever your reason.” Christians are especially susceptible to believe that our good intentions to help the poor trump our methods, and so we often fail to consider the consequences (intended or not) of our efforts to alleviate poverty. Richards takes a look at a few of these well-intentioned actions (a “living wage”, fair trade, foreign aid, government-run welfare, etc) and shows that the net effect of these is almost always an increase in poverty. For more on this topic, check out Fikkert and Corbett’s When Helping Hurts. […]

  3. […] format! It’s been one of the most influential books I’ve read in the last few years (my review), so I really hope that David Platt’s involvement in the new edition will put it in front of […]

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