When Helping Hurts (my own recommendation)

I’m usually not the first of my friends to read a certain book. I typically read books only after others I trust have read them first and then recommend them to me as a good book. Why spend several hours reading a book only to discover that it was mostly a waste of time? A lot of books are mostly a waste of time. So a good book recommendation from trusted readers is the key to maximizing reading time.

And that’s why I recently read “When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves,” by Steve Corbett (It is also available on Kindle here). If you are a regular reader of Every Square Inch (ESI), then you probably remember Keith Simon recommending this book in two blog entries: January 28 and February 4. Based upon Keith’s and others’ advice, I decided to invest several hours of my precious reading time to see why they liked this book so much. Now I’m the second blog contributor at ESI to tout this excellent book.
Anyone who cares about helping the poor (which should be every Christian) would be wise to read this book. I found it both motivating and educational. It motivated me to get rid of some of the cynicism that has built up in my heart as a result of years of trying to help but then being disappointed when feeling like I’d only been taken advantage of. And it educated me on how churches and caring individuals can actually HELP the poor rather than enabling them to remain in their poverty. In the blogs Keith wrote already about this book (click on the dates above to read them), he explained its key ideas. No need for me to repeat all that here. But what I’d like to do is simply share a couple of selected blurbs as some examples of why this book is interesting and helpful.

When a sick person goes to the doctor, the doctor could make two crucial mistakes: (1) Treating symptoms instead of the underlying illness; (2) Misdiagnosing the underlying illness and prescribing the wrong medicine. Either one of these mistakes will result in the patient not getting better and possibly getting worse. The same is true when we work with poor people. If we treat only the symptoms or if we misdiagnose the underlying problem, we will not improve their situation, and we might actually make their lives worse.

Similarly, consider the familiar case of the person who comes to your church asking for help with paying an electric bill. On the surface, it appears that this person’s problem is a lack of material resources, and many churches respond by giving this person enough money to pay the electric bill. But what if this person’s fundamental problem is not having the self-discipline to keep a stable job? Simply giving this person money is treating the symptoms rather than the underlying disease and will enable him to continue with his lack of self-discipline. In this case, the gift of the money does more harm than good, and it would be better not to do anything at all than to give this handout. Really! Instead, a better—and far more costly—solution would be for your church to develop a relationship with this person, a relationship that says, “We are here to walk with you and to help you use your gifts and abilities to avoid being in this situation in the future. Let us into your life and let us work with you to determine the reason you are in this predicament.”

Like all of us, poor people are not fully aware of all that is affecting their lives, and, like all of us, poor people are not always completely honest with themselves or with others. And even after a sound diagnosis is made, it may take years to help people to overcome their problems. There will likely be lots of ups and downs in the relationship. It all sounds very time-consuming, and it is. “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (Isa. 58:10, italics added). “Spending yourself” often involves more than giving a handout to a poor person, a handout that may very well do more harm than good.

…The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates—albeit unintentionally—that we are superior and they are inferior. In the process we hurt the poor and ourselves. And here is the clincher: this dynamic is likely to be particularly strong whenever middle-to-upper-class, North American Christians try to help the poor, given these Christians’ tendency toward a Western, materialistic perspective of the nature of poverty.

…Many of the people coming to your church for help will state that they are in a crisis, needing emergency financial help for utility bills, rent, food, or transportation. …Is relief the appropriate intervention for such a person? Maybe, but maybe not. There are several things to consider. First, is there really a crisis at hand? If you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences? If not, then relief is not the appropriate intervention, for there is time for the person to take actions on his own behalf. Second, to what degree was the individual personally responsible for the crisis? Of course, compassion and understanding are in order here, especially when one remembers the systemic factors that can play a role in poverty. But it is still important to consider the person’s own culpability in the situation, as allowing people to feel some of the pain resulting from any irresponsible behavior on their part can be part of the “tough love” needed to facilitate the reconciliation of poverty alleviation. The point is not to punish the person for any mistakes or sins he has committed but to ensure that the appropriate lessons are being learned in the situation. Third, can the person help himself? If so, then a pure handout is almost never appropriate, as it undermines the person’s capacity to be a steward of his own resources and abilities. Fourth, to what extent has this person already been receiving relief from you or others in the past? How likely is he to be receiving such help in the future? As special as your church is, it might not be the first stop on the train! This person may be obtaining “emergency” assistance from one church or organization after another, so that your “just-this-onetime gift” might be the tenth such gift the person has recently received.

…Who is [truly in need of a handout]? It is unlikely that you know many people in this category, for the reality is that only a small percentage of the poor in your community or around the world require relief. These would include the severely disabled; some of the elderly; very young, orphaned children; the mentally ill homeless population; and victims of a natural disaster. People in these categories are often unable to do anything to help themselves and need the handouts of relief. However, for most people, the bleeding has stopped, and they are not destitute. Acting as though they are destitute does more harm than good, both to them and to ourselves. This does not mean that we should do nothing to help those who are not destitute. It just means that rehabilitation or development—not relief—is the appropriate way of helping such people. This help could very well include providing them with financial assistance, but such assistance would be conditional upon and supportive of their being productive.

…The sprawling Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, is believed to be the largest slum in Africa. Development workers commonly refer to Kibera as “scorched earth,” because decades of well-meaning outside organizations have made it nearly impossible to do long-lasting development work there. Failing to recognize that the appropriate intervention in Kibera is neither relief nor rehabilitation, outside organizations have poured in financial and human resources, crippling local initiative in the process. Alvin Mbola, a Kenyan community development worker who tries to build up the indigenous churches in Kibera, describes the situation as follows: To many people, the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya is a place with no equals. It is filthy, congested, degraded, and unfit for human habitation. Like the proverbial scriptural reference to the birth place of Jesus Christ, many people believe that “nothing good can come out of Kibera.” Therefore, most remedies directed towards Kibera are motivated by the sympathy of outsiders, who often give handouts in an attempt to cushion the residents against their perceived, gigantic problems.

In reality, many of the problems of Kibera stem from chronic issues that can only be solved through a consistent and long-term relationship between the change agent and the residents. Changes within individuals and communities are not instantaneous; long-term relationships are needed to bring out the best of “what is” and of “what could be.” The people in Kibera have capacities, skills and resources that need to be tapped if genuine development is to be realized, but the process of identifying and mobilizing these gifts and assets takes time. Unfortunately, for many years non-government organizations working in Kibera have tended to operate on the basis of “quick fixes.” Frustrations set in because changes in individuals are not forthcoming as quickly as anticipated. Many of these organizations then either close down or move to other parts of the country, leaving people in a worse situation than they were before. In the process, individual and community lives have been devastated. It appears that many donors are willing to give to any venture as long as they see pictures of “dilapidated” Kibera. . . .

Of course, there are some occasions in which there is a need for relief work in Kibera. For example, often times there are fire breakouts where houses and business premises are gutted down. It might be necessary to bring in outside resources to provide relief and to rehabilitate these homes and businesses. But even in these situations, caution should be taken so that the relief efforts are not prolonged to the point in which they undermine local people’s stewardship of their own lives and communities.

The root issue in all of these considerations is that God, who is a worker, ordained work so that humans could worship Him through their work. Relief efforts applied inappropriately often cause the beneficiaries to abstain from work, thereby limiting their relationship with God through distorted worship or through no worship at all.

Avoid Paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves. Memorize this, recite it under your breath all day long, and wear it like a garland around your neck. Every time you are engaged in poverty-alleviation ministry, keep this at the forefront of your mind, for it can keep you from doing all sorts of harm.

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