CorWhen 09-09-144

When Helping Hurts

How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself


Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert

Moody, 2009, 330 pp.,  ISBN 978-0-8024-5706-9



Steve Corbett worked for several years with a major relief and development agency.  He is the community development specialist for the Chalmers Center for Economic Development and an assistant professor at Covenant College.  Brian Fikkert is an associate professor of economics at Covenant College and the founder and executive director of the Chalmers Center at Covenant College. 


Showing compassion to the poor is part of our job description as followers of Jesus, but there is great diversity in ways to do it.  This book focuses on appropriate ways for Christian congregations to help the poor.  The first part discusses the fundamental nature of poverty.  Part 2 discusses key issues to consider in poverty alleviation and part 3 applies these concepts to economic development. 


The last few years have seen a major upswing in social concern among American evangelicals, including the exploding short-term missions that focus on ministering to the poor. (27)  The authors suggest that we are not doing nearly enough and that we are doing much of it wrong, exacerbating the problems we are trying to solve. (28)


Part 1.  Foundational Concepts for Helping without Hurting

Chapter 1.  Why did Jesus come to Earth?

The answer given is Luke 4:17-21.  It is true that Jesus came to save us from our sins, but "saving souls is only a subset of the comprehensive healing of the entire cosmos that Jesus' kingdom brings and that was the centerpiece of His message."   "Jesus is making all things new!  This is the good news of the gospel."  (33)  [Other Scriptures also answer this question, e.g. John 3:16.  However, if it seems that this section downplays eternal life, withhold judgment until later. Dlm]  


"The task of God's people is rooted in Christ's mission … to preach the good news of the kingdom in word and in deed … particularly … in spreading the good news among the hurting, the weak, and the poor." (38)  


Why was God so displeased with Israel?  Because of Israel's failure to care for the poor and oppressed (Isa. 58:1-3, 5-10).  [This is a very partial explanation.  All the books about the kings and prophets repeatedly warn Israel that their primary sin is the worship of false gods, breaking the first and second commandments. Just two examples from today’s Bible reading: “But they were unfaithful to the God of their fathers and prostituted themselves to the gods of the people of the land….” I Chron 5:25, and “The people of Judah were taken captive to Babylon because of their unfaithfulness.” I Chron 9:1b. dlm]  "Personal piety and formal worship are essential to the Christian life, but they must lead to lives that 'act justly and love mercy' (Mic. 6:8)."  (41)


About 1 billion people live on less than one dollar a day and 2.6 billion (~ 40%) live on less than $2 per day.  This compares to the average American that lives on more than $90 dollars per day! 


Chapter 2.  What's the Problem?

Poor people tend to describe their condition in terms of "shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness."  The mismatch between our perceptions and theirs can be devastating for relief efforts. (53)  Solutions must go beyond the material.  We devise our strategies based on our understanding of the causes.  If we misdiagnose, we likely do harm.  If we think the cause is lack of knowledge, we will educate.  If we think it oppression, we will work for social justice.  If we think it is their sins, we will disciple.  If we think the cause is lack of resources, we will give them resources.  The underlying diseases are not always clear.  And the people themselves may not always know or be completely honest with themselves.  A sound diagnosis may lead to a very long, time-consuming solution.  (55)


"Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.  Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings." (62) 


While God's good creation is deeply distorted, it retains some of its inherent goodness.  Both poor individuals and communities exhibit God-given gifts and assets.  At the same time, "every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship."  (62-3)  "One of the major premises of this book is that until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good." (64)  "…the economically rich often have 'god-complexes,' a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority…." (65)  "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." (65) 


"North American Christians need to overcome the materialism of Western culture and see poverty in more relational terms." (68)  The distinguishing feature of poverty is being trapped by multiple-interconnected factors that prevent them from making meaningful choices.  (71) 


Chapter 3.  Are We There Yet?  (What is success?)

Our concept of success, or the goal, shapes our methods. 


"Poverty is rooted in broken relationships, so the solution to poverty is rooted in the power of Jesus' death and resurrection to put all things into right relationship again." (77)  Jesus' work focuses on 'reconciliation. 


Definition.  "Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation." (78) 


"Reconciliation of relationships is the guiding compass for our poverty alleviation efforts…." (78)  "The goal is not to make the materially poor all over the world into middle-to-upper-class North Americans, a group characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness. … The goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be, people who glorify God…." (78)


More than ensuring that people have enough material things, it includes the harder task of empowering people to earn what they need through their own labor.  (79)  


"None of the foundational relationships can experience fundamental and lasting change without a person becoming a new creature in Christ Jesus." (80)  "…we cannot hope for the transformation of people without the involvement of the local church and the verbal proclamation of the gospel that has been entrusted to it." (81) 


The restoration of people tends "to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused ministries." (81) 


Redemption is cosmic in scope, "bringing reconciliation to both individuals and systems." (84) 


Distorted worldviews, untransformed hearts, and broken systems are central issues.  Faulty worldviews can be key obstacles.  Worldview transformation must play a central role in the design or our ministries.  (Governments are usually not good donors for biblical worldview transformation.)  Our own modernist and postmodernist worldviews resulting in secularism, materialism, and relativism need transformation as well.  (88) 


"The goal is for everyone involved to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, not just to increase people's incomes."  Failing to root a curriculum in an explicitly biblical worldview can be devastating, even if people successfully get jobs and increase their income.  (95)


"The influence of postmodernism is making many North American Christians fearful of engaging in evangelism and discipleship activities, lest they be imposing their culturally bound interpretation of Scripture onto other cultures."  (96)


Part 2.  General Principles for Helping without Hurting

Chapter 4.  Not all Poverty is Created Equal

Does the situation call for relief, rehabilitation, or development?  Failure to distinguish the situation is a common reason efforts do harm.  Relief is an urgent and temporary situation requiring emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a crisis.  Relief must be immediate and temporary.  Rehabilitation begins as soon as the bleeding stops and seeks to restore the positive parts of the pre-crisis conditions.  Development is a process of ongoing change.


"Development is not done to people or for people but with people.  The key dynamic…is promoting an empowering process…."  (105)


"One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make -- by far -- is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention." (105)


"Moreover, the entire goal of development work is for local people to take charge of their individual lives and communities."  "If they need help, give it; but if they do not, your giving may do harm." (112) 


"Avoid Paternalism.  Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves." (115)


"Remember, the goal is not to produce houses or other material goods but to pursue a process of walking with the materially poor so that they are better stewards of their lives and communities, including their own material needs." (119)


Most organizations focus on relief because 1) they have a material definition of poverty, 2) it is easier and quicker than development and 3) it is easier to raise funds for it.  But even though working with the poor through relationships is much longer term, the church is to be about developing and growing people through long-term discipleship.  (120) 


Chapter 5.  Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, and Their Assets

Instead of starting with people's needs (What's wrong with you and how can I fix you?), begin discovering the assets of the community.  Asking what gifts and resources they have affirms their dignity and contributes to overcoming their poverty of being.  "By starting with what is right, we can change the dynamics that have marred the self-image of low-income people….  Once the assets have been identified, it is appropriate to then ask…what needs can you identify that must be addressed?"  "But gauging the appropriate magnitude and timing of … outside resources takes an enormous amount of wisdom.  It is crucial that such outside resources do not undermine the willingness or the ability of the poor individual or community to be stewards of their own gifts and resources." (127) 


"The North American need for speed undermines the slow process needed for lasting and effective long-run development." (131)


Chapter 6.  McDevelopment: Over 2.5 Billion People NOT Served

One reason for slow progress is inadequate participation of poor people in the process.  A blueprint approach may appear efficient, but imposed solutions are often inconsistent with local culture, not embraced by the community, or ineffective.  What works in Kansas may not work in Latin America. 


Poor people are more likely to own a project if they are full participants from the beginning.  They really do know a lot and it is foolish to ignore their insights.  But it takes more time. 


"Participation is not just the means to an end but rather a legitimate end in its own right." (145)    


"The crucial thing is to help people understand their identity as image bearers, to love their neighbors as themselves, to be stewards over God's creation, and to bring glory to God in all things." (145)


The authors provide a participatory continuum that is worth review (148):


      Coercion                                   Doing To

      Compliance                             Doing For

      Consultation                           Doing For

      Cooperation                            Doing With

      Co-Learning                            Doing With

      Community Initiated           Responding To


The appropriate nature and degree of participation depends on a host of contextual factors.  Seek the highest level of participation possible in each situation. (150) 


"Deep and lasting change takes time.  In fact, fully engaging the poor in a participatory process takes lots of time.  But if donors do not want the equipment to rust in the fields, they are going to have to accept a slower process, a process in which the poor are empowered to decide whether or not they even want the equipment in the first place." (152) 


Part 3.  Practical Strategies for Helping without Hurting

Chapter 7.  Doing Short-Term Missions Without Doing Long-Term Harm

The elephant and mouse had a party.  There was lots of dancing.  When it was over, the mouse had been crushed.  Sometimes STM teams dance like elephants and are unaware of what happens when culture and value systems collide.  (162)  North Americans are from an extreme culture, at the far end of the continua, with very different perceptions than many recipient communities.  


"Very few STM trips are done in situations in which relief is the appropriate intervention."  Relief is often pursued, even though it is seldom the appropriate intervention.  Chronic problems need long-term development.  (166)  STMS have very limited time, but development is not about getting things done quickly.  "Development is a lifelong process, not a two-week product." (168)


A good STM trip is "done as part of a long-term, asset-based, development approach being implemented by local ministries." (170)  The community or church that receives the STM must be the primary entity, requesting the team, deciding what should be done and how it should be done. 


"The primary questions concerning STMS to poor communities need to focus on the impacts of the trips on those communities.  It is not about us.  It is about them!"  (172)


"The money spent on a single STM team for a one- to two-week experience would be sufficient to support more than a dozen far more effective indigenous workers for an entire year.  And we complain about wasteful government spending!  The profound stewardship issues here should not be glossed over." (173)


"While higher impact strategies may provide less satisfaction than STMs for the giver in terms of 'personal involvement or connection,' isn't it a great modeling of the gospel to die to self so that others might benefit?" (173)


Improving STMs.  Design the trip to be about being and learning as much as doing.  Do not do for people what they can do for themselves.  "Require potential trip members to demonstrate a serious interest in missions by being active in their church and its local outreach efforts."  "The post-trip learning is absolutely crucial."  (178) 


Chapter 8.  Yes, In Your Backyard

"For the first time in U.S. history, more poor people live in suburbs than in cities." (183)


Chapter 9.  And to the Ends of the Earth

The systems are broken for poor people in the Majority World.  The gospel…must be clearly presented and modeled in all poverty-alleviation strategies.  Three types of microfinance systems are described. 




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Your comments and book recommendations are welcome.