About This Blog

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"When Helping Hurts" (Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert)

TITLE: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself
AUTHOR: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012, (288 pages).

This book is poised to turn the conventional thinking about helping the poor on its head. In fact, how we define poverty will determine how we address and help alleviate the poverty. A misdiagnosis will not only fail to help the needy, it hurts them. Good intentions are not enough. We need good thinking too. Short-term help must remain short-term. Never help those who can help themselves. Desiring to help is good. Exercising wisdom in helping is better.

Corbett and Fikkert have given us a powerful resource in empowering the helper to help others without hurting them. You may be asking. How can charity ever harm people? The key is, when we fail to help them to help themselves, we are simply making them depend on us, and produce a cycle of codependency. If their poverty and neediness grow worse after our help, then we have not helped them. We have harmed them, especially when our help efforts becomes some kind of a narcotic for them.

Wisdom is needed to help the poor and the needy. Written in four parts, this book attempts to give readers the basics in learning to help in a constructive and beneficial way, for the poor. Beginning with the story of Mzungu, the witch doctor, the authors try to argue at the onset that we cannot help others on the basis of our contexts and culture. We may have the material goods, but others may need something more than material goods. Love.

We need to understand the other party's contexts and culture first. The two key convictions the writers have are, first, North Americans Christians are not doing enough to help. Second. many are helping it the wrong way.

Part One goes into the foundational concepts of help, linking Christian help with the gospel of the kingdom. It asks three basic questions.

  1. Why did Jesus come to Earth?
    Here, the authors attempt to expand our understanding of social help as part of kingdom witness. The task of the Church is to be available to help free people from the vicious cycles of poverty. Social responsibility must remain a core part of the Church, that has too often placed inner spiritual concerns and ignore external social concerns.
  2. What's the problem about poverty and our understanding of the vicious poverty cycle?
    The poor in various contexts understand poverty in different terms. For instance, when poor people mention a lack of material things, what they need is also a sense of dignity, a need for relationship, and other non-material concerns. "Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness." (51) 
  3. Do we have a correct sense of poverty alleviation?
    It is important to understand that poverty is rooted in broken relationships, and a key part of wanting to help is reconciliation to God, to fellow people, and to society at large. Such reconciliation can only happen when it is rooted in the power of hope in Christ's resurrection. 

Part Two works out some general principles for helping without hurting. It gives an insightful 1 to 3 markers, to help us match the need with the appropriate resource. If it is a need for crisis relief (Category 1), the resource must be immediate, seldom, and temporary. If it is a need for rehabilitation (Category 2), ensure adequate participation by all, assessment, target assistance, and appropriate resource workers. If it is a need for development (Category 3), the proper long term training and empowerment can be employed. The trouble with many is that they fail to correctly identify which category of help is present, and thus, erroneously assign help resources.

A good rule of thumb in cutting through all the confusions is to "avoid paternalism." Simply put, do not help others on things that they can help themselves. Other principles include the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) that affirms the dignity of the poor, and empower them to stand up for themselves. The four key elements are:
  1. Identifying strengths and gifts of the needy
  2. Look for resources within them
  3. Help them build links with local communities
  4. Only when necessary, bring foreign help.

When helping any group, it is important to contextualize rather than rely on a blueprint that others have used. What is success in one context may become failure in another. This is because every situation and people group is different.

Part Three showcases some practical strategies, to help communities both globally and locally. For foreign lands, the authors show how short-term missions can be helpfully done. It requires careful design by the organizers familiar with the field. Teams need to be trained and screened. Expectations must be managed. Learn to be more intentional in blessing others rather than pandering to our own perceptions. For local places, learn to pay attention to broken systems and broken individuals. Recognize the skills needed to find work and to remain employed. There are tips on wealth, housing, healthcare, education, and various ministries. Other strategies include microfinancing where the poor are given small loans with certain collateral. The North American Church can train, or subsidize training. They can assist by complementing agencies familiar with the culture. They can be an advocate.

Part Four provides practical steps to begin help. Five principles are proposed.
  1. Foster triggers for human change
  2. Mobilize supportive people
  3. Look for early, recognizable success
  4. Learn the context as you go
  5. Start with the people most receptive to change.
Finally, the most important step is our own sense of repentance, and humility. We help people from the position of humility and brokenness. Only when we repent of our stubborn and erroneous, even arrogant ways of thinking Only when we repent, we become helped people being equipped to help others.  This means we learn to be humble to learn and re-learn what it means to help. It takes a broken person who has found healing, to help another broken person to find healing.

My Thoughts

The Bible has said that we loved because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). In a similar spirit, we helped because God first helped us. We reach out because God first reached out to us. This is what true help is about. We look at the needy and the poor from the eyes of God, rather than based on our material plenty or rich position of power.

In many ways, this book is similar to "Toxic Charity," which is also a book of the same genre of helping others without hurting them. It is similar in its arguments against wrong kinds of help, especially the ones that turns help into codependency. Unlike Robert Lupton's book, "When Helping Hurts" is written specifically for the Church and the Christian community. There are many biblical references and data on Christian help groups and Christian concerns. It is a book written by Christians for Christians. More specifically, it is for North American churches who want to help, but are not exactly sure how to help without hurting. The "Initial Thoughts" page at the beginning of each chapter is there to help readers to first take a snapshot of their perception of help. At the end of the chapter, the reflection questions help us track our Before/After picture. There are practical tips and exercises to encourage the reader to go beyond simply reading the book. I like the way the authors have defined poverty alleviation.

"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....
........ Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work."

This is a book useful for preaching and teaching. Pastors will benefit by giving their churches some guidance with regards to charitable giving, especially with Christmas around the corner. Teachers can help their students to dig deeper into the Word, and to exercise practical living beyond the classroom. With the rising affluence of the North American Church, and the growing rich-poor divide between the haves and the have-nots, may we learn to play our part not only to help, but to help without harming the poor. It is our responsibility that they have their rights to basic dignity, goods and services.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5


This book is provided to me free by Moody Publishers without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

No comments:

Post a Comment