I recently read a book on poverty with some of my coworkers. I work at Children’s Hunger Fund, a nonprofit organization that addresses poverty. The mission of Children’s Hunger Fund is “Delivering hope to suffering children by equipping local churches for gospel-centered mercy ministry.” We read and discussed the book “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. The book was first released in 2009 and has influenced many on how to address poverty. The title of the book is intriguing because it poses a question that I had not thought about, can helping those in poverty hurt others and oneself?
The book begins with a story from one of the authors, Brian. Brian traveled with his family to do mission work in Uganda. While in Uganda, he taught a biblically based small-business curriculum at St. Luke’s Church. He met Elizabeth, the women’s ministries director for one of the local denominations. Elizabeth took him to meet with a witch doctor with whom they shared the gospel. Grace, the witch doctor, became a believer and joined Brian’s class. After a few weeks, Grace was absent from class. Elizabeth and Brian visited her at her slum and found that she was sick. She had tonsillitis and had her tonsils removed by a friend. She was poor and had HIV, and was in need of medicine. The medicine would cost 15,000 Uganda Schillings, about eight US dollars. Brian quickly gave the money, and Grace was healed. Brian was initially joyful that they led a witch doctor to the Lord and even helped heal her. On the way back to the US, he came under guilt and shame for what’s had done. He realized that he might have caused her more harm than good. He said, “My eight dollars removed a chance for St. Luke’s to be what the Bible calls it to be: the body, bride, and fullness of Jesus Christ in this slum. I denied St. Luke’s the chance to declare the good news of the kingdom of God in word and in deed to the “least of these.” This story is important to understanding the book’s major theme, “when helping hurts.”
The book is divided into four sections: 1) Foundational Concepts for Helping Without Hurting, 2) General Principles for Helping Without Hurting, 3) Practical Strategies for Helping Without Hurting, and 4) Getting Started on Helping Without Hurting.
In Part One of the book, the authors make a case that the Church is called to help alleviate poverty. The church is not the only institution that can help, but Christians have a biblical mandate to help (Micah 6:8). He traces God’s heart for the poor in both the Old and New Testaments. I agree with their call for the church to address poverty, although not the church’s primary mission (Matthew 28:19-20). They make two criticisms against the North American Church, 1) the church is not doing enough, and 2) the methods used often do considerably more harm to the materially poor and the materially non-poor. They conclude this section, “It is possible to hurt poor people, and ourselves, in the process of trying to help them.”
They provide important definitions in this first part. They said, “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.” This definition was unclear to me. What is the “absence of shalom in all its meanings?” This leads one to subjective answers. They also emphasize relationships. They talk about individuals’ relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. All people have spiritual poverty, being apart from God. This fundamental relationship needs to be restored; the others may or may not be fully restored in a broken world.
There are two other important definitions. They said, “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.” Then, “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 their work. 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.” They talk about the physical and spiritual dimensions of poverty, providing a holistic approach to addressing poverty.
In part two of the book, the authors talk about the general principles for helping. They explain three ways to help, relief, rehabilitation, and development. These were helpful categories to think about. Relief is the urgent provision for emergency aid to immediate suffering. Rehabilitation begins later when it seeks to restore people to their communities. Lastly, development is the process of ongoing change that moves people involved to be in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. They state that often times the church offers relief when the better approach is rehabilitation or development.
In part three, the authors offer practical strategies for helping without hurting. They spend some time thinking about short-term mission trips and conclude they are ineffective. They see short-term missions as trying to replace development. They also address poverty in America, which can look very different than those internationally. They say, “Poor people in North America could benefit from all the following: the ability to work at jobs with a living wage, the capacity to manage their money, the opportunity to accumulate wealth, and a greater supply of quality education, housing, and health care at affordable rates.” In this part of the book, they also provide some practical business plans that could help alleviate poverty.
In part four, they begin by helping the readers put into practice the principles from previous chapters. They introduce the idea of “gospel-focused, asset-based, participatory development.” They try to develop a methodology for helping rather than just giving material goods. They made a statement, “The Bible does not command mindless “generosity” but rather the use of wisdom and prudence that keeps the end goal in mind: restoration of people to what they were created to be.” They talked about practical ways to help people become self-sufficient with life skills to provide for their families. They emphasize working with communities rather than going in and doing things for them. They see doing for others what they should be doing is causing them harm. They develop a process for engaging with communities to use all the available resources.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I appreciate the holistic approach to poverty, providing spiritual and physical needs and practical business help. At the same time, I found that their definitions and goals were confusing. They were often simplistic and idealistic, reducing poverty to a formula. At times the authors were overthinking helping, such as feeling guilty for doing a good deed. I think they exaggerate “when helping hurts” as they project their convictions on others as if it is the truth of Scripture. This could lead to one thinking that their approach becomes “the” way to address poverty instead of “a” way to address poverty. That being said, there is a lot to learn from this book while at the same time caution to think critically through their arguments and suggestions.