When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty

Introduction (and all that implies)

When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself by Steve Corbett and John Perkins. I heard of this book through a required reading list of a certain Missions organization, purchased it, and recently finished it. 

Though written from a Biblical perspective, the highlights I took away were rooted more in common sense. I don’t mean that negatively, because I did feel this book added an important piece to the overall puzzle of life I’m slowly piecing together.

The following 5 points aren’t necessarily 5 points from the book, just the 5 points of this post (disclaimer). Since I’m currently reading Total Church, the wires are crossed in my brain between these two books.

Main Point 1 (poverty defined)

The first epiphany uncovered was that we (the rich) tend to define poverty in terms of lack of material goods, whereas the poor themselves (when asked to define poverty) do so more in terms of a poverty of “being." In other words: feeling inferior, trapped, humiliated, deprived of opportunities to make significant decisions with their lives – in short, having a lack of dignity.

Following these lines of thought, the author shows how when materially rich people try helping materially poor people through giving handouts, it only exacerbates the problem because of reasons including the following:

  1. Giving handouts makes the receiver a "charity case," and thus can be interpreted as condescending. This would result in the recipient feeling less dignity and, consequently, more impoverished.
  2. It subtly reinforces the “God-complex” of the donor, further widening perceived relational barriers and setting up a benefactor/client relationship instead of an "everyone created with equal worth and dignity" relationship.

At a more personal level, this anecdote from Total Church:

Mrs. Jones, a mother who has lived in poverty all her life, described the experience of poverty like this: “In part it is about having no money, but there is more to poverty than that.  It is about being isolated, unsupported, uneducated and unwanted.  Poor people want to be included and not just judged and ‘rescued’ at times of crisis.”  (pg. 79)

Main Point 2 (serving others vs. cash handouts)

This may sound like splitting hairs, but instead of asking, "How can I help?" perhaps it would be better to ask, "How can I serve?" The difference may be subtle, but serving can give dignity, whereas receiving charity often requires humility on the part of the receiver.

An example showing how serving can enhance dignity, think about how honored you would feel if someone thought so highly of you they offered to willingly be your servant, free of charge! What an ego boost that would be. And this type of serving is something Jesus did for people during his time here on earth. Jesus even said as much, "For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

An example showing how receiving charity requires humility, think about how much humility even receiving God’s gift of salvation requires. Indeed, I speculate this is why most refuse, because it requires their acknowledgment of having a need for a Savior and Lord.  The first step into God’s Kingdom is to become, “Poor in Spirit” (Matthew 5:3).

Main Point 3 (cash handouts OK sometimes)

The point above segues to the following: there IS a time when handouts are appropriate.  As just mentioned, God extends to us the most amazing handout imaginable. Other examples we’re familiar with include times directly after a natural disaster (when a situation is still in the Relief phase) and caring for the very young, very old, and physically/mentally infirm.

Unfortunately, far too often we (well intentioned individuals/organizations) continue in the Relief response long after the situation calls for a Reconstruction response. Reconstruction helps regain pre-disaster conditions via empowering individuals to help themselves.

The final stage is Development.  Ideally this stage is entirely directed, led, and operated by the individual(s) originally needing help. Helping others help themselves is what promotes dignity (the whole, "teach a guy to fish," instead of "giving a guy a fish" concept, yadda yadda).

Main Point 4 (relationships more important than projects)

When Helping Hurts gets into the nitty gritty of Relief vs. Reconstruciton vs. Development and all that entails.  It was quite fascinating, but Tim Chester and Steve Timmis from Total Church get to the heart of the issue and provide real insight here:

…a central theme of the literature on development is the importance of participation.  As a result the development community has created … a collection of methodologies to facilitate community participation… but when development professionals talk about participation, they mean participation in projects.  It is all about working with the poor to identify their problems, to develop solutions, to monitor progress, to evaluate outcomes.  But the poor need more than that… they want to participate in community.  A woman told me, “I know people do a lot to help me.  But what I want is someone to be my friend.”  People do not want to be projects.  The poor need… community.  They need the Christian community.  They need the church.

Main Point 5 (rethinking assessments)

One last insight from the book When Helping Hurts, which I hadn’t thought of before, was the importance of going into a situation providing ASSETS assessments instead of (or at least before) providing NEEDS assessments.

When we approach people by asking what’s wrong with them, it immediately sets us up as “expert” and them as “helpless waifs” needing our rescuing. This reinforces negative poverty mindsets.

When I volunteered with our local Red Cross, I performed many Needs assessments. In retrospect, I see how this one bit of advice could save the Red Cross a lot of money. For instance, we frequently put people up in hotels after their house had caught fire when they probably had family or friends who could have housed them (we did at least check with their home insurance first).

Conclusion (wrapping up loose ends)

At the end of the day, the authors of When Helping Hurts feel that in order to rehabilitate an impoverished people group (or solitary individual), there is no "fast-food" answer. Rather, it involves getting in the trenches, helping them see their own worth, their own assets, and inspiring them forward.

Additionally, long-term solutions are only realized when the spiritual component is considered.  Being reconciled with God is the most important factor for long term success, in my opinion.  Only God can give true freedom.  And we can never grasp our priceless worth until we understand the priceless amount Jesus paid for us.