When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself

Over the course of the past decade there has been a remarkable increase in awareness of global poverty issues. While this awareness is exciting on many levels, it has resulted in two trends: first, more people are working to reduce poverty around the world; second, more harm is being done as we endeavor to help others. In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert address the hurt that can be inflicted when we seek to help others.

Both authors serve at The Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College, an initiative designed to encourage churches to help the poor to help themselves. Steve Corbett is assistant professor of community development at Covenant College and serves as a distance learning trainer for the Chalmers Center. Corbett has extensive international development experience, including a number of years with Food for the Hungry International (FHI). Dr. Brian Fikkert is professor of economics and the founder and executive director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College. He obtained a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University, specializing in international economics and economic development.

The authors indicate that while the Christian church has stepped up to poverty issues in the recent past, much more still needs to be done, not least by North American Christians: “There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on” (28). The authors also observe that when Christians do attempt to address poverty issues, they often do considerable harm, both to those being served as those who serve, because of faulty methodology.

When Helping Hurts begins by establishing a solid biblical foundation for understanding the nature of poverty and its alleviation. Following the biblical themes of creation, fall, and redemption, the authors provide an excellent framework for understanding poverty, both internationally as well as domestically. Once this framework is established, the authors guide readers through several general principles for poverty alleviation efforts.

How is poverty to be understood? The question is more complex than it first appears. Perhaps pictures of emaciated Africans come to mind, or destitute Haitians working their way through rubble in the aftermath of the earthquake. Corbett and Fikkert take a different approach to defining poverty. To understand poverty in the light of scripture, we need to return to creation. God created us to be in relationships, and the authors identify four relationships that are essential for life: relationships with the triune God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. When these relationships are functioning properly, humans experience true shalom, and approach the destiny for which God created them. We are able to fulfill our calling to glorify God by working and supporting ourselves and our families with the fruit of our labor.

God the Father created us to be in perfect relationships. The fall damaged each of these four relationships, such that every human now suffers from poverty: poverty of spiritual intimacy with God, poverty of being, poverty of community with others, and poverty of stewardship. No one escapes the effects of the fall; all of humanity is impoverished. The effects of the fall are felt well beyond the individual. Broken relationships—we can call them sinful—have left a mark on the economic, political, social, and religious systems that humans have created.

This understanding of poverty has significant implications for the Christian church, specifically for the way we seek to alleviate poverty. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]