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. Poverty alleviation ought to be much more comprehensive than addressing material poverty. Poverty alleviation, at its roots, is about restoring right relationships, with God, self, others, and creation.

Having looked at the perfect creation and the fall and its negative effect on relationships, the authors also examine how these relationships are being redeemed. Ultimately, poverty alleviation is the work of Jesus Christ. “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). There is a clear recognition that this reconciliation is already beginning today, but will not be fully realized until the final coming of Christ.

Our calling today is to be agents of reconciliation, and the authors cite 2 Corinthians 5:17–20a:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

The goal, therefore, in poverty alleviation is not to relocate the materially poor from tin shacks to nicely manicured brick bungalows. Those who live in the brick bungalows, the authors wisely observe, suffer higher rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness than their materially poor counterparts.

After providing a new understanding of poverty and how to alleviate it, Corbett and Fikkert address the differences between relief, rehabilitation, and development. These must be properly distinguished because the responses necessary at each level are radically different. A wrong response could inflict tremendous hurt. The biggest blunder committed is that relief is offered when rehabilitation or development is needed. This often occurs when North Americans want to help immediately at the first sight of a need. This, unfortunately, leads to paternalism: doing things that the objects of help can do themselves.

The authors apply this discussion to the phenomena of short-term mission trips. These trips, if not coordinated well, can hurt a local community because they can deprive able-bodied locals of work they can do. Excellent suggestions are provided on how to complete short-term trips without doing long-term harm.

Along with warnings against paternalism, the book also cautions its readers against “blueprint” approaches to development work, and strongly suggests a more participatory approach. These principles apply to labor internationally as well as domestically.

This book will prove worthwhile for educators and schools intent on extending their interest and relevance into the global world. Designed to be studied by groups, this book would make a great read for a global partnership committee, development committee, student group, or mission committee. Each chapter begins with a set of introductory questions and ends with both reflective questions and exercises.

A mature understanding of the creation, fall, and redemptive narrative of scripture is important as it relates to poverty, chiefly because it equates us all as sinners in need of reconciliation. Too often North Americans pursue projects with what the authors call a “god complex,” a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority, due in large part to the possession of material wealth, for which repentance is necessary and forgiveness available. Educators can communicate a rich understanding that we all need the redemptive work of the cross: “You are not well, and neither am I, but Jesus can fix us both.”

I see tremendous value in encouraging educators and schools to partner with a responsible and effective mission or development agency. In many cases, the staff have experience and expertise of the issues identified in When Helping Hurts. The necessity of contributing to projects in a long-term context is paramount, and many organizations can assist groups to do this. The temptation to offer quick fixes without concern for long-term sustainability must be resisted. Moreover, many organizations have connections to indigenous leadership, who can ensure that the projects are owned and operated by indigenous people.

In conclusion, this is a must-read for educators looking to alleviate poverty, either internationally or domestically. One’s understanding of poverty will be revolutionized, but the harm typically done to oneself and the people one serves to help in poverty alleviation projects will be dramatically reduced.