Well-meaning, good-hearted people can do a lot of damage.
For the past year, I’ve served in a volunteer program that seeks social justice for the marginalized and disadvantaged. It’s been a challenging year, including times when I’ve wondered how much good I was really doing.
Recently a friend introduced me to the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Someone had recommended it to her as a must-read for every missionary. After reading the book, I would add that it’s a must-read for anyone in ministry, social service, political office, or non-profit community organization. Correct that to anyone who sees, knows, or contacts poor people. If panhandlers wait on street corners of your city, you should read When Helping Hurts.
Corbett and Fikkert teach economics and community development at Covenant College as well as have leadership roles in the Chalmers Center for economic development. Their book starts with the premise that people who try to help the poor often result in causing more harm than good. They explain that poverty has much less to do with a material problem than it is a relational problem.
According to the authors, poverty occurs in four foundational relationships: with God, with self, with other people, and with the rest of creation. They write, “Due to the comprehensive nature of the fall, every human being is poor in the sense of not experiencing these four relationships in the way that God intended.”
This worldview turns out to be key to resolving poverty. The authors circle back several times to the universal poverty inherent in every human being. They argue that we cannot hope to tackle the causes of poverty unless we’re able to first admit its presence in our own lives.
Once we can begin our healing, then we can move forward in healing others.
The other major worldview shift comes with recognizing different situations require different kinds of help. The authors divide help into three categories: relief, rehabilitation, and development. To grasp the different levels of help, imagine a tsunami destroying an impoverished community.
Relief: provide “first aid” for basic survival, including medical care, temporary shelters, and food handouts.
Rehabilitation: restore the community to its pre-tsunami state, rebuilding houses and reestablishing businesses and farms.
Development: improve the community beyond its pre-tsunami state, growing businesses, increasing social stability, and empowering community members to realize fulfilling lives.
North Americans tend to think the more resources are pumped into a community, the better off it will be. Relief is simpler, easier, and produces faster results than the development needed for long-term, sustainable growth. The authors explain this is seeing poverty only on the material plane while ignoring relational brokenness.
We pour more money into the bottomless jar, hoping something will stick, and what we find is a magic trick where the dollar bill disappears and never comes back. The givers end up frustrated and jaded, stuck in their god-complexes, while the poor become even more disempowered, feeling inferior, and stuck in their helplessness. The relational poverty grows.
On a Sunday not long ago, I walked by a woman sitting near an outdoor ATM. She could have been waiting for someone to meet her, I thought, until she waved at me to stop.
“Hey, hey, can you help me out?”
There was cash in my wallet. It would have been easy to hand her a bill, ask her name, and hear her story. I could have spared five minutes for decency’s sake.
So why didn’t I? Corbett and Fikkert encourage generosity and compassion for the poor. They even admit to times when they have provided handouts, but they explain why that may not have been the wisest course and how they would change their response.
When Helping Hurts taught me that what I do for the immediate rush of feeling kind, generous, and good actually disempowers both the poor and myself. Giving a handout seems compassionate at first, but it wouldn’t have changed the woman’s situation. Even if I stopped to listen, she would still ask the next passerby for the same kindness. She’d still be stuck.
I kept walking because I wasn’t in the position to do what it would really take to change her life.
Corbett and Fikkert support a developmental approach to poverty. This requires long-term relationships, recognizing the poor’s assets, assisting them to plan their goals, and letting them take the lead in changing their communities for the better. Most importantly, it means acknowledging our own poverty (of God, self, others, or creation), repenting for hurting the poor in our attempts to “save” them, and walking alongside the poor in humbleness towards our mutual growth.
I’m thankful for the past year learning from those striving for their local community’s development. My volunteer placement involved serving school-age children in need of caring mentors to be their role models and friends. The mentors give their time and energy to uplift their mentees for a brighter future. They build the children’s self-esteems, help them discover their passions, and guide them towards achieving their goals. These children will later become successful, contributing community members. Some return to become mentors themselves.
It’s been first-hand experience that positive relationships revitalize people in poverty, whether their symptoms are material or not.